Monday December 11, 2017

DANIELLE BOWLER: Serena Williams and her shadow

Credit: Getty Images

Danielle Bowler explores what Serena Williams has come to mean and symbolise.

Watching the Wimbledon final in a bar on Saturday afternoon, I was struck by how the moment seemed to take on a strange, incredibly heightened personal significance. It felt like everything hinged on each point, serve and set. It was an hour and a half punctuated by sharp intakes of breath, elated shouts and heart-stopping silences. The match was loaded with amplified consequence, imported from beyond the court and fashioned by my own experience, as if history was happening in real-time.

As Serena Williams played the 20th seed Spaniard Garbine Muguruza, she was simultaneously playing against a weight of expectations that have been created by what The Idea of Serena Williams has come to signify in public imagination.

Reviewing Toni Morrison’s new novel God Help The Child, poet Saeed Jones noted that “When we talk about Toni Morrison, we are also talking about what it means to thrive in the midst of well-manicured and eloquent hostility… The idea of Toni Morrison has been too important to too many of us for too long. Even when she is sitting right in front of us, we can’t see her in the midst of her own blazing light.”

In many ways, this is what Williams has also come to mean and symbolise. The Idea of Serena Williams now co-exists with Serena Williams herself, as who she is has become as important as what she signifies for sport, culture, history, personal politics and imagined communities. As Bryan Armen Graham wrote: “Serena Williams transcends sport… It’s never been just about tennis with Serena.”

The weight of the expectation this creates – which simultaneously plays a role in producing much of the backlash she faces – looms large. The context within which she wins or loses, that ‘well-manicured and eloquent hostility’ that Jones speaks of, is perpetually a reference point, a co-ordinate through we make sense of what she means and map her importance on and through her body.

Based on her skill alone, Williams is iconic. Based on her skill alone, she should be judged. Based on her skill alone, she will go down in history as one of the most phenomenal athletes of all time. But she has come to mean much more than her skill, as she has been fashioned into a symbol and metonym of resistance defined by her black womanhood.

The constant entrance of the twin burden of racism and sexism, and commentary around it in the course of Serena’s career, coexist with discussions about her brilliance, iconic status and immense talent. There is always a dual, intertwined narrative that has made her legacy, in much of the public imagination defined as much by her work on the court, as the backlash that she has faced.

This week alone, her Wimbledon triumph occurred alongside dialogue about the imagined rivalry with Maria Sharapova, a New York Times article titled ‘Tennis’s Top Women Balance Body Image With Ambition’, and a defence of her femininity by author JK Rowling.

It has meant that when we speak about Williams, we often do so through a form of double consciousness: to invoke the name ‘Serena Williams’ becomes shorthand for speaking about ‘black womanhood’ – we are often unable to make sense of her based on what she means for tennis alone. It is a call-and-response that is a perpetual refrain, echoing over the course of her career.

We are always conscious of the context in which she plays tennis, and the shadow-players that she serves against: the commentators and analysts that shout racism and sexism from commentary boxes and analysis, column inches and the streets of social media.

While consciousness of this perspective and environment is crucial and unavoidable, it has taken on omnipotent status that stands alongside Williams’s magnitude. She has become both icon and iconography. She has become body politics in motion. Overdetermined and loaded with meaning, she has come to stand for so much more than herself.

Continued focus on racism and sexism, even in well-meaning terms, in Williams’s career faces the danger of re-inscribing their importance in terms of her legacy. In constantly describing her in these terms, even as they constantly and exhaustingly assert themselves in her career, we can become part of the machinery of the reproduction of this narrative, whether intentionally or not. It’s an incredibly difficult dance: trying to speak of and to the context we operate in and the structures that define it, which is mind-blowingly pervasive, without overstating its importance, giving it singular narrative power and constantly recasting it in the public imagination.

But no other icon of this era has served as the Roschach test of racism and sexism in the way that Williams has: people project their own experiences onto her career. No other icon seems to upset systems of power and dominance in the way that she does, by way of her mere existence and excellence. As Gugulethu Mhlungu notes, this can be attributed to ‘the anxiety at a loss of long held, now normative white privilege’, and male privilege.

Textbook theory, tropes, exceptionalism and stereotypes of race and gender play out and are personified through hyper-body politics, as her incredible athleticism is constantly subjected to waves of seemingly endless qualifiers, addendums and footnotes.

As political analyst Angelo Fick argues, while race and gender have come to occupy a key space in Serena’s career:

However, the current and continuous focus on the racism and white supremacy by many folks in their celebration of Ms Williams’s achievements may be misdirected, however well-intentioned. Not only do they risk obscuring the actual athletic achievements, they also risk once again trapping any Black person in a web defined by the white supremacist and racist gaze. The manner in which Serena Williams becomes the repository of hope for us as Black people in some senses reproduces the stereotype of Blackness held by white supremacy: white people are individuals, Black people are representatives of a ‘race’.

