Serena Williams: “Ain’t I a Champion?”

January 13, 2024
6 mins read

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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Previous Story

Why is the English Football Association Picking on Rio Ferdinand Over His Use of “Choc Ice” on Twitt

Next Story

So what do you do, Juliette Ingrid Goddard?

Latest from Blog