‘‘I play for me,’’
August 25, 2015 12:40 PM   Subscribe

The Meaning of Serena Williams by Claudia Rankine [New York Times] On tennis and black excellence.
There is a belief among some African-Americans that to defeat racism, they have to work harder, be smarter, be better. Only after they give 150 percent will white Americans recognize black excellence for what it is. But of course, once recognized, black excellence is then supposed to perform with good manners and forgiveness in the face of any racist slights or attacks. Black excellence is not supposed to be emotional as it pulls itself together to win after questionable calls. And in winning, it’s not supposed to swagger, to leap and pump its fist, to state boldly, in the words of Kanye West, ‘‘That’s what it is, black excellence, baby.’’
posted by Fizz (34 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
 
Claudia Rankine has also recently published Citizen: An American Lyric, which is arguably one of the most important books of poetry that has been written on the subject of race in America. I linked to it awhile back, and would still urge people to find it and read.
posted by Fizz at 12:43 PM on August 25, 2015 [13 favorites]


i decided after reading this incredible article today that i'll be buying myself "citizen" at the end of the us open, no matter what happens. this is a really, really good piece and i hope people take time to read it.
posted by nadawi at 12:53 PM on August 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


I can second Citizen wholeheartedly. It hit me like a ton of bricks.
posted by naju at 12:53 PM on August 25, 2015 [5 favorites]


Citizen is so so so powerful, and though it sounds strange to call it good, due to its subject matter, it is good and great and wonderful. Absolutely seconding Fizz's recommendation.

On preview, thirding.
posted by wyndham at 12:54 PM on August 25, 2015 [4 favorites]


Very good article.

The notable difference between black excellence and white excellence is white excellence is achieved without having to battle racism. Imagine.

posted by roomthreeseventeen at 12:56 PM on August 25, 2015 [9 favorites]


> Imagine that you’re the player John McEnroe recently described as ‘‘the greatest player, I think, that ever lived.’’

This would be the same John McEnroe whose (many) tantrums get described as "funny."
posted by The Card Cheat at 12:57 PM on August 25, 2015


One of the most heartbreaking things about Citizen is the way it changes with each new printing.
posted by naju at 12:57 PM on August 25, 2015 [16 favorites]


I almost didn't click on this because nytimes.com, but it's fantastic.

Serena is examined doubly because she's black AND a woman; the two groups of people we most enjoy judging into a fine powder. It's also incredibly disappointing to me that the traditional (and very gross) viewpoint of being put off by an athletic or "aggressive" woman persists so strongly.

The earnings disparity discussion reminded me of being blown away by Grace Jones in A View to A Kill, but of course she's the "exotic" killer and there's some anodyne woman I can't even recall as the "real" love interest.
posted by selfnoise at 1:00 PM on August 25, 2015 [5 favorites]


I see the "I play for me!" and all I can think of is Ivan Drago's "meeeeeeee!" which is a disservice to TFA.

(And I can't say why I find the author's self-injection to the story so damn annoying)
posted by k5.user at 1:28 PM on August 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


This pairing of writer and subject is my dream come true. I pinched myself when I saw this, to make sure I wasn't hallucinating. Then I let out a small scream. Then I settled in, read the piece, and sighed deeply in satisfaction at the greatness on display.

Today is a great day to be alive, a lover of poetry, and a fan of tennis.

Hallelujah!
posted by sallybrown at 1:40 PM on August 25, 2015 [5 favorites]


Serena Williams is the greatest living athlete.

The fact that this is even contested is justification for this article all by itself. You can make this argument without relying on opinions or emotional arguments -- by almost any metric, Serena Williams has completely and utterly dominated her sport by a margin and duration that is virtually unprecedented.

The intangibles are also pretty great too. She visibly and exuberantly enjoys her sport in a way that few professional athletes do.
posted by schmod at 1:52 PM on August 25, 2015 [11 favorites]


Well-meaning but a rather odd article. Rankine is more focussed on laying her own assumptions and sentiments on Serena than explaining Serena. The article is more about Rankine's perception of Serena than Serena herself. I would have expected much more solidly supported and less self-centered cultural commentary from an academic.

The most glaring error is the no mention at all of Serena's religion and its importance for understanding her.
posted by Bwithh at 1:54 PM on August 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


Well-meaning but a rather odd article. Rankine is more focussed on laying her own assumptions and sentiments on Serena than explaining Serena. The article is more about Rankine's perception of Serena than Serena herself. I would have expected much more solidly supported and less self-centered cultural commentary from an academic.

