Venus and Serena Williams: From Compton to the Courts

With big smiles and several tiny braids adorned with colorful beads, the Williams sisters arrived on the tennis courts that never saw them coming. Legend (and a snippet from an E! True Hollywood Story) has it that their father Richard, who worked security before the sisters were born, once watched the winner of a women’s tennis match collect a check for more money than he’d ever made and prophesied his future daughters’ domination of the tennis world. He trained them on courts near their home in Compton, California – the same hood where those O.G.s of Gangsta Rap, Dr. Dre and Snoop, put both their raps and their macks down.

But, well, back to the lecture at hand.

Serena, Venus, and their five siblings were raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses in a part of Compton that didn’t make it to music videos: the wholly unglamorous one-story homes with picket fences surrounding small backyards. The Williams family led a fairly routine, “normal” life which included several hours of early morning tennis practice followed by home-school lessons. In a brazen move, while affluent parents sought expensive and exclusive lessons for their future tennis champions, Mr. Williams initially coached the girls himself after teaching himself the game via instructional videos. This tension between the carefully crafted game of prestige and the scrappy, can-do attitude of the Williamses played out in myriad ways, some nuanced and some blatant.

The Williams Sisters – Their Rise to Fame

Williams continued to coach the girls, only sending the girls to Brentwood coaches and tennis academies every now and then, and he boldly chose to keep his daughters out of the junior tennis circuits, where products of elite training schools competed for press and notoriety. The Williams Sisters’ sudden appearance on the courts seemed to shock the country club crowd that didn’t seem previously exposed to such… diversity.

They were viewed by some as disrespectful disturbers of the tennis circuit’s norms. Their powerful strength game visibly differed from the precision and speed game the beiger players had meticulously cultivated, and their absence from the prep schools and junior tournaments appeared to confirm their lack of “proper” training and etiquette.

Several platforms sustained efforts to subtly critique sisters’ background, family bond, dress/hair style, athletic strength. The intense media surveillance of them almost seemed determined to “keep an eye” on what was considered a threat. The media tried to downplay the sisters’ major achievements, their contributions to the black community, and their obvious inherent talent. But neither Venus nor Serena made an effort to hide signifiers of black culture and style, like braids, or their cultivation of outside interests, and the black community often voiced praise of the young women who had already broken barriers just by stepping onto those courts and appearing in the news articles which noted black talent, black excellence, and just overall black girl magic.

Even as they faced criticism from their peers for being aloof and daring to pursue educations, they quickly caught Corporate America’s attention and signed lucrative endorsement deals, one with Reebok for $12,000, 000 over five years.

The family continued on The Glow Up (that Concept Formerly Known as The American Dream): Venus was representing international brand, they bought a mansion in Florida with its own tennis courts, and the girls started to attend a noteworthy private school. The Williams were following the footsteps of Althea Gibson, who was the only African-American woman to win a Grand Slam title before Venus and Serena basically won the 90’s – they won their first Doubles title in 1998 and the U.S. Open Doubles title in 1999, the same year Serena defeated longtime champion Martina Hingis to win the U.S. Open Grand Slam. Their international tennis rankings skyrocketed; their investments of time and hard work were finally paying off, and they would eventually continue on to win the 00’s. But performing on a larger stage brought even more visible racist sentiments to the forefront.

Serena, in particular, was routinely attacked for qualities white culture has often attributed to black women. In the 1800s, Saartjie Baartman (“Hottentot Venus”), a South African woman, was brought to London in 1810 as a symbol of racial difference (and the supposed superiority of white beauty) and placed in a circus display alongside conjoined twins, dwarfs, and other alleged “deviants.”

“… Hottentot was assigned the role of a creature bridging human and animal realms” (Strother, 4).

According to their father, the Williams sisters were trained to be “warriors,” “attack dogs.” But the media and several tennis enthusiasts ridiculed and chastised them for their “beast-like” physical appearances, “lewd” athletic wear, and “angry” outbursts. They tended to characterize Serena and Venus using some of the most common stereotypes of black women: overly sexualized women (who chose to wear outfits they liked whether or not those clothes highlighted physical features that tennis viewers were not used to seeing) and angry black women (who dared to express basic human emotions like frustration without wearing a mask to protect the “delicate” sensibilities of an audience famous for its dignified silence and barely audible clapping).

During the 1997 U.S. Open Women’s Singles Semi-Final match between an unseeded Venus and an 11th-seeded Irina Spirlea, both players bumped into each other as they customarily switched sides during a changeover. Williams said neither of them were looking where they were going; Spirlea said she expected Venus to move out of the way.

Venus Williams_Irina Spirlea US Open “Bump”

“She’s not going to turn … I’ve done it all the time, I turn. But she just walks. I wanted to see if she was going to turn. She didn’t.” – Irina Spirlea (This is the clean version of the quote. Make your best guess for which obscenity she used to describe Venus.)

