A Champion on Fire

“So I got the right to get buck
But I try not to let it build up
I’m too high, too better too much
So I let it go, let it go, let it go”

-Lil’ Wayne, “Mad”, A Seat at the Table

When Mark Knight picked up his colored pencils to depict Serena Williams as a big lipped, overweight, tantrum throwing mammy for the Herald Sun he knew precisely what he was doing. When he chose to display Naomi Osaka (a biracial Black girl), as a thin white woman with corn silk yellow hair worthy of sympathy in response to Serena’s brute like rage, he also knew what he was doing there. If you asked him I’m sure he would say something about how the image had nothing to do with race. He has already defended his cartoon stating the cartoon was about her “poor behavior”, and that no racial significance should be read into it. Sometimes I wish I was as stupid as I would have to be to actually buy that, because it would make my life significantly easier. Unfortunately, I am not, and having my eyeballs accosted with that atrocity of a comic the other day was just another reminder of a lesson I learned a long time ago, and one that I am still grappling with today: that anger is not a right for Black women. Public displays of anger will only open you up to being berated, punished, and ridiculed.

I don’t remember how old I was when I realized that anger was not a readily accessible part of the emotional spectrum for me. This is not to say I didn’t experience it, but I knew that true expressions of that anger had to be relegated to moments of privacy like at home in my room or maybe with a close friend. Public displays of anger always seemed to be the domain of white people, like an emotional country club. Being openly angry in a place where you could be seen was one of those freedoms afforded to people whose hair products were always advertised on primetime television. I noticed early on that Black girls who engaged their anger in the public sphere were always met with disciplinary action. And so anger became something deeply intense, personal and private. Taste of pennies in my mouth or the sudden rising of heat behind the ears, all sensations to be swallowed and examined at a later date if ever at all.

At Saturday’s U.S. Open, Serena Williams did not swallow her rage. She stepped out of line and into the fullness of her personhood when she brought the same passion that made her into the most formidable tennis player on the planet, to the face of the umpire who decided to use his power to remind her of who she was and where she belonged. Since the day the William’s sisters stepped onto the court, the powers that be in the tennis world have been fucking with them. From playing in front of audiences who boo’d and called them the N-word, to the banning of Serena’s blood clot preventing cat suit by the French Tennis Federation president, the white world of tennis has repeatedly made it clear how they feel about the way this woman from Compton crip walks on each and every one of their necks.

And she’s still gracious.

She has to be.

She like so many of us knows that maintaining the level of comfort of those around her comes prior to how ever she might be feeling in the moment. And so even in the wake of her mistreatment, we were gifted with the image of her comforting a tearful Osaka, and pleading with the audience not to boo. Cleaning up the mess that a man made of a scenario that should have been celebratory regardless of the outcome. Only for her to still be reduced to her moment of rightful anger in an image reminiscent of something out of a minstrel show. I can only imagine how tired…

When I first listened to A Seat at the Table, I didn’t know how important it would be to hear Solange Knowles singing to me, “I got a lot to be mad about (be mad, be mad, be mad),” but when I heard it, it was clear. I know I am not the only one who was conditioned to shy away from my anger, because as is the case with Serena Williams, the stereotype of the Angry Black Woman can become all-encompassing. I wanted to so badly to separate myself from that stereotype I refused to allow myself the luxury of true anger, when at times it would have been the most healing thing for me. But the trap of the Angry Black Woman is that then your anger isn’t just a passing moment, it becomes the essence of your character. And on top of all of that, it is very rarely seen as justified in the eyes of the wider world. It often seemed better to just not engage with it at all.

But you can only swallow fire for so long and anger is not nourishing. All it leaves behind is scorched places in your soul, large swaths of barren wasteland incapable of supporting life. No growth. And so every time it rears its head I find myself deciding, in or out. In or Out. ‘In’ would inevitably require some serious tending to the inside parts, the emotional landscape I allow to burn up for the sake of my well-being in other very real material ways. But I have spent years tilling these spiritual fields trying to make them a fully flowering space again. At times, torch swallowing feels like regression, like leaning right into the metaphor of setting yourself on fire to keep the world warm. On the other hand, choosing ‘Out’ requires extreme damage control, spending an inordinate amount of time proving yourself to be more than an out of control fire-brand. In actuality there is no winning.

Rage is scary. It can be a frightening thing to be on the receiving end of, just as it can be a frightening thing to feel. Fear of Black rage has shaped our culture for centuries so what occurred on Saturday was nothing new. Maybe to some degree fear of Black women’s rage is warranted, because if we were truly allowed to be as angry as we deserve to be in our day-to-day lives, the world would have much more to fear than broken tennis rackets. It was easier (and empowering I’m sure), to instead of honestly engaging in why she was so angry, to reduce her legitimate emotional response to the pathology of her Blackness in the form of that cartoon.

I have no doubt that once Serena chose ‘Out’ and demanded an apology, that umpire felt the first licks of her flame threatening to send his ego up in smoke, so he did his best to smother her. It doesn’t matter though. Watching her Saturday reminded me of the importance of fire blowing, and ultimately flowering. She may have lost the match, but her display was a win for those of us tired of being complicit in our own maltreatment, tasting ashes all the time. Fire is cleansing. Sometimes you have to burn it all down.

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