Serena, Venus and Aretha

June 10, 2012

Articles

I was settling in for a night of entertainment watching the U.S. Open Final that matched Serena and Venus on September 7th, 2002. The fact that I don’t even have to mention these two powerful sisters’ last names is a testament to their reputations and skill.

All I wanted to do that night was watch these two sisters of incredible athletic ability and awesome beauty. The bond of love and sympathy between them, juxtaposed against their ongoing rivalry and the desire of each to play their best game, always provides suspense and fascination.

No sooner than I had sat through the inevitable, incessant banality of the commercials, my sense were assaulted by something far less banal and far more insidious: the U.S. military drum corps, complete with the American flag, pomp, and circumstance. It was, after all, September 7, 2002, just one year after 9/11—and it was in New York.

Before my eyes, this athletic event was being corrupted by a ruling elite that cared nothing for the people who died on 9/11, nothing about the city of New York, and for that matter nothing about the United States and certainly nothing for Serena and Venus. Take General Motors. With all the flag-waving done by their top execs, they quietly sold their logo to a paper corporation in the Bahamas. Why? To lease it back and then use it as a cost against taxes. The company that exemplifies America is waving the flag with one hand and holding back with the other hand the profit produced by its workers, and instead sending the money to the Bahamas, money which it owes to the Americans who buy their expensive cars, with the other.

So I was going to have to suffer through this hypocritical show of patriotism in order to enjoy the match. After all, it was only a few days earlier that the audience was supporting foreign players in an obvious attempt to thwart the dominance of the Williams sisters.

And then, just as I was ready to throw up my hands, gospel and R&B great Aretha Franklin began to sing. She sang the song many of us would like to have replaced as America’s national anthem: “The Star-Spangled Banner.” But she didn’t sing it the way it is usually sung. She gets to the place where it says, “…o’er the land of the free…”

I stopped there, right at that word, and had to take a breath. Like I said, when an African American leader in any category speaks, picks up a racket, or even sings, it resonates with the world.

When Aretha sings about freedom, it becomes a demand for liberation, not support for some idealized concept that masks policies that oppress working people. I wish I had a tape of that subtle yet powerful performance. Even more, I wish I knew how she did what she did, how she took a song that to so many means, “America: Love It Or Leave It,” and turn it into an impassioned appeal for liberation. I only vaguely understand it even now. But I know this: it was exactly the opposite of what the media moguls who orchestrated the event expected.

After that September 2002 match, the Willams sisters dominated the tennis scene for all of 2003. In doing so, they re-defined femininity for the 21st Century and exposed the inherent, reified, yet subtle racism in our national media. The pushback was fast and furious as a Venus backhand. Mostly white male sportscasters railed against the Williams’ sisters. Their dominance was deemed to be bad for tennis, as if the interest generated throughout the world by the sisters in tennis was bad.

Maybe for them it was bad. Perhaps the inclusion of millions of working class people, both white and black, in the tennis world was bad for the elite. After all, the elite domination in tennis had existed for so long. Certainly, the influx of these fans and participants would put an end to tennis’s exclusivity, and to the notion that success in the game was determined by caste instead of talent and hard work.

In the Williams sisters we see the intersection of class, race and gender. Billie Jean King started it more than twenty years ago, when she beat tennis bad boy and male chauvinist Bobby Riggs. The Venus and Serena era has paved the way for women to dominate tennis, not white males.

If it was bad for the ruling elite, it certainly wasn’t bad for tennis. Thirteen of the Women’s Tennis Association’s tournaments set records in 2002, when the Williams sisters were the queens of the game. And from 1998 – 2002, the percentage of women interested in sports doubled, to 58%. (Scott Salinardi, FIND/SVP. Media and Entertainment Trend Report, “She’s Got Game: Women’s Interest in Sports Grows Significantly,” February 2004. website: http://www.findsvp.com/insights/trendreports/me0204.pdf)

CHANGING THE GAME
In January of 2003, Serena was down in the third set 5-1 to Kim Clijsters, at the time one of the top players in the world. One lost game and the match was over. Serena came back to win the match and the tournament. In January of 2005, Serena was down three match points to Maria Sharapova, an excellent power player. One lost point and the match was over. She came back to win the match and the tournament.

How did she do it? The same way that Bjorn Borg, or more recent tennis bad boy John McEnroe, or Pete Sampras did it. Remember what the live tennis commentators called them? Intelligent. Strategic. They studied the game. They “understood” their opponent. They were “mentally tough.”

But not so Serena. Instead of lauding more cerebral qualities, commentators crowed about her “natural ability” and “power.” They say the same about her sister.

