Serena Williams showed the world that black women excel. It changed us all | Afua Hirsch

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OWe don’t deserve Serena Williams. Nothing in this world makes it likely that a little black girl from Compton – now “playing” away from professional competition after her last match at the US Open – will become an unmistakable Goat.

Witnessing Williams’ rise to greatest of all time status was an extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime experience. The sheer longevity of her career struck me when I discovered that Emma Raducanu, whom Williams played this season, was not even born during one of Williams’ most memorable seasons: 2002, when she won three Grand Slam titles in a row.

But more than her impressive track record, it’s how Williams got here that I celebrate most – refusing to assimilate into the rarefied and exclusive culture of tennis and redefining it on its own terms.

One of my favorite interviews with the star, which only recently appeared, shows an 11-year-old Williams giggling coyly next to her older sister Venus. To the question: “If you were a tennis player, who would you like to look like?” she is almost reluctant to reveal her self-confidence. But his answerwhen it comes, is unequivocal: “I would like others to be like me.

Serena Williams’ retirement: look back at the tennis great’s career – video

Born the same year as Williams, I was 11 too. I didn’t have the language of being shamelessly, or taking up space, authenticity or representation. I had nowhere near his confidence, and a goat, as far as I know, was a hollow-horned mammal. Like Williams, I was a little black girl, whose own black consciousness flourished on the unlikely terrain of the same Wimbledon grassy ground as Williams’ global athletic prowess.

Through her and Venus appearance there in 1998, in beaded braids, I’ve seen young black women excel in the most hostile spaces in their own way. Meeting the entire Williams family in our neighborhood over the years as they rented homes near ours during tennis, my sister and I were the recipients of various acts of kindness – we learned first hand that these sisters had a sense of togetherness with other black girls they met along the way.

And tennis was a hostile climate. Growing up at Wimbledon, I only saw the tip of the iceberg when it came to the mountain of structural barriers stacked up against the Williams sisters. Their story is one of winning the game before they even set foot on the tennis court – overcoming poverty, racism, colorism, class.

These factors are so often downplayed in telling Williams’ story, in favor of the personal characteristics that make her unique – among them, there are many: a seemingly more talented older sister, Venus, whose early successes were d first saw Serena’s own chances underestimated. ; his faith as a Jehovah’s Witness; remarkable parents; a level of self-criticism, whose depths are still revealed today.

In his farewell trendy piece earlier this month, Williams discussed her four Olympic gold medals, 14 Grand Slam doubles titles and 23 Grand Slam titles – almost every tennis record imaginable. And yet she still references the success of Margaret Court, who played before the advent of the Open era. and won 24. “I didn’t show up the way I should or could. But I showed up 23 times,” was Williams’ consolation verdict, “and that’s okay.

There’s no doubting Williams’ unique talent and drive, but the truth is a more uncomfortable narrative. We don’t deserve Williams, because she shouldn’t exist. The idea that the Williams sisters achieved success through their unique work ethic, raw talent, and visionary father — a story of the American Dream generously extended to a low-income black family — hides a darker notion. By implication, people of color who remain in disadvantaged circumstances are there by their own fault.

Serena Williams at the US Open in 1999.

Williams offers us a clear insight into the injustice of this. Although she is held up as an example of the American dream, she has done her part to problematize it. Write about the particularly emotional impact of being mocked at a tournament that held special meaning for her, she alluded to the intergenerational trauma that informs the African-American experience. “It also haunted Venus and our family. But most of all, it angered and saddened my father…reviving cold memories of his experiences growing up in the south.

And when asked about the murder of George Floyd, Williams revealed that she had not watched the video of his death at the hands of police, or any other video of a black person suffering the same fate. “I can’t,” she said. “It’s my life.”

This, and the many other instances of abuse she suffered, made many black women feel especially protective of Williams. To have survived childbirth in America as a black woman – a shocking percentage including not, which she publicly decried — to overtly racist tropes too many to mention she was tarred.

It was this sense of protection — not a stake in the depressing, unwinnable competition of masculinities between Will Smith and Chris Rock — that angered me at this year’s Oscars. Serena and Venus produced a film that offered a view of the world through their lens. When he was hijacked by a debate over which of the two men — who are both in shape not to center black women — was most wrong, I felt cheated on behalf of Williams. She maintained a dignified silence.

Williams is selective about how she talks about her emotional inner world. This is why his letter announcing his retirement of tennis landed with such grace and honesty. “I hate it,” she said. “I don’t want it to be over, but at the same time I’m ready for what’s next.”

The sequel is already underway. Like Beyoncé, Edward Enninful, and so many other prominent black cultural figures, Williams grew up with a mother who doubled as a seamstress, giving her confidence in designing her own aesthetic. She’s got the form collaborating with other black creatives. After the Black Panther-inspired catsuit she wore at the 2018 French Open – one of her most memorable on-court outfits – was then banned by tennis officials, citing “respect” for the game, Williams collaborated with the late great Virgil Abloh. His look 2019 was no less daring – a striking black and white two-piece, with a matching cape emblazoned with the words “simple, champion, Queen, goddess(mother, champion, queen, goddess). In Abloh’s wordsWilliams is a “thought leader, not just a tennis player”.

The more Williams has been bullied about her physique by various detractors over the years, the more she seemed to draw attention to her figure with bold designs — another trend I deeply appreciate her for. Her first forays into fashion design, which only her most ardent fans will remember, date back to the early 2003s, with the launch of her Aneres (Serena spelled backwards) clothing line in 2003, which evolved into the over the years to become its current body. inclusive brand S by Serena, founded in 2019.

And she was quietly, but successfully, angel investment for more than a decade, injecting capital into companies with diverse viewpoints in an act of multiple caesura that – as far as I’m concerned at least – makes it more, not less, relevant to generations of enterprising women and enterprising.

“Over the years, I hope people come to think that I symbolize something bigger than tennis,” Williams said as he bid farewell to tennis. This, she may not yet realize fully, it has already happened. I hope now that Serena Williams’ story will symbolize something even bigger than itself – the reality that every young black man faces with a dream.

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