The most glaring error is the no mention at all of Serena's religion and its importance for understanding her.


I think some people are missing the entire point of the article. It isn't a bio piece on Serena. It's about Black achievement and racism told through the context of one athlete who has had to deal with a lot of it. Most people have no idea what religion Serena practices.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 1:59 PM on August 25, 2015 [11 favorites]


The article is more about Rankine's perception of Serena than Serena herself.

I see nothing wrong with that. How many articles shared on this site are about the writer's perceptions of a subject, and no one even thinks to complain about it?
posted by naju at 2:13 PM on August 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


this sports illustrated cover is amazing.
posted by nadawi at 2:17 PM on August 25, 2015


Only nit I have to pick with an otherwise great article is the exchange where the man sitting next to her says, "‘‘Oh, I just want the match to be competitive,’’ and then leaves early.

As a sports fan, I have found myself saying the exact same thing many times, especially when I have no strong rooting interest. Also, the fact that this guy left early is just further evidence that he's a casual fan at best.

I guess I just don't see what that part of the article is supposed to show.
posted by paulcole at 2:30 PM on August 25, 2015


Serena Williams is the greatest living athlete.


Mr. Gretzky and his 66 currently held records (17 years after retiring (and those are just the NHL records)) would beg to differ.

But yeah, for major individual sport it is hard to argue anyone else.
posted by Cosine at 2:33 PM on August 25, 2015


Serena Williams is the greatest living athlete.

The fact that this is even contested is justification for this article all by itself


That's kind of a bold statement. I don't think there's an agreed upon standard for determining who is or is not the single greatest athlete alive. She's damned good and the best in her sport, but is she better at tennis than say, Ronda Rousey is at MMA? Is the greatest athlete alive going to be someone that plays an individual sport, or a team sport? How does quality of teammates or opponents factor in? How about team success, is that a factor? It's impossible and does not really help prove the point. She's the best in her sport, is that not enough?
posted by Hoopo at 2:44 PM on August 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


I guess I just don't see what that part of the article is supposed to show.

to me that part of the article was pointing out one of those things where people are going to always argue that racism doesn't play a part - there is always a plausible explanation - but it's also one of those that if you're in the habit of discussing serena with other tennis fans or sports fans or american sports fans that you see over and over again. is that one example proof of anything in and of itself? no. but it's like white people crossing the street when they see a black man - sure some were going to cross anyway and some just don't want to walk up on anyone - but it happens enough that the pattern and reason is clear to anyone who has seen it enough.
posted by nadawi at 2:48 PM on August 25, 2015 [15 favorites]


The author briefly touches on it, but doesn't explicitly spell out what happened at Indian Wells.

It should not be discounted that she's a Black athlete who dominates a sport full of white and European athletes. Maybe because of her domination she's more welcome than say...Jackie Robinson was in baseball. But she has to continue to endure shit that the majority of the players don't have to. Steffi Graf's family was never threatened at a match. Jimmy Connors was never booed because of anything his sibling may have done. Seles was never criticised for a 4 second dance on the court.

Williams faces more criticism than African American athletes in baseball, football, basketball and maybe even golf because she and her sister stand out like two black chicks in a country club full of white people. In fact, that is exactly what the situation is.
posted by hal_c_on at 3:05 PM on August 25, 2015 [10 favorites]


I've long believed that if Williams were a slender, blonde white woman with the same record of achievements, she'd be damned near close to a billionaire from endorsements alone.

(I also see a number of parallels between the way she's treated and the way Michelle Obama is treated. Mrs. Obama is an incredible person by any standard, but she gets attacked in ways and with words that I've never seen used against and of a First Lady, even Mrs. Clinton back in the day -- and she gets noticeably fewer noble and chivalrous men rushing to defend her from such attacks.)

A few years ago, Williams was playing against a rival she wasn't too fond of -- can't remember whether it was Sharapova or not -- and after her winning point, she flashed such a profoundly regal, triumphant and powerful look at her defeated opponent that had I been a knight of old, I would have immediately fallen to my knees and pledged my sword in service to her forever. She is an amazing person, and she really shouldn't have to put up with anywhere near the level of shit she does. But she does...and as a black woman who doesn't present feminine enough for some tastes, her slip ups are punished more harshly and her highs aren't as rewarded as richly.

