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TOPSHOT – Serena Williams of the US serves against Japan’s Naomi Osaka during their women’s singles semi-final match on day eleven of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne on February 18, 2021. (Photo by William WEST / AFP) / — IMAGE RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE – STRICTLY NO COMMERCIAL USE — (Photo by WILLIAM WEST/AFP via Getty Images)
What Serena Williams taught me

What Serena Williams taught me

TOPSHOT – Serena Williams of the US serves against Japan’s Naomi Osaka during their women’s singles semi-final match on day eleven of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne on February 18, 2021. (Photo by William WEST / AFP) / — IMAGE RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE – STRICTLY NO COMMERCIAL USE — (Photo by WILLIAM WEST/AFP via Getty Images)

Haji Mohamed Dawjee explains what the tennis star’s success meant to a young woman growing up in South Africa

The first time I stepped on to a tennis court I was eight years old. It was a hot spring in September 1992. It was the kind of spring that makes you feel you’ve missed a season and gone straight into summer because you don’t remember old leaves falling and new flowers blooming, everything is already there. And I felt that same warmth inside me. As soon as I touched the hard surface of the court, I had always been there. 

It was love at first sight. But it wasn’t long before I realised I was the only one loving my being there. All around me, white parents stood with their kids. Icy stares came my way. Nobody spoke to me, nobody played with me off the court when we sat about waiting for the clinic organiser to tell us who we were facing next and inevitably, the day ended in an evaporation of warm feelings into hot tears because I had been cheated out of points in several matches. After not saying anything for the entire day, I finally broke down. But I loved the game too much to leave it alone and even though nobody looked like me or talked like me, I kept my (also white) heroes in my head and showed up the next weekend and many weekends after that. But it would be seven more years until the game of love showed up for me.

I grew up in a Group Areas Act town in the north of South Africa, as classified by the apartheid government at the time. My two siblings and I shared a small bedroom and I was often the target of my parents’ tumultuous relationship. To escape the emotional abuse, I spent a lot of time making myself small and hiding. The atmosphere in the house could change in two shakes of a lamb’s tail, but the tennis majors were the one and sometimes only anchoring, consistent thing in my childhood. 

Whenever they aired, we watched them. The chair umpire calling out the points could be heard from anywhere in the household regardless of whether someone was in front of the television or not. 

The cupboard underneath my grandfather’s bookshelf was a favourite hiding place. It provided the security and good company of books that were never mean. It was in that cupboard I sat and stared at the television religiously all day – well, as much as I could before being caught, and then, one day, when I had long outgrown that cupboard as well as my personal aspirations of being a tennis player, I saw my dream walk onto a court at the US Open. 

She was almost the same age as me. She was Black. She was unlike anything the tennis tour had ever seen. She was magic. I don’t recall relating to anything harder than I did to her at that moment. All my sad memories of bullying on the court went away, and all the high expectations of other aspects of my life and the parental pressure were put to sleep. When I saw Serena Williams play tennis, my sadness slipped away. I didn’t think about tennis as an impenetrable, painful and political game any more, I sent Serena in to fight. Every time Serena won, I won.

Serena, aged around 10, in 1992. When the author played tennis as a young girl, ‘white parents stood with their kids. Icy stares came my way’

There is only one thing special about this story and it’s the only thing that matters: that it is not unique. It is that every woman of colour who knows who Serena Williams is can tell a story exactly like this one. They can say that they lived in the era of the Greatest of All Time, and she is a Black woman, and she changed who we are forever.

In September, the 23-time grand slam singles champion announced her retirement in an essay in Vogue. It was a very cold September here in the southern hemisphere. Serena’s announcement brought emotions bubbling up in me that were forged from some weird alchemy of contradictions. I was angry but also grateful that I got to live in this time; I was lost, so lost, but at the same time fully aware of the many, many times one sportsperson had made me find my voice. My insides were shouting and crying at the same time. 