Chris Evert defended the Williams sisters against Martina Navratilova’s taunts and criticisms, She spoke frequently about the sisters’ intelligence and grace. In fact, she even understood explicitly their particular sister-to-sister challenge. She had, after all, played her own sister and was quite sympathetic about the psychological difficulties inherent in the twin and contradictory emotions of competitiveness versus sisterly love. And in fact, she criticized those who would diminish the unique excitement of a sister-sister tennis dynasty.

But even she falls into the trap. Listen to this criticism of Evert by writer Andy Cotton in The Austin Chronicle:

“…Chris Evert’s repetitive racial stereotyping of the Williams sisters on NBC was stunning. As Venus Williams was stomping all over the No.1 player in the world — yanking Martina Hingis around the court like a spastic puppet — Evert repeatedly portrayed the very white Hingis as the intelligent, cagey, court-wise counterpuncher, while Williams was the big, strong, usually out of control “athlete,” a polite way of saying black. As if those nasty slice serves pulling Hingis 20 feet off the court, followed by down-the-line kills into the open court, were somehow fortunate genetic gifts. Maybe Chris, a great player in her day, was seeing herself being pushed around the court by a bigger, faster, stronger, and just-as-smart opponent, and helpless (as Hingis was) to do anything about it. When Venus and Serena met the next day, Evert often cited the wonderful athletic ability of the sisters, while criticizing their “sloppy” play. Personally, I didn’t think it was sloppy at all. This was great stuff. I’ve been watching tennis for 30 years, and I’ve never seen women play that way. The final against Davenport was more of the same. Lindsey — smart/ clever/white — against the athlete. Somehow Evert made it seem so damn unfair … Venus picking on poor injured Lindsey (the most devastating ball striker on the woman’s circuit) that way.”

~Andy “Coach” Cotton, “Coach’s Corner,” The Austin Chronicle, 7/14/2000

Where was the talk about “Intelligence” and “mental toughness?” It was strangely absent. Under any other circumstances, mental toughness, intelligence, grit, strength of character would have been discussed and analyzed ad naseum.

Serena herself, unfortunately, falls into the same trap, albeit perhaps for different reasons. She tried to put a better face on Chris Evert’s stereotypical analysis. In a New York Times article dated (DATE OF SELENA ROBERTS ARTICLE), she is asked about the issue and replies, “It’s not racism, it’s just stupidity.”

Maybe she wants to believe the best. Maybe she feels that she will be criticized for calling racism what it is. But somebody has to. As Peter Noel so deftly puts it in The Village Voice:

The Williams sisters may be faster and stronger than most of their rivals, but they also play smart tennis, a fact that some sports commentators and writers are loath to acknowledge. “After the semifinals game between Venus and Martina Hingis at the U.S. Open, you never heard the announcer say that Hingis broke down mentally—but that’s what happened,” argues Pee Wee Kirkland. “Whenever Hingis or Lindsay Davenport breaks down mentally, the first thing they say is, ‘Well, they’re not in the same condition as the Williams sisters. They got tired.’ When they break down it’s because they’re tired, but when we break down it’s because we can’t think the game of tennis. How can that be?”

Peter Noel, “Fear of the Williams Sisters,” The Village Voice, November 8-14, 2000.

The Williams sisters are powerful players, no doubt. It’s just that that aspect of their game has been overemphasized in relation to their many other strengths. And now, ironically, the younger women players have adopted the power game without so much as a mention by the commentators as to the source of this new exciting development.

The disparate treatment extends even further. Look at Jennifer Capriati’s father, Stefano. He made his daughter play for money at the tender age of 14. That didn’t work out very well for her, did it? The pressure of being a teen phenom was too much, and she ended up involved in shoplifting and drug abuse before she got back on track.

Contrast that with Venus and Serena’s dad, Richard Williams. He deliberately and deftly guided their sports careers to ensure that they didn’t grow up too fast. He steadfastly refused to allow them to play for money when they were young. Now, he has two young adult women that he can be proud of, who are equally graceful in both celebrity and competition. Straight out of Compton, California, both Serena and Venus have become the best-known women athletes in the world. They are very much leaders in the move to redefine womanhood, attractiveness, and beauty that is characterized by strength, assertiveness, and confidence. They are gracious and international, always working to express gratitude in the language of whatever the country where they are playing. Coming from humble circumstances, they accept their amazing success with grace, while acknowledging those who have supported them. They have been booed, criticized, and put down, yet they always flash their beautiful smiles and keep on stepping.

Venus Williams is stately and regal. Serena is voluptuous and yes, sexy. But they maintain an inner beauty that insists that the media characterize them by their talent and character, not by their outward appearance.