To me, that's why she should be in any discussions about the greatest living athlete. She's done all that she has done while constantly swimming against the damned tide. Man, I would love to see a world where her prime and Nina Simone's prime coincided -- together, they would have raised epic levels of hell in national conversations about race and gender.
posted by lord_wolf at 3:11 PM on August 25, 2015 [29 favorites]


I just want to reiterate that Citizen is great. Even if you don't think of yourself as the kind of person who reads books of poetry.
posted by escabeche at 3:21 PM on August 25, 2015 [5 favorites]


[A few comments deleted. Maybe we can bring this back around to the article rather than going around in circles over what it means to be "the best"?]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 3:48 PM on August 25, 2015 [5 favorites]


Claudia Rankine writes prose poetry. I mean, that's literally the medium she works in. So if the piece seems wide-ranging and uncomfortably personal and more about the dynamics of race and achievement in American cultural life than a purely biographical piece about Serena Williams, that's why.
posted by thetortoise at 4:00 PM on August 25, 2015 [6 favorites]


Excerpt from Citizen
posted by thetortoise at 4:11 PM on August 25, 2015 [6 favorites]


That excerpt is extraordinary. I'm ordering the book now.
posted by dejah420 at 5:10 PM on August 25, 2015 [3 favorites]


I love this:
For black people, there is an unspoken script that demands the humble absorption of racist assaults, no matter the scale, because whites need to believe that it’s no big deal. But Serena refuses to keep to that script. . . . Just as important to me as her victories is her willingness to be an emotionally complete person while also being black. She wins, yes, but she also loses it. She jokes around, gets angry, is frustrated or joyous, and on and on. She is fearlessly on the side of Serena, in a culture that that has responded to living while black with death.
Saintly, humble, unchallenging blackness, okay! versus merely human, fallible, complex blackness, cue the hypercritical punitiveness. I wasn't aware of Claudia Rankine before. Thank you for the Citizen excerpt. Thank you for the post.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 5:25 PM on August 25, 2015 [8 favorites]


I dunno what it says about me, but I can't ever think about Serena Williams without wondering what it must be like for Venus; reminds me of a girl I went to high school with who was the valedictorian and captain of the swim team — her older sister was a Rhodes scholar and swam on the Olympic team. It's different because Serena's younger, but to constantly be in competition with your sibling who is arguably the greatest living athlete? Damn, those must be some complicated feelings.
posted by klangklangston at 8:52 PM on August 25, 2015 [4 favorites]


Wow, that excerpt is incredible.
posted by maxwelton at 12:46 AM on August 26, 2015


The Unretiring Serena Williams - "She’s eyeing a FASHIONABLE POST-COURT LIFE, but first she’s got tennis history to make."
posted by the man of twists and turns at 6:44 AM on August 26, 2015


Based on the recommendations and excerpts from this thread, I checked out Citizen from the library yesterday and read it in one sitting.

I know now what the speaker in "Killing Me Softly" means about someone singing your life in their words. Citizen might be one of the most meaningful books I've ever read.

Thank you, Fizz, and everyone else who recommended it.
posted by lord_wolf at 10:21 AM on August 26, 2015 [3 favorites]



Well-meaning but a rather odd article. Rankine is more focussed on laying her own assumptions and sentiments on Serena than explaining Serena. The article is more about Rankine's perception of Serena than Serena herself.


To me, that's perfect right now, in August of 2015. There have been moments this summer that I've really felt we in the US were coming to understand the serious problem that denialism is. Now as the summer comes to an end, I'm not so sure.

And with Serena headed into the US Open with the possibility of a historic win? I had almost thought every possible thing had been said about her. I love that this article is about perspectives in the way that it is. I Googled Rankine and right away there was someone pooh-poohing the article in the most predictable way. Which honestly just confirms the author's perception, in my view.
posted by BibiRose at 11:29 AM on August 26, 2015 [3 favorites]


that article you linked BibiRose is a good reminder as to why i've pretty much stopped reading all articles written by white men about serena williams. "After reading the article, it started to become clear that Rankine, a writer I’d never heard of before, wasn’t much of a sports fan" what an asshole
posted by nadawi at 11:41 AM on August 26, 2015 [6 favorites]


hi!! how are we all enjoying the open?? i am so excited/nervous about tuesday!
posted by nadawi at 4:44 PM on September 6, 2015


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