Serena Williams bid farewell to the game of tennis at the US Open earlier in September after more than two decades of excellence in the sport. But while that marked the beginning of the end of the golden era, in a world where history is whitewashed to the oppression of the black mind, Williams leaves behind a legacy of the ‘re-blackwashing’ of the narrative (without erasing any other) about black people’s position in the world – and in so doing, providing yet another much-needed point of reference for excellence for generations to come.
But as if to herald what was to come in her career, at the age of 10, Serena, together with her sister Venus, got the taste of racism when their father and coach, Richard Williams, stopped them from attending the national junior tennis tournaments after he had heard white parents make derogatory remarks about his daughters during tournaments.
Following in the footsteps of Venus, Serena made her debut a year after her sister’s arrival on the scene in 1995 at the age of 14.
While history will remember Williams as one of the greatest tennis players in the history of the sport, as the discriminatory world order would have it, not much praise was sung about those whose shoes she stepped into. This, when William, four years after her debut, emulated Althea Gibson who was the first black woman to win the Grand Slam in 1956 before going on to win four more Grand Slams, among many other accolades.
Following William’s 1995 debut, it would take her four years to weather the storm of the white-dominated sport and officially record her arrival on the scene in 1999 when she overcame Martina Hingis in the US Open final, to emulate Gibson – winning the first of 23 Gland Slam singles titles at just 17.
But the rise to global stardom was going to be one laden with racist and sexist attacks, from being labeled a “thick, muscled blubber”, having the size of breast and bum being points of discussion, to being compared to a monkey, among a plethora of other insults.
Two years after her Grand Slam victory, radio commentator Sid Rosenberg was fired for saying Serena and Venus were more likely to pose nude for National Geographic than for Playboy.
And that was just the beginning of a litany of affronts she would have to go through, throughout her career.
But what stood out throughout her career – and a great lesson to the future young generation who will have to swim against the current to success like she did – was her never-surrender attitude.
“Think of all the girls who could become top athletes but quit sports because they’re afraid of having too many defined muscles and being made fun of or called unattractive,” she was quoted as saying.
And that is her legacy – a legacy of perseverance, tenacity, determination, commitment, discipline, and resilience.
This is a very important legacy that has pierced racist and sexist walls of exclusion within the media circles globally and forced bigots-cum-sports-analysts-and-commentators to lay bare their bigotry because they just could not turn a blind eye to this excellence.
In a world where a lot of black excellence was whitewashed to align excellence with white, Williams has added to the least great reference of black excellence to future generations that the colour of skin or gender is not a predefined fate of submission and failure.
As Credo Mutwa once wrote, “Years of careful investigation had taught me the European powers that had colonized Africa had done more than just beat our people into submission with artillery and rifles.They had done more than simply sown confusion amongst our people by introducing many conflicting versions of the Christian religion amongst the people. They had deliberately so brainwashed our people, that Africans had lost all self-knowledge, self-love, self-respect, self-pride and self-dependency. If you rob a people of all these things you turn them into a race of robots, forever dependent upon you. And even if you stood up and walked away from these people, and said to them that you were giving them back their freedom, they would stand up and follow you wherever you are going for their minds were still your slaves even though their bodies were now free of your chains.”
Culture, among many other definitions, is defined as a cumulative deposit of knowledge, experience, beliefs, values, attitudes, meanings, hierarchies, religion, notions of time, roles, spatial relations, concepts of the universe, and material objects and possessions acquired by a group of people in the course of generations through individual and group striving.
The Serena Williams legacy is one such deposit of knowledge and experience to the identity of black people in general and black women in particular.
“With a defeat, when you lose, you get up, you make it better, you try again. That’s what I do in life, when I get down, when I get sick, I don’t want to just stop. I keep going and I try to do more. Everyone always says never give up but you really have to take that to heart and really do never definitely give up. Keep trying,” says Williams!