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Brust Out – Serena Williams’ grace helps us escape the banality of ra**** … for a while

Growing up, my entire family used to sit around the television watching Serena Williams play tennis. We were always glued to the screen studying her every move with concern and dedication as if she was related to us. Any fictive kinship or close tie we felt to her was centered on her blackness in a sport we all played, but rarely saw ourselves represented in.

In a recent interview with the BBC, Williams reminisced about the significance Arthur Ashe, the first African American man to win Wimbledon and the US Open, held for her during her childhood. “Being African-American and when I was coming up in the late 80s, it wasn’t many African Americans playing, so it was like, you wanted to learn the history of all of them,” she said. “Reading stories about how Arthur wasn’t able to play when he was 12 motivated me because I thought, ‘Wow, because of what he went through, because of what he did I have an opportunity to play. I have an opportunity to be the best that I can be because of him.’ So because of him I’m going to try to be better for him.”

I felt the exact same about Williams as a kid. The experience of being a working class black kid in predominantly white country clubs playing tournaments and taking lessons was often awkward, to put it politely. It seemed as if I magnetically attracted the gaze of intrigued onlookers as the anomaly. The connection I felt to Serena and Venus Williams was racial, political, and economic. They are black like me, an identity that is, to me, both political as well as racial. They came from a working class background like I did. I was also “supposed” to be playing basketball (according to many people I encountered), but I liked tennis. And though some of my peers thought it was weird that the person to whom I related to most in my favorite sport was a black woman, I not only didn’t let go of my admiration for her achievements, I was forced to reconsider at an early age notions of traditional gender roles and racial expectations because of her.

I have been watching Williams compete again at Wimbledon yet again this year; she’s still regularly victorious and now she’s only two titles away from matching tennis legend Steffi Graf’s record of 22 grand slam titles. After winning the French Open last month, she may complete another “Serena Slam” – when you win all four major tennis titles in a season. Her focus and her determination consistently astonish audiences: Williams is good, she’s black, and she knows both of those things … and the importance of her race on the court.

Her understanding of how race affects her professionally doesn’t just come from reading the histories of other African American players and the racism they endured, it also comes from her lived experience as a black woman in America. Williams has constantly had to confront racism throughout her career. Deplorable comments are hurled at her online, from officials and sometimes from sports commentators – every time she wins another match. Even her adversaries have resorted to racist stereotypes.

Despite the invective she must face to stay at the top, Williams continues to maintain professionalism and poise by often addressing the racism against her in a calm and assertive manner. Her actions to rise above the ignorance all but embodies “the talk” many black American children are given by concerned parents about being twice as good and not letting it – “it” being the racism you’ll inevitably encounter – get to you. While it’s not mandatory to react to ugliness with elegance, Williams exemplifies the art.

Serena Williams is crucial to black America because she provides an escape from what’s become the banality of racism through her performance of the fantastic; her exemplary skills are a sight for sore eyes during times of highly visible social inequality. Her black athletic exceptionalism reminds us of our survival and resilience; her black womanhood only underscores that she’s stronger and better than most – and keen to take what’s rightfully hers.

In this life, many of us should be open to what Serena’s playing has to offer us. Sometimes it’s best to win by serving up aces – don’t offer your opponent the chance to even engage. Whatever you do, don’t ever let anyone tell you you’re not good enough to be there. Come in, win and leave with your head held high.

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