No one is going to be so powerful, graceful, beautiful and inexplicably commanding ever again. No one is going to bring you to tears the same way. No one is going to meet their challenges out in front of the rest of the world as she did so that we all could learn, and gain the strength to speak up in our own lives.

Her best shot: the serve. But her brilliance shone far beyond the white lines of the tennis court. Her serve showed a Black woman taking the first shot, empowering themselves. Black women face expectations as soon as we are born. We have to fit into the box of who they have decided we must be. How we should behave and conduct ourselves. But we live in a time of Serena Williams – an almost mythological, ethereal-like God – and we have learned to exceed those expectations; we will exceed those expectations. So the significance of a once working-class Californian Black girl stepping on to very political territory reserved for the privileged and lily white classes cannot be overstated. 

Williams’ mere presence as a Black woman in a historically white environment is also my presence in a racialised world – whether I am sitting at a staff meeting, board meeting or just going to the shops to buy a loaf of bread. The difference is that Williams opened the world’s eyes to the fact that sport displays all the values we hold dear in life but also reveals its injustices. 

Williams gave us permission to re-evaluate the norms we were handed, to change them and she gave the rest of society an opportunity to see what every woman of colour is confronted with every day. 

Serena in 2016 on her way to her seventh Wimbledon singles title. ‘Every time she heard “No”, she stood up, found a voice and shouted back’

I cannot count the number of times I have been tested over and over again. Especially in my work. As soon as one expectation is exceeded, along comes another, and another, and another. And I must meet these expectations every time. It does not matter how many times I have proven myself as a professional, as a writer, or whatever project manager I choose to be, I will always be questioned. And I will always exceed the expectation. But as soon as I do, and as soon as there is nothing left to throw at me, the response becomes: “Who does she think she is?” We are not all Serena Williams but we all know the pain of having to constantly prove that we belong.

As a brown woman who is nearing 40, I have come to realise that the time of having my life defined for me – of being dictated to as to what my life should be, where I should live, how I should behave, how I am expected to perform – is over. We simply cannot afford it. We cannot allow ourselves to be unseen, when we know, when it has been proven, that if you carry your pain outwardly and fight your fight openly, you have the world to gain, and even then, something will chase you. Ultimately, the thing that chases will be the thing that loses. 

Williams has an entire career built on the age-old pillars of a Black woman being told what she is allowed to and not allowed to do. Constantly. But every time she heard “No”, she stood up, found a voice and shouted back. And these moments are ugly, and we are taught not to be ugly. Williams showed us why “ugly” is very, very necessary.

In her tremendous career, filled with ceremony and celebration, there are also those most significant viscerally emotional moments that must be remembered. And while many will recall the upset of the 2018 US Open, only the true tennis follower will recall the pinnacle of these moments – the 2001 Indian Wells tournament. Venus was supposed to play Serena in the semi-finals but pulled out at the last minute because of an injury. The crowd was dismayed by the walkover and matters were made worse by unfounded rumours of sisterly match-fixing. For more than ten years, the Williams sisters boycotted the tournament. The elite prize-money and the status that came with winning the tournament didn’t matter. Doing the right thing, for the whole world to see, whether they believed in racism or not, was the only thing that mattered. To stay silent at that time was to create noise. And a big noise it was. For more than a decade.

It is easy now, at the end of her career, to appreciate the greatness in her game. The grand slam singles titles, four Olympic gold medals, 14 grand slam doubles titles, and a “Serena Slam”: a non-calendar-year grand slam (winning the four major championships – Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, US Open – consecutively) but the true greatness cannot be grasped without the ugliness and what it meant for her every time she faced it. The world is disposed to look out for the angry Black woman, and the trade-off is silence because to choose to say something is too high a price to pay. But Serena said something anyway.

Serena in 2017 after beating Venus to win the Australian Open, her 23rd and final grand slam singles title. ‘My sister Venus once said that when someone says you can’t do something, it is because they can’t do it’

One afternoon over coffee, a friend asked me: “If the best athlete the world has ever seen … if Serena Williams – a Black woman who has written herself into history and in her own time – has had to fight for her legitimacy, if Serena Williams has to raise her voice over and over again, even with all her records and achievements, and her pure power, just for recognition, if even Serena Williams has to do this, then imagine how much we have to do it. Because without it, what chance do we have?” 