Such inane controversies were veiled attempts to subdue the sisters who would routinely take long breaks from the game, only to come back stronger and more determined to embarrass those who underestimated them.

Venus and Serena continue to raise questions about what it means to be feminine, beautiful, strong, black, successful, wealthy, and sisters; despite their numerous successes, they also unfortunately still encounter racism, forcing them to boycott tournaments and defend themselves when they choose to finally fight  back. Their eagerly and bitterly watched debut in the 90’s served as a harsh reminder that the black athleticism which white audiences celebrated on basketball courts and football fields did not translate to women’s sports, especially one which still requires its players to dress in all white for certain tournaments. But their exuberance in play and dignity in the face of charged attacks and elitist snubbing also won them many fans who finally saw themselves represented in uncharted territory.

— Radhika Nataraj

Works Cited

  • Alexander, Rachel. “Open Final Lands on Venus.” Washington Post, 6 Sept. 1997, p. B1.
  • Bass-Adams, Valerie N., Keisha L. Bentley-Edwards, Howard C. Stevenson. “That Not the Me I see on TV…! African American Youth Interpret Media Images of Black Females.” Women, Gender, and Families of Color, vol. 2, no. 1, 2014, pp. 79-100.
  • Douglas, Delia. “Venus, Serena, and the Inconspicuous Consumption of Blackness: A Commentary on Surveillance, Race Talk, and New Racism(s).” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 43, no. 2, 2012, pp. 127-45.
  • Hobson, Janell. “The ‘Batty’ Politic: Toward an Aesthetic of the Black Female Body.” Hypatia, vol. 18, no. 4, 2003, pp. 87-105.
  • Strother, Z.S. “Display of the body Hottentot.” Africans on Stage, Indiana UP, 1999, pp. 1-
  • Wright, Joshua. “Be Like Mike? The Black Athlete’s Dilemma.” Spectrum: A Journal on Black Men, vol. 4, no. 2, 2016, pp. 1-19.

 

Tiger Woods Wins The 1997 Masters

tigerwoods

On April 13, 1997, 21-year-old Tiger Woods became the first person of African and Asian decent to win the golf Masters at Augusta National in Georgia. The win was a pivotal moment in history for African Americans. The race finally received well-deserved recognition in the sport. For years, African American golfers were overshadowed by other white competitors. Under the racist policy of America’s lynching, financial oppression, and other acts of hatred, Black men carried their golf game on. Some like Charlie Sifford and Lee Elder went on to stellar careers and became well known. But many others such as Teddy Rhodes, James Black, Bill Spiller, Nathaniel Starks, and Joe Roach never got that opportunity.

Not only did Tiger Woods win the Masters, but he also broke a record by scoring the lowest in the tournament’s history. Woods’s 72-hole score, an amazing 18-under-par 270, was the lowest in the tournament history and shattered a record of 271 shared by Jack Nicklaus and Raymond Floyd. After the win, African Americans were extremely proud of the athlete and his success in the sport; however, the celebration by fellow professional golfers was short lived. Long time PGA tour golfer Fuzzy Zoeller was asked on his feelings about Woods having such a record breaking tournament. Zoeller acknowledged Woods’ stellar tournament, calling his play “pretty impressive,” but quickly retorted, “The little boy is driving it well is doing everything it takes to win…tell him to enjoy it, and to not serve fried chicken next year…or collard greens, or whatever they serve.” Zoeller was referring to the Masters dinner, held each year on the Wednesday before the tournament. The year’s previous winner gets to decide the menu. Playing on tired and hateful stereotypes to make a cheap joke landed Zoeller in hot water. Woods ultimately forgave Zoeller, but it was obvious that golf (and the Masters Tournament) had deep issues with race. Even until the 1980’s one of Augusta National’s founders insisted that the caddies were only to be African American. It took an African American winner to for that ugly past and its enduring legacy to be confronted. It’s still being confronted, too. Sergio Garcia made a similar “fried chicken” comment regarding Tiger in 2012 (Nixon).

On April 24, 1997, a post-Masters interview between Tiger Woods and Oprah Winfrey aired and caused many African Americans to see their golf champion in a different light. During the interview, Winfrey asked Woods, “What do you call yourself?” Tiger answered: “Growing up, I came up with this name: I’m a Cablinasian.” Tiger Woods continued by explaining his multi-racial background saying how he is a mix of half Asian (Chinese and Thai), one-quarter African American, one-eighth Native American and one-eighth Dutch.

tigerwoodsfamily
Woods with his mother and father

As stated previously, Tiger Woods’s claim of “Cablinasian” descent outraged many African Americans. Some even referred to him as a “sell-out.” Many would agree that the one-drop rule should be applied to Tiger’s situation, however, some have argued that Tiger Woods should not have to deny more than half his racial ethnicity to please black America. Woods was certainly aware of his ethnicity in 1997 and continued to be throughout his career and even today. He isn’t disowning Blackness by combining it with Asian and Caucasian. (Though it’s certainly worth an examination of the order of ethnicity in “Cablinasian”). An NAACP board member at the time, Julian Bond, countered the backlash of the Oprah Winfrey interview with saying, “As proud as I am of Tiger Woods, I realize I have to share him. He is part of a new reality. If people don’t feel comfortable with that, they are going to have to get comfortable with it”(Fletcher).