Held up as a representative of her ‘race’, Williams’s victories are made to stand for so much more than wins on the court. Off-court they affirm an entire community of black bodies, and particularly black female bodies, constantly aware of their invisibility, erasure and abbreviated humanity.

This also means that her contemporaries are not simply found on the tennis court or theatres of sport stages. They are black women breaking down constant boundaries, taking their place in record books and halls of fame. Women like Misty Copeland, the first black principle ballet dancer of the American Ballet Theatre, and Beyoncé, who is arguably the greatest living entertainer. They come to stand as emblems and metonyms for our own experience. We read them against this demanding imperative.

This is a phenomenon that scholar and television personality Melissa Harris-Perry describes as ‘fictive kinship’ in her book ‘Sister Citizen’, where she argues, “The term fictive kinship refers to connections between members of a group who are unrelated by blood or marriage, but who nonetheless share reciprocal social or economic relationships… This imagined community of familial ties underscores a voluntary sense of shared identity… Fictive kinship makes the accomplishments of African Americans relevant to unrelated black individuals”.

Fictive kinship explains why watching the Wimbledon final in a bar seemed to be an incredibly loaded moment. Why everything appeared to hinge on it, for me. It illuminates why I have been sharing images of Williams on social media for days after this event, and why in many ways, she has been elevated to mean much more than her iconic athleticism in my personal imagination, and that of others.

This elevated meaning, while rooted in a celebration of excellence, is simultaneously an incredible load to bear. As Harris-Perry argues, “if the success of unrelated fictive kin can make me feel proud, then the failures of unrelated fictive kin can make me feel ashamed.”

It is within this context that Fick warns “we must caution ourselves about celebrating everything she does as if it were a group or categorical achievement”. Fick cautions that “Serena Williams is not just a repository of proof that black women can play tennis; she is also herself. So many seem unable and unwilling to take note of the complex figure of that self, whether to celebrate or to critique her”.

The meaning of fictive kinship in relation to the icons, heroes and symbols that it creates, in any imagined community, is that when they win or achieve, the whole race wins. But the converse also applies, when they lose, we do too. This is an impossible load to bear, that means that the people we triumph and celebrate have to only excel, they have to always make possible our communal and cathartic ‘yaaaaaaassssssssss’.

Fictive kinship can be a beautiful source of solidarity, strength, power, affirmation, comfort, refuge and joy for oppressed communities. The Idea of Serena Williams, like The Idea of Toni Morrison, is incredibly important for the community it intimately speaks to. We create, see and champion these icons through kinship formed in the context of a world of sophisticated structures of systems of power, dominance, oppression and privilege. A world where we are hyper-aware that, as Papa Pope notes: you have to be “twice as good as them to get half of what they have”.

We see parts of our experience and daily lives communally echoed in the way Williams has been treated by her detractors, and we often see her success within the perspective of the context we live in. But that is not all that fictive kinship is, as Harris-Perry points out.

In some many ways, The Idea of Serena Williams is too much weight to bear in terms of simply what she means for tennis, operating in two directions: the overdetermination of race and gender in their influence on her career, on one hand, and the weight of what each win or loss means for a community that makes sense of itself through imagined relation, against the backdrop of a hostile, white supremacist and sexist world, on the other.

Serena’s shadow, The Idea of Serena Williams, projects an image that we create based on our own needs, desires and ways of making sense of the world. She has become a monument onto which we map our ideas, dreams, hopes and aspirations.

When we speak about Williams, we are simultaneously speaking about ourselves. When we think about Williams we are simultaneously thinking about ourselves. When we imagine Williams, we are concurrently imagining ourselves, our contexts, our possibilities, our challenges and our realities.

It does not mean that we cannot stand apart from The Idea of Serena Williams, and celebrate her for achievement alone, or that our ‘communal yaaaaaaaaassssssss’ is misplaced, but rather that we should unpack what makes a particular kind of celebration possible and seemingly necessary. It means that The Idea is often in the background or foreground, operating simultaneously as Williams herself, casting an inescapable shadow that can be beautiful, brilliant and equally risky in its form, effect and impact. It means we have to be able to see her, in all her complexity, and ‘in the midst of her own blazing light’ that burns so incredibly and importantly bright.

Danielle Bowler holds a master’s degree from Rhodes University and is a Mandela Rhodes scholar. She is currently an assistant researcher at Mistra and a member of Feminist Stokvel. She likes to think critically about the world around her, which often includes making complex political arguments about pop culture and Beyonce. Follow her on Twitter: @daniellebowler

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