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By David J. Leonard | with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)


Wednesday, July 11, 2012.


On Saturday, July 7, 2012, Serena Williams captured her fifth Wimbledon title and later in the day, she and Venus would secure a double’s title as well.   Since 1999, the Williams sisters have captured 10 titles at the all-England club.  Yet, for each of them, this success has not come without trials and tribulations.  Over the last few years, Serena has suffered countless injures, including a blood clot in her lungs.  Battling insomnia, depression, physical ailments, and the tragedy of her sister’s murder, Serena has overcome obstacles far more challenging than a Sharapova backhand.  “I definitely have not been happy,” Williams announced in 2011. “Especially when I had that second surgery (on my foot), I was definitely depressed. I cried all the time. I was miserable to be around.”  In other words, Serena Williams has secured greatness on and off the court, thriving in spite of tremendous hardship.


Within a culture that thrives on stories of redemption, that celebrates resilience and determination, the career of Serena Williams reads like a Hollywood screenplay.  Yet, her career has been one marred by the politics of hate, the politics of racism and sexism.  Last year I wrote about the treatment she has faced from fans and media alike:


What is striking about the comments and several of the commentaries as well, is the demonization of Serena Williams.  Focusing on her body (reinforced by the many pictures that sexualize Williams), her attitude, and her shortcomings as a player, the responses pathologize Williams.  “The Williams sisters have been criticized for lacking ‘commitment’ by refusing to conform to the Spartan training regime of professional tennis, restricting their playing schedules, having too many ‘off-court interests’ in acting, music, product endorsements, fashion and interior design, and their Jehovah’s Witness religion” (McKay and Johnson).…


“The Williams sisters also have been subjected to the carping critical gaze that both structures and is a key discursive theme of ‘pornographic eroticism’,” writes James McKay and Helen Johnson.  Similarly, Delia Douglas argues, a “particular version of blackness” is advanced within the representations of the Williams sisters.  We see the “essentialist logic of racial difference, which has long sought to mark the black body as inherently different from other bodies. Characterizations of their style of play rely on ‘a very ancient grammar’ of black physicality to explain their athletic success”


This monumental victory also didn’t lead to a celebration, a coronation of the greatest player of her generation (and maybe in history), but instead more of the same.  The story of redemption and the beauty of her game isn’t the story found throughout the cyber world, from twitter to the comment section of various sports websites. 


Her victory prompted tweets referring to her by the “N Word” and several more about her body and sexuality. Reflecting an atmosphere of racist and sexist violence, of dehumanizing rhetoric, tweets referring to her as a gorilla flowed throughout cyberspace with great frequency (some of the below appeared over the last week).


·        Today a giant gorilla escaped the zoo and won the womens title at Wimbledon... oh that was Serena Williams? My mistake.


·        Serena Williams is a gorilla


·        Watching tennis and listening to dad talk about how Serena Williams looks like gorilla from the mist


·        I don't see how in the hell men find Serena Williams attractive?! She looks like a male gorilla in a dress, just saying!


·        You might as well just bang a gorilla if you're going to bang Serena Williams


·     Earlier this week I said that all female tennis players were good looking. I was clearly mistaken: The Gorilla aka Serena Williams.


·        serena williams looks like a gorilla


·        Serena Williams is half man, half gorilla! I'm sure of it.


·      Serena Williams look like a man with tits, its only when she wears weave she looks female tbh, what a HENCH BOLD GORILLA!


·        Serena Williams is a gorilla in a skirt playing tennis #Wimbledon


·        My god Serena Williams is ugly! She’s built like a silver backed gorilla


·        I would hate to come across Serena Williams in a dark alley #nightmare #gorilla #notracist


·        Serena williams is one of the ugliest human beings i've ever seen #Gorilla


YouTube posts offered similar responses to her victory:


·     A man? look at her body, more like a silver back gorilla. I can easily imagine her charging through the jungle breaking trees while flexing those muscles. Doesn't help that her nose looks like a gorillas as well. I keep expecting to see her zoo handlers to chain her up after the match before she can escape.


