Hennessy Youngman aka Jayson Musson, whose “Art Thoughtz” takes the form of tutorials on the Internet, educates YouTube viewers on contemporary art issues. In one of his many videos he addresses how to become a successful black artist, wryly suggesting black people’s anger is marketable. He advises black artists to cultivate “an angry nigger exterior” by watching, among other things, the Rodney King video while engaging their practice. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3L_NnX8oj-g)
Youngman’s suggestions are meant to expose expectations for blackness, as well as to underscore the difficulty inherent in any attempt by black artists to metabolize real rage. The commoditized anger his video advocates rests lightly on the surface for spectacle’s sake. It can be engaged or played like the race card and is tied solely to the performance of blackness and not to the emotional state of particular individuals in particular situations.
On the bridge between this sellable anger and “the artist” resides, at times, an actual anger. Youngman in his video doesn’t address this type of anger: the anger built up through experience and the quotidian struggles against dehumanization every brown or black person lives simply because of skin color. This other kind of anger in time can prevent rather than sponsor the production of anything except loneliness.
You begin to think, maybe erroneously, that this other kind of anger is really a type of knowledge: the type that both clarifies and disappoints. It responds to insult and attempted erasure simply by asserting presence, but the energy required to present, to react, to assert is accompanied by visceral disappointment: a disappointment in the sense that no amount of visibility will alter the ways in which one is perceived.
Recognition of this lack might break you apart. Or recognition might illuminate the erasure the attempted erasure triggers. Whether such discerning creates a healthier, if more isolated, self, you can’t know. In any case Youngman doesn’t speak to this kind of anger. Consequently he doesn’t say that witnessing the expression of this more personal and daily anger, this body anger, in someone, might make the witness believe that person is experiencing a “melt down,” or worse, that person is “insane.”
And insane is what you think, one Sunday afternoon, drinking an Arnold Palmer, watching the 2009 Women’s US Open final, when brought to full attention by the suddenly explosive behavior of Serena Williams. Serena in HD before your eyes becomes overcome by a rage you recognize but have been taught to hold at a distance for your own good. Serena’s behavior, on this particular Sunday afternoon, suggests that all the injustice she has played through all the years of her illustrious career flashes before her and she decides finally to respond to all of it with a string of invectives. Nothing, not even the repetition of negations (“no, no, no”) she employed in a similar situation years before as a younger player at the 2004 US Open, prepares you for this. Oh my God, she’s gone crazy, you say to no one.
Watching the eighteen-year-old Serena begin to defeat top women players in 1999 made everyone see tennis as a stage where race-related dynamics play out. What does a victorious or defeated black woman’s body in a historically white space look like? Serena and her big sister Venus Williams brought to mind Zora Neale Hurston’s “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” This appropriated line, stenciled on stretched canvas by Glenn Ligon, who used plastic letter stencils, smudging oil sticks and graphite to transform the words into abstractions, seemed to be ad copy for some aspect of life for all black women.
However Hurston’s statement manifests it was being played out on the big screen by Serena and Venus: they won sometimes, they lost sometimes, they were injured, they were happy, they were sad, they were ignored, they were booed mightily (see Indian Wells, which both sisters have boycotted since 2001), they were cheered, and through it all and evident to all were those people who were enraged they were there at all—graphite against a sharp white background.
Serena is younger than you are, with a winning record, so for years you attribute to her a kind of resilience appropriate only for those who exist in celluloid. But neither her father nor her mother nor her sister nor Jehovah her God nor NIKE camp could shield her ultimately from people who felt her black body didn’t belong on their court, in their world. From the start many made it clear Serena would have done better struggling to survive in the two dimensionality of a Millet painting than on their tennis court—all that strength put to work working the land, rather than caught up in the turbulence of our age old dramas like a Turner landscape.
The most notorious of Serena’s detractors takes the form of Mariana Alves, the distinguished tennis chair umpire. In 2004 Alves was excused from officiating any further matches on the final day of the US Open after she made five bad calls against Serena in a deciding set in her semifinal match-up against Jennifer Capriati. The serves and returns umpire Alves called out were landing, stunningly unreturned by Capriati, inside the lines, no discerning eyesight needed. Commentators, spectators, television viewers, lines judges, everyone could see the balls were good, everyone, apparently, except Alves. No one could understand what was happening. Serena, in her denim skirt, black sneaker boots and dark mascara, began wagging her finger and saying “no, no, no” as if by negating the moment she could propel us back into a legible world. Tennis superstar John McEnroe, given his own keen eye for injustice and explosive reactions during his professional career, was shocked that Serena was able to hold it together after losing the match.
