This story was originally published on June 6, 2017.
Southern California, 1998. I’m 10, and it’s almost summer, which means I have to go to my cousin Rhonda’s to get braids. I don’t want to. Everyone at school thinks braids are weird. Everyone at school is white. Which is worse, my mom asks, having to explain why I can’t get in the water at the pool party or having to explain what braids are? Both options make me cringe. When I taught all my friends the word “extensions,” they wouldn’t stop using it. Then, when a stray braid was found near the library, it was like something out of a Hitchcock film: a crowd of white children wailing and pointing and laughing in a circle around me. My self-hatred became something palpable, something ugly and inadequate and all wrong. Everything about my life was embarrassing, especially the shame I felt about myself.
“The function, the very serious function of racism, is distraction,” Toni Morrison once said. “It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” In practice, this distraction can take many forms. Why is your hair like that? Wait, you don’t have any real hair? For me, a function of racism is embarrassment. I don’t mean awkwardness — the fleeting moments that follow faux pas — I mean wanting to be erased.
Southern California, 1999. My dad calls me downstairs. Our family settles in on the couch, mesmerized. Two black girls are on TV doing something important. They are winning, and they are black girls with beads in their braids. They are black girls from Compton, from around the way, and there’s their dad, doing what black dads do — cupping the backs of their heads with his hands and bringing them in for a hug, urging them never to be anything but the best version of themselves. Their smiles are the kinds of smiles you earn. My burgeoning poet’s brain is awestruck by the crisp sound of ball meeting racket, the liberal use of the word love, the way the players’ bodies move through the air like comet tails. This is elegance, discipline, precision. I see myself. Take that, I think.
Serena Williams grows up and I grow up. I watch her rise and reign. Cosmically, it feels important to me that she exists in this world, persistently and reliably, holding her spot in her field as I stake a claim for myself in mine. She trains, I write, we grow up. They try to tug at the string of insecurity. They call us angry. They call us cocky, overweight. We have gotten too big for our britches, our black dads would say. We can’t help it if our ambition, our honesty and conviction, isn’t what you want from us. They say our time is up. We act like it doesn’t bother us.
New York, 2009. I don’t want to get out of bed. I dodge calls from my therapist, who’s only three blocks away from my dorm. I don’t go to classes for a week. I feel burdensome and misunderstood. I’m embarrassed by my depression, that it is a constant fact of my life. The New York Times says Serena has had a “meltdown,” has an “aggressive demeanor” and “intimidating body language.” They say she’s unraveling, respectability and class dripping off her like sweat. She later acknowledges her battle with depression, and everywhere she looks there is scrutiny. Her language appalls them, frightens them, which is to say her personhood, her humanity, appalls them.
The world tells black women to be embarrassed. About our hair, about our thighs, about our abilities, about our voices. Women are told to make themselves small and quiet. Black women are told that we’re scary. If black women listened to every voice in the stands, we would believe that as soon as we reveal ourselves to be human — to be vulnerable or opinionated rather than neat, elegant, demure — we become extinct. Audacity is self-esteem.
It isn’t that Serena Williams is invincible, only that she understands that boundaries are constructed so we might be embarrassed to cross them. She isn’t a miracle; she has merely stepped into her own light, her own possibility, and gotten comfortable there. Of course we can be the best. Why should it be shameful or bold to say so? Why should pride and ambition be kept secret? What if self-assurance doesn’t erase humility?
When I see Serena’s baby bump now, I realize she has the same smile she did at 17. She has earned it. She’s still here, where she’s always been. We’ve grown up together and become more of ourselves. I put books into the world and I realize I’m not much different from the girl who sat at the lunch tables writing stories and poems. It can feel like no one expects black women to survive — sometimes, not even us. But even as rare as survival is, we don’t have to settle for it. Serena has shown me that we can walk through the boundaries. We are worthy of anything we allow ourselves to have, and we need not apologize for it.
What is incredible about Serena Williams is that people have stopped being astonished by the incongruity of a black girl from Compton with a tennis racket, and it’s because she made them stop. The public waits for an opening, a slipup, some justification to revoke her title, to make her into a nostalgic blip. But she doesn’t give them the press bait. She doesn’t hide in the bathroom wanting to disappear when she loses a braid in front of her white friends — she looks everyone in the eyes and says, “What?” Incidentally, braids have made a miraculous comeback. I pile mine high atop my head like a trophy.
Morgan Parker has written two poetry collections, “Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night” and “There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce.”