A Black Woman’s Body on the Tennis Court: Claudia Rankine on Serena Williams

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 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 bodies.

Hurston’s statement has been played out on the big screen by Serena and Venus: they win sometimes, they lose sometimes, they’ve injured, they’ve been happy, they’ve been sad, ignored, booed mightily (see Indian Wells, which both sisters have boycotted since 2001), they’ve been cheered, and through it all and evident to all were those people who are enraged they are there at all—graphite against a sharp white background.

—Poet Claudia Rankine, writing in Citizen: An American Lyric.  Rankine’s book—a form-shifting treatise on race, primarily composed of prose poems—includes a lengthy essay on Serena Williams’s place in the lily-white world of professional tennis. Citizen has been hugely lauded since its October 2014 publication, winning the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry and the 2015 Pen Open Book Award, among others. Williams won her sixth Wimbledon title on Saturday and is currently the top-ranked female tennis player in the world.

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