Though no one was saying anything explicitly about Serena’s black body, you are not the only viewer who thought it was getting in the way of Alves’s sightline. One commentator said he hoped he wasn’t being unkind when he stated “Capriati wins it with the help of the umpire and the lines judges.” A year later that match would be credited for demonstrating the need for the speedy installation of Hawk-Eye, the line-calling technology that took the seeing away from the beholder. Now the umpire’s call can be challenged by a replay, but back then after the match Serena said, “I’m very angry and bitter right now. I felt cheated. Shall I go on? I just feel robbed.” And though you feel outrage for Serena after that 2004 US Open, as the years go by she seems to put Alves, and a bill of lading, including other curious calls and oversights against both her and her sister, behind her as they happen.
But a body has memory. Your physical carriage hauls more than your weight. Bodies are the thresholds across which each objectionable call passes into the consciousness of your being—all the unintimidated, unblinking, and unflappable resilience does not erase the moments lived through even as we are eternally stupid or everlastingly optimistic, so ready to be inside, among, a part of the games. Come on. Let it go. Move on.
Now there Serena is, five years after Alves, back at the US Open, again in a semi-final match, this time against Belgium’s Kim Clijsters. She is not playing well and loses the first set. In response she smashes her racket on the court. Now McEnroe isn’t stunned by her ability to hold herself together and is moved to say, “That’s as angry as I’ve ever seen her.” The umpire gives her a warning; another violation will mean a point-penalty.
She is in the second set at the critical moment of 5-6 in Clijsters’s favor, serving to stay in the match, at match point, when it happens again. The line judge employed by the US Open to watch Serena’s body, its every move, says Serena stepped on the line while serving. What? (The Hark-Eye cameras don’t cover the feet, only the ball, apparently.) What! Are you serious? Yes, she is serious; she has seen a foot fault, one no one else is able to locate despite the numerous replays. “No foot fault, you definitely do not see a foot fault there,” says McEnroe. “That’s over officiating for certain,” says another commentator. Even the ESPN tennis commentator who seems predictable in her readiness to find fault with the Williams sisters, says, “Her foot fault call was way off.” Way off, considering that even if there had been a foot fault, despite the rule, they are rarely ever called at critical moments in a Grand Slam match because as tennis official Carol Cox says, “You don’t make a call that can decide a match unless it’s flagrant.”
As you look at the affable Kim Clijsters, you try to entertain the thought that this scenario could have played itself out the other way. And as Serena turns to the lineswoman and says, “I swear to God I’m fucking going to take this fucking ball and shove it down your fucking throat, you hear that? I swear to God,” as offensive as her outburst is, it is difficult not to applaud her for reacting immediately to being thrown against a sharp white background. It is difficult not to applaud her for existing in the step and breath of all these moments, for fighting crazily against their imagined wrongness of her body’s positioning.
She says in 2009, belatedly, the words that should have been said in 2004, the words that might have snapped that moment back into focus, a focus that would have acknowledged what actually was happening even if now it is her reaction that is read as insane. The consequence of her reaction was the threatened point- penalty resulting in the loss of the match, not to mention an $82,500 fine, plus a two-year probationary period by the Grand Slam Committee.
Perhaps her punishment was only about context, though context is not meaning, as the poet Charles Bernstein says. It was, after all, a public event being watched in homes across the world. In any case, it is difficult not to think that if Serena lost context in releasing all rules of civility it could be because her body, trapped in a racial imaginary, trapped in disbelief—code for being black in America— was being governed not by the tennis match she was participating in but by a perceived, collapsed relationship to a sharp white background that promised to play by the rules. Perhaps this is how racism feels no matter the context— randomly the rules everyone else gets to play by no longer apply to you and to call this out is to be called insane, crass, crazy. Bad sportsmanship.
Two years later, September 11, 2011, Serena is playing the Australian Sam Stosur in the U.S. Open final. She is expected to win, having just beaten the number-one player, the Dane Caroline Wozniacki, in the semifinal the night before. Some speculate Serena especially wants to win this Grand Slam because it is the tenth anniversary of the attack on the Twin Towers. It’s believed that by winning she will prove her red-blooded American patriotism and will once and for all become beloved by the tennis world (think Arthur Ashe.). All the bad calls, the boos, the criticisms, that she has made ugly— through her looks as well as her behavior—the game of tennis, that entire cluster of betrayals will be wiped clean with this win.
One imagines her wanting to say what her sister would say a year later: “ I know this is not proper tennis etiquette, but this is the first time I’ve ever played here that the crowd has been behind me like that. Today I felt American, you know, for the first time at the U.S. Open. So I’ve waited my whole career to have this moment and here it is.”