Their father has not escaped criticism, either. Strong and protective, he is painfully aware of the racism that has tried to engulf and contain his dynamic daughters:

“Williams has consistently been a public target partly because he has been a booming voice against racism in the country club, white cotton world of pro tennis. For someone who trained his daughters on the public courts of Compton, California, walking through, in Venus’s words, phalanxes of “guns and gangs” to get to practice, the snooty scions of tennis have not intimidated the Williams family a lick. That has perhaps been his biggest sin: the refusal to dance. Williams has just refused to know his place.

”When Venus won her first grand slam at Wimbledon, the royal family was said to be displeased by Richard Williams jumping on the court and yelling, ‘Straight outta Compton!’”

~Dave Zirin, “The Eclipse of Venus,” politicalaffairs.net, 7/21/05

Where was the outrage when Serena was unceremoniously and vociferously booed during the French Open in 2004? Richard Williams understands:

”When it became fashionable among sports journalists in 2003 to say that women’s tennis “had become boring” because it was dominated by Venus and Serena, Richard Williams said, ‘So women’s tennis is getting boring. And you know why? Because two lovely black women dominate it. They’re better than the white girls and that’s intolerable. They’re disturbed by our being there. They’ve tried everything they could to tame us, to recuperate us and when they couldn’t, they said I was a madman.”’

~Dave Zirin, “The Eclipse of Venus,” politicalaffairs.net, 7/21/05

How many articles have you seen that are critical of Stefano Capriati, tennis pro Jennifer’s dad?

In fact, it is painfully obvious that the media is running scared of these two powerful women. Venus and Serena were the obvious choices to include in People magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People” in 2005. The editors’ choices are certainly not just beauty, but other qualities as well—qualities that the Williams’ sisters have in spades. But instead, they chose blond Maria Sharapova, who has one to date one Grand Slam to the sisters’ ten.

In short, Venus and Serena belie the genetic racism of Social Darwinism. They have proven that the dominance of Anglo-Saxon white males is nothing more than a temporary historical phenomenon backed on opportunism, not genetics.

The sisters’ success illustrates the tremendous untapped talent within the working class. Living in a difficult community where a stray bullet would stamp out any chance for athletic achievement, their intelligence, grace, strength, and beauty prove the tremendous untapped and underutilized skill of the working class. They singlehandedly destroy the entire ideological justification for extremes of privilege and wealth and poverty. In some inexplicable way, their millions of fans understand this better than the advertisers who would capitalize on their success and the commentators who wish that they had never come on the scene.

Proof of how the Williams’ sisters have redefined femininity is in the recent issue People magazine, 5/9/05, where Maria Sharapova is now listed as one of the 50 most beautiful people (p.136). Anna Karnakova is out because she can’t play tennis. The ruling class had to find someone who was both competent and blond. That is the contradiction for the ruling class. Our position is not to disparage the accomplishments of their blond substitute but to expose their hypocrisy. After all the beauty, strength, intelligence and popularity of the Williams sisters cannot be denied. Their 10 plus grand slam victories towers over Sharapova’s one.

The Williams sisters represent a three-pronged threat: They are Black. They are women. And they are, as their father proclaimed that day on the court, and reminiscent of the ‘in your face’ song penned by rapper Ice Cube, “Straight Outta Compton!”

The African-American community, intentionally and sometimes unintentionally, is central to developing and demonstrating a moral vision for America. Whether it’s Aretha turning every song into a freedom song, or Venus and Serena exploding sports stereotypes, it is a consistent vision that promotes tolerance and opposes oppression. It does so in the face of market forces that incessantly concentrate wealth and power in the hands of fewer and fewer people, of political forces that would move the needle two centuries back, of corporate forces that turn the free market on its head with crushing monopolies and oligarchies that have absolutely no intention of competing on equal footing. It recognizes that democracy includes the right to vote without intimidation and the right to work without discrimination. Most importantly, this vision celebrates our differences.

In fact, we just need to admit it: African Americans make up the core of the progressive movement, and always have.

A Different Model
How many times do we hear, do some of us even say, that African Americans are at the “bottom of the pyramid” when it comes to economic and social progress? I would like to present to you that we’re looking at the wrong geometric shape. We’ve been told that the world is a triangle…

…but that’s really a Western construct. Triangular (here, in the form of a pyramid) hierarchies are imposed by people who want to control. The corporate-government complex continues to promote and repeat the view that African Americans are “at the bottom,” to perpetuate a condition and to obscure the central place of African Americans to the culture and movement of America.

