To many Black people, Serena Williams is us, and we are her | Opinion

Serena Williams isn't just a hero to many in the Black community. African Americans watched Williams fight racism and see themselves in her. Williams' triumphs and struggles were ours.

Mike Freeman

For so long, for so many people, whenever Serena Williams played in a big match and it was televised, their world stopped. Williams was, and remains, a must-watch because of her staggering talent and historic significance. Like getting the chance to see the Rolling Stones in concert or going to a movie starring Denzel Washington.

For many Black people, however, she is something much bigger than that. Serena Williams is us.

Williams is the Black mom who climbed the corporate ladder despite being told she wasn't good enough. Williams is the Black student labeled an affirmative action hire but outshines her fellow students. She is the Black astronaut launched into space after being told she'd never leave Earth. She is the Black person overcoming double standards. She is the Black person called angry when he's not, mentally soft when he's strong, told to be quiet when his voice is needed.

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She is Starfleet and the Presidency. She is groundbreaking and ceiling shattering. She is loud and quiet, kind and a fighter, unwavering and decent. Serena Williams, as she heads into retirement, is our Black hero. Serena Williams is us.

None of us have her tennis skills but we know what it took to get there because in our own lives we've had to fight like she did. Williams and much of the Black community have fought the same battles, just in different arenas.

And she always seemed to understand that the fight never stops. Your Blackness is often shaped by others as a negative or a problem. Your views on race are wrong or unneeded. The knee of a cop on the neck of George Floyd wasn't really murder. Race can be a series of funhouse mirrors where people distort reality and it's up to you to stay grounded.

She always got that. She never forgot it. She never forgot she was us.

“I remember when my sister was playing, I could tell when she would win points and when she would lose,” Williams said speaking of her sister, Venus. “The crowd would be really loud if she lost a point, and then there would be almost silence if she won the game or the point.”

“The same applied to me,” she added. “I had to make people realize that it's OK to be Black and to play tennis. And it's OK to be good at it and to be better.”

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Eventually she realized what many Black people do. The hatred she faced had nothing to do with her.

"It was just that I had to force people to see me because of my game," she said. "And let my game do the speaking. And I had to be comfortable with that.”

We don't just appreciate her Blackness, we revel in it. We know how gingerly she's had to walk, the lines she's had to tiptoe around, the carefulness of the steps she's taken, because tennis didn't want a Black woman there. She kicked down doors but had to kick them just right; not too aggressively, not too loudly, not with too much attitude. We know because Serena Williams is us.

She's experienced gross amounts of bigotry and still prospered. This is the definition of Black excellence. It's pushing forward despite a legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, redlining and Trumpism. 

We could analyze the remarkable numbers of Williams' career such as her 39 Grand Slam titles, 73 career singles titles, 23 doubles titles and four Olympic gold medals, and they are of course important.

The story is larger than that. She stared down the racism, and won. Stared down some more racism, and won some more. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

Winning and overcoming has been typical Williams.

Because Serena Williams is us.