·        Monkey business


·        i ddnt know apes wer allowed in women tennis O_O


It would be a mistake to dismiss these comments as the work of trolls or extremists whose racism and sexism put them outside the mainstream.  Just as the Obamas, just as Dr. Christian Head, just as Mario Balotelli was depicted as King Kong in a recent cartoon, and just as just as soccer and hockey players from throughout the Diaspora face banana peels and monkey chants, the racism raining down on Serena’s victory parade highlights the nature of white supremacy.  It embodies the ways that white supremacy demonizes and imagines blackness as subhuman, as savagery. 


Frantz Fanon, with his seminal work “The Fact of Blackness,” concludes that irrespective of clothing, irrespective of profession, irrespective of employment status, behavior, and/or success; irrespective of victory of defeat, blacks are denied humanity within the white imagination. Blackness is to be savage and inhuman; it is to remain dirty, dangerous, destructive, and dysfunctional, all while maintaining a relationship to the “ontology of whiteness,” which is assumed to embody “rationality and universality” (Bhabha 2000, p. 355).  Bhabha makes this clear:


The black is both savage (cannibal) and yet the most obedient and signified of servants (the bearer of food); he is the embodiment of rampant sexuality and yet innocent as a child; he is mystical, primitive, simple-minded and yet the most worldly and accomplished liar, and manipulator of social forces. In each case, what is being dramatized is a separation – between race, cultures, histories, within histories – a separation between before and after that repeats obsessively and mythical moment of disjunction (Bhabha in Location of Culture, p. 118).


The constant references to Serena’s physical body, and the desire to attribute her success to power and strength, reflects this process as well.  In the aftermath of the victory, ESPN ran a column with a headline of “Serena rides savage serve to title” (the title has been changed as of writing).  Playing upon a the rhetorical and discursive landscape used to describe African Americans as uncivilized animals/savages, the use of the word “savage” is neither appropriate or accurate (not to mention offensive and terribly troubling). 


Her victory and her greatness doesn’t come purely from her power and physical domination but from the artistry of her game, from her intelligence and hard work, and from the precision and quality of her shot-making.  In attributing Serena Williams’ success to her animalistic essence, to ridicule and mock, and to otherwise deny her the rightful praise earned, the online chatter and the larger media perpetuates the project of white supremacy.   It denies her greatness while imaging her as an Other within and beyond the tennis world.


In interpreting her Wimbledon victory through this language of white supremacy, the virtual discourse also works to define her place within tennis as undesirable and suspect.  Imagined as the Other, blackness exists as perpetual outsider. The demonization, the efforts to dehumanize, to ridicule and mock, and to otherwise depict her as “unlike the normal” and therefore suspect and undesirable, establishes the boundaries of whiteness.


As Andreana Clay recently noted it is part of a culture that makes clear that tennis is “somewhere she doesn't belong.” It reflects a process establishing the boundaries of whiteness within tennis, whereupon her black female body is subject to scorn and regulation.   It embodies an effort to deny and silence her greatness, to “put her in her place” and to otherwise maintain the dominant racial ethos.  


Given this context, it is not surprising how much her victory meant to her, her family, and her fans.  The excitement and joy exhibited by Serena, the celebration from fans and others (my timelines were full of pictures and comments of joy), thus, isn’t just a celebration of her greatness and her accomplishments but how her victory yet again challenges a culture of invisibility and dreams deferred.  With trophy in hand, Serena Williams challenged those on and offline, announcing, “ain’t I a tennis player,” “ain’t I a champion” and “ain’t I a woman?” 




David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He has written on sport, video games, film, and social movements, appearing in both popular and academic mediums. His work explores the political economy of popular culture, examining the interplay between racism, state violence, and popular representations through contextual, textual, and subtextual analysis.  Leonard’s latest book After Artest: Race and the Assault on Blackness was just published by SUNY Press in May of 2012.


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