A circle is more natural, more organic to the process, more truthful, and provides a more accurate geometry to explain the centrality of African Americans in the struggle for progress:

What’s the difference between a pyramid and a circle? EVERYTHING. That’s why the imagery is so important. The traditional imagery that most people buy into is that African Americans are at the “bottom” of this large, imposing structure, trapped by millions and millions of bricks that represent all the people that are “above,” with the top comprised of people that hold all the cards. What does that imply? It implies that they will never be able to pull themselves out of that bottom layer. It implies that this is the way it will always be. After all, how long have the pyramids been around? And isn’t it ironic that it was African genius that built the pyramids that are now used as a metaphor for oppression and to describe a static world state of affairs?

Ah, but a circle—a circle has no top and no bottom. A circle makes us think of life, and reminds us of forever. A circle is dynamic and moving. It represents change. Most of all, it represents hope.

So what does this circle diagram represent? It shows a thin sliver of ruling class people, a weak, thin line that is right now controlling the energy, hope, skills, and demands of everyone else. Right now, they control money, movements, and ultimately, life. It shows larger slices of white men and women in the working class, people who really have much more in common with African Americans than they do with the ruling class. Finally, it shows African Americans in the middle, at the core of a movement for human life and freedom. It shows African Americans in the middle of a world that is ripe for change. Instead of being pressed down, this circle tells us, African Americans can show the world a better way. They are poised, it says, to burst out.

Let me tell you exactly what I mean with a real life example. In 2004, Terri Gross of the National Public Radio program, “Fresh Air,” interviewed R&B and gospel artist Aretha Franklin. The “Lady of Soul” had written a song called “Think.” Here are some of the words:

You better think, think about what you’re trying to do to me,
Oh, think, let your mind go, let yourself be free…

A lot of people saw the song as just another “he done me wrong” song, a plaintive, yet protesting complaint about mistreatment of a woman by a man. But then, in the middle, she belts out, in a call-and-response style, a strong cry for freedom. She sings the word over and over and over again until we are ready to get free ourselves.

That’s what Terri Gross addresses. She informs Aretha that that song, “Think,” actually became a war song of sorts for the feminist movement. ‘Did you have that in mind?’ she asks Aretha.

Aretha is somewhat taken aback. She doesn’t even know the power of her own song. ‘I just wrote what I was feeling at the time,’ she says. Through the force of her own heart and soul, she has given the women’s movement an anthem.

And she doesn’t even know it.

Whether it’s Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King, Aretha, or Venus and Serena—not to mention Michael Jackson, Oprah, or Sean “P Diddy” Combs—African Americans have played a central role, consciously or unconsciously, deliberately or unwittingly, in impacting American culture, American traditions, American practices, and American politics. In that way, each advance of the African American Community represents an advance for the entire working class.

This excerpt of an op-ed piece from the November 9, 2005 edition of the New York Times, giving an analysis of the urban disturbances in Paris, France, tells it all:

“Just look at the newspaper photographs: the young men wear the same hooded sweatshirts, listen to similar music and use slang in the same way as their counterparts in Los Angeles or Washington. (It is no accident that in French-dubbed versions of Hollywood films, African-American characters usually speak with the accent heard in the Paris banlieues).
“Nobody should be surprised that efforts by the government to find “community leaders” have had little success. There are no leaders in these areas for a very simple reason: there is no community in the neighborhoods. Traditional parental control has disappeared and many Muslim families are headed by a single parent. Elders, imams and social workers have lost control. Paradoxically, the youths themselves are often the providers of local social rules, based on aggressive manhood, control of the streets, defense of a territory. Americans (and critics of America in Europe) may see in these riots echoes of the black separatism that fueled the violence in Harlem and Watts in the 1960’s.
“But the French youths are not fighting to be recognized as a minority group, either ethnic or religious; they want to be accepted as full citizens. They have believed in the French model (individual integration through citizenship) but feel cheated because of their social and economic exclusion. Hence they destroy what they see as the tools of failed social promotion: schools, social welfare offices, gymnasiums. Disappointment leads to nihilism. For many, fighting the police is some sort of a game, and a rite of passage.”

~Olivier Roy, “Get French or Die Trying,” New York Times, 11/9/05.

The saga continues. Let us continue to expose the bankruptcy of the position of the ruling class which always divides people. If we understand that the African American community is at the core of the working class, then we will set every strategy and all tactics accordingly.

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Ronald D. Glotta
220 Bagley, Suite 808
Detroit, Michigan 48226
(313) 963-1320
(313) 963-1325 fax
rglotta@glottaassociates.com
www.glottaassociates.com

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