In light of the scandal that culminated in his divorce from his wife and a stint at a rehabilitation center, it’s worth reexamining Woods’ impact on golf. He hasn’t won a major since 2008, yet is considered one of the most popular golfers on the tour. His comments regarding race were met with angst from some white and black people, but has Woods’ enduring popularity and skill allowed him to transcend race? He certainly has the earnings to do so, earning hundreds of millions of dollars since his 1997 Masters win.  He never has attempted to “cancel his blackness”; Woods could have let Sergio Garcia’s fried chicken comment slide, but instead, he addressed it by saying, “The comment that was made wasn’t silly,” and categorized it as “wrong, hurtful, and inappropriate” (Nixon). Woods never tried to  downplay his blackness by fully addressing hate speech. If anything, Woods is trying to be more inclusive by representing the multiple ethnicity’s he identifies with. Perhaps that is why Woods continues to appeal to a diverse crowd of people.

Jamari Devine, edited by Jeff Brown

http://www.aaregistry.org/historic_events/view/african-americans-and-golf-brief-history

http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/tiger-woods-wins-his-first-masters

Fletcher, Michael. “Tiger Woods Says He’s Not Just Black,” The Seattle Times. April 23, 1997. http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=19970423&slug=2535313

Nixon, Khari, “TIGER WOODS NEVER SAID HE WASN’T BLACK,” Mass Appeal, May 31, 2017. https://massappeal.com/tiger-woods-never-said-wasnt-black/.

 

We Got Next: The 1997 WNBA Inaugural Season

The first 8 WNBA teams: he Charlotte Sting, Cleveland Rockers, Houston Comets and New York Liberty in the Eastern Conference; and the Los Angeles Sparks, Phoenix Mercury, Sacramento Monarchs and Utah Starzz

In 1996, the NBA Board of Governors gave official approval for the foundation of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA)1. On t
he heels of the United States women’s basketball team sweeping the 1996 Olympic Games, the league adopted “We got next” as its official campaign slogan. For those who are unfamiliar, “We got next” is a phrase originating on streetball courts that translates to, “Hey, when you’re done, it’s our turn.” While there were critics of the slogan, even if it was not as empowering as hoped, it was fitting. After years of playing in the shadows of their male counterparts and having to travel overseas to pursue professional athletics careers, it was finally time for the best American female basketball players to take the court at home.

Cynthia_Cooper
Cynthia Cooper-Dyke
Sheryl Swoopes
Sheryl Swoopes
Tina Thompson
Tina Thompson

In the WNBA’s opening year, Sheryl Swoopes was the first player signed, Tina Thompson was the first ever draft pick, and Cynthia Cooper was the first league MVP. However, perhaps more important than these accolades, young black girls (like me) who dedicated their evenings and weekends to hooping had new possibilities, new role models. By all means, I still wanted to break ankles like Allen Iverson, but I could see myself in Tina Thompson; I could be Tina Thompson (I bought her basketball shoes in 7th grade to prove it). Young boys had been able to dream of playing professional basketball for 50 years, and young girls could finally do the same.

Arguably the most widely recognized WNBA player, Lisa Leslie was among those who played in the 1997 opening season; she led the league in rebounds per game that year, and is the all-time leading rebounder.2 Speaking on her influence, Michael Cooper, Leslie’s former coach, wrote, “After Lisa, young girls wanted to be centers. A lot of ladies didn’t want to play center at the time because they wanted to be guards like Sheryl Swoopes and Tina Thompson. Lisa was down in the trenches, and that’s not considered a glamorous game.”3 Standing at 6’5”, Leslie was a forced to be reckoned with. On July 30, 2002, she became the first of only five women to dunk in the history of the WNBA—all of whom are black.4 It would be four years before another WNBA player would accomplish the feat. Doing the seemingly impossible, Leslie embodied the WNBA’s new slogan “We got game.” She helped carve a space that she would eventually use to reach new heights—a space where young girls could dream of touching the rim.Mara Johnson

  1. http://www.wnba.com/about_us/historyof_wnba.html
  2. http://www.wnba.com/stats/alltime-leaders/#?stattype=rebounds&sort=reb&permode=tot&dir=1
  3. Cooper, Michael. “There’s Only One Lisa Leslie.” The Players’ Tribune. The Players’ Tribune, 10 Sept. 2015. Web. 19 Nov. 2015.
  4. http://www.wnba.com/history_triple-doubles-dunks-and-20-20-games/