It is all too exhausting and Serena’s exhaustion shows in her playing; she is losing, a set and a game down, but finally she hits a great shot, a big forehand (not one that could have won her the match but one that might have changed her momentum), but before the ball is safely past Sam Stosur’s hitting zone, Serena yells “come on,” thinking she has hit an irretrievable winner. The umpire, Eva Asderaki, rules correctly that Serena, by shouting, interfered with Stosur’s concentration. Subsequently, a ball that Stosur seemingly would not have been able to return becomes Stosur’s point since the umpire has the option of giving Stosur the point, which is what she decides to do. Serena’s reply is to ask the umpire if she is trying to screw her again. She remembers the umpire doing this to her before. As a viewer, you too, along with John McEnroe, begin to wonder if this is the same umpire from 2004 or 2009. It isn’t—in 2004 it was Mariana Alves and in 2009 it was Sharon Wright; but the use of the word “again” by Serena sets minds circling.
Again Serena’s frustrations, her disappointments, exist within a system you understand not to try to understand in any fair-minded way because to do so is to understand the erasure of the self as systemic, as ordinary. For Serena, the daily diminishment is a low flflame, a constant drip. Every look, every comment, every bad call blossoms out of history, thru her, onto you. To understand is to see Serena as hemmed in as any other black body thrown against our American background. “Aren’t you the one that screwed me over last time here?” she asks Asderaki. “Yeah you are. Don’t look at me. Really, don’t even look at me. Don’t look my way. Don’t look my way,” she repeats because it is that simple.
But no one can turn away, privately empathetic, frustrated for her and astonished by her ability to keep on going. Serena is not running out of breath. She, despite all her understanding, continues to serve up aces while smashing rackets and fraying hems. In the 2012 Olympics she brought home the only two gold medals the Americans would win in tennis. After her three second celebratory dance on center court at Wimbleton, the American media reported, “And there was Serena...crip-walking all over the most lily-white place in the world... You couldn’t help but shake your head.” “What Serena did was akin to cracking a tasteless, x-rated joke inside a Church.... What she did was immature and classless.”
Hennessy Youngman, before making the video “How to be a Successful Black Artist,” made “How to be a Successful Artist.” While putting forward the argument that one needs to stay white against the sharp white background, he adds, in an aside, that this might not work for blacks because if “a nigger paints a flower it becomes a slavery flower, flower de Amistad,” The white establishment’s viewing lens will always be tainted by its own frame for blackness.
Interviewed by the Brit, Piers Morgan, after her 2012 Olympic victory, Serena is informed by Morgan that he was planning on calling her victory dance “the Serena shuffle” but he has learned from the American press that it is a crip walk, a gangster dance. Serena responded incredulously by asking if she looks like a gangster to him. Yes, he answered, confirming that how the black body is perceived is all about how it looks to the other who is looking. All in a day’s fun, perhaps, but in spite and despite it all, Serena Williams blossoms again into Serena Williams. When asked if she is confident she can win her upcoming matches, her answer remains, “Am I confident? I am Serena Williams.”
Serena would go on to win every match she played between the US Open and the year end 2012 championship tournament and because tennis is a game of adjustments, she would do this without any reaction to a number of interesting calls. More than one commentator would remark on her ability to hold it together during these matches. She is a woman in love, one suggested. She has grown up, another decided, as if responding to the injustice of racism is childish and her previous demonstration of emotion were free floating and detached from any external actions by others. Some others theorize she is developing the admirable “calm and measured logic” of an Arthur Ashe who the sportswriter Bruce Jenkins felt was “dignified” and “courageous” in his ability to confront injustice without making a scene. (Jenkins, perhaps inspired by Serena new comportment, felt moved to argue that her continued boycott of Indian Wells in 2013, where she felt traumatized by the aggression of racist slurs hurled at her in 2001, was lacking in “dignity” and “integrity” and demonstrated “only stubbornness and a grudge.”)
Watching this newly contained Serena you begin to wonder if she finally gave up wanting better from her peers or, less likely, if she too had come across Hennessy’s “Art Thoughtz” and was channeling his assertion that the less that is communicated the better. Be ambiguous. This type of ambiguity could also be diagnosed as dissociation and would support her claim that she has had to split herself off from herself and create different personae.
Now that there is no calling out of injustice by Serena, no yelling, no cursing, no finger wagging or head shaking, the media decides to do it for her when on December 12, 2012, two weeks after Serena is named player of the year, a former number one player, the Dane, Caroline Wozniacki, imitates Serena by stuffing towels in her breasts and bottom, all in good fun, at an exhibition match. Racist? CNN wants to know if outrage is the proper response.
It’s then Hennessy’s suggestions on “How to be a Successful Artist” return to you as including both ambiguity and whiteness. Be ambiguous. Be white. Wozniacki, it becomes clear, has finally enacted what was desired by many of Serena’s detractors, consciously or unconsciously, the moment the Compton girl first stepped on court. Wozniacki (though there are a number of ways to interpret her actions—playful mocking of a friend, imitation of the mimicking antics of the joker, Novak Djokovic) finally gives the people what they have wanted all along by embodying Serena’s attributes while leaving her “angry nigger exterior” behind. Finally, in this real, but unreal, moment, we have Caroline’s image of smiling, blond goodness posing as the best female tennis player of all time.