For a Black woman, silence is death. 

We are constantly trained to think that no one likes or wants a loud Black woman. Maya Angelou wrote that the caged bird sings because it “dares to claim the sky”. The caged bird sings for freedom. The caged bird sings to be heard, and the caged bird sings because it knows, intrinsically, what it feels like to be free. 

Serena taught me how to be unquiet. It takes a long time for women of colour to be themselves. It is a process of becoming who we are rather than being born into who we are – that is a gift neatly wrapped and reserved for others.

I don’t need a researcher to tell me that whenever Serena was loud, or angry or “out of place”, the ensuing coverage would focus solely on how she didn’t fit in rather than why she stood out. There was no focus on the insight her experience provided. But with the same consistency that allowed her to serve two aces in a row when two breaks down, Serena demanded more. 

She argued for equal pay and challenged journalists to write about more than just that serve. She used post-match interviews to challenge the patriarchy, as in 2018, when she asked whether a man would be so severely penalised as she had been because she argued with a judge and was docked a point. In earlier years she asked openly why she was tested for performance-enhancing drugs more than any other player on the tour. Nothing happened in silence. Later, she would speak up about the lack of post-maternal care for Black women, or rather, sub-par maternal care for Black women. (If Serena Williams is getting sub-par maternal care, what are the rest of us to expect?)

For a Black woman, silence is death. When we are quiet, no systems change, we are kept in place, in “our” place, chained, challenged and still. Just the way the world likes it.

I once came across a TikTok video of a Black woman skipping through a golden wheat field and the voice-over said this: “You can’t truly call yourself peaceful unless you’re capable of great violence; if you’re not capable of violence you’re not peaceful, you’re harmless.”

When we say what needs to be said, a Black woman will always be seen as aggressive or arrogant, instead of confident, unafraid and assertive. These things are seen as violent acts within societies that have, over time, drilled into us the “peacefulness”of keeping quiet, and taught us that it is better for us: that life is easier that way. But choosing easier paths doesn’t benefit me, harmlessness does not benefit me. I choose violence.

We will never have peace unless we are capable of great violence. Without the ability to act, we will never truly be OK with ourselves; the only acceptance we receive will be from the outside; from the others who have already othered us. This is not peacefulness. It is harmlessness. I am not harmless. 

Serena in 1991, aged nine, with Venus (left) and father Richard. ‘A once working-class Californian Black girl stepping on to very political territory reserved for the privileged and lily white classes cannot be overstated’

Williams’ on-court identity was transfixing because she always walked a tightrope. We were all paying attention to the tension. The push and pull between accident and constructive action, the back and forth between control and consent. As she wrote in Vogue: “There were so many matches I won because something made me angry or someone counted me out. That drove me. I’ve built a career on channelling anger and negativity and turning it into something good. My sister Venus once said that when someone out there says you can’t do something, it is because they can’t do it. But I did do it. And so can you.” And so I did.

Now she leaves the court and moves into venture capitalism, fashion and writing. It might once have been considered rude to draw attention to Williams’ anger but now many who frowned on it regard her expressions of fury as heroic.

But I have always known what the fist pump meant and why all those roars resonated. It is because they are the sounds and symbols of a great gift: the gift of permission.

Just as Williams knows what she wants and who she is, she has allowed us to know what we want and to speak of it freely. And that is a consistent and precise power that will live on long after she struck her last tennis ball.

Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a journalist and author of Sorry, Not Sorry: Experiences of a Brown Woman in a White South Africa.

This piece appeared in the Tortoise Quarterly, our short book of long stories. If you were lucky enough to grab a Founding Membership back in the early days of Tortoise, you’ll receive your copy in glorious, old-fashioned print. If not, you can pick up a physical copy in our shop at a special member price.

Photographs Getty Images