What the dominance of black female athletes means to American culture

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Serena Williams celebrates with her sister Venus Williams at the Australian Open.

They are champions. They are so supreme in their sport -- a sport that had long not even imagined their brown-skinned existence -- that they have changed it forever. Serena and Venus Williams, Gabby Douglas and Simone Biles are the first African-American women to reach the pinnacles of tennis and gymnastics in the modern era.

They are not only the best black athletes to take to the courts and to the mats; they are not only the best women athletes or even the best American athletes. All four know what it is to be the best in the world. It can be argued that Serena Williams and Simone Biles are the most dominant athletes in sport and the world's greatest athletes.

For African-Americans, and especially for African-American women like me, they are more than athletes. They are us. Their victory is our victory; their defeat, our defeat. The meaning of their triumph -- or their disparagement -- is the meaning of our own.

This I'm sure is why I get so emotional watching them. I have clutched my stomach in the first moments after a loss, or a fall, or a mishit. I have beamed with pride when they performed with near perfection or, in the case of Serena, when she struck an angry groundstroke or a blazing serve that screamed "take that." I have tearfully applauded, in the company of friends or by myself, when they raise their chins in victory.

What makes these women champions? According to much of the sports coverage that I have read, their superiority can be fully explained by their physical prowess, their hyper-athletic, masculinized and/or animalistic bodies.

AP Photo/Julie Jacobson

U.S. gymnast Gabby Douglas performs on the balance beam during the Artistic Gymnastics women's team final at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.

What Douglas "had" over her nearest competitor, a balletic Russian, was "an incredible athleticism," noted a reporter covering the 2012 Olympics. Douglas' nickname is "The Flying Squirrel."

Simone Biles possesses a "freakish athleticism" who is all "muscle with jackhammers for legs," another journalist observed. She moves from "apparatus to apparatus like a shark in open water." Oh, yes, she also has a "megawatt smile."

Serena Williams is "black and beautiful and built like one of those monster trucks that crushes Volkswagens in sports arenas" comments another. 

Racialized descriptions that debase black women's bodies -- and body parts, including flat noses, large buttocks, and mannish or animal characteristics -- have been recorded since the 16th century when European travelers encountered them on the African continent.

However tempting, I am not going take up space recounting five centuries of misrepresentation; I'd rather speculate about the state of mind required to be a champion -- not just an occasional winner, but a champion, particularly in an individual sport in which there is no cover whatsoever for a subpar performance.

Minds get short shrift in these descriptions too. The most interesting was the implication that Biles is so good in part because she doesn't have thoughts or ideas at all. Biles has a "blankness of mind" and is not a "deep thinker" cooed one journalist. This is why, evidently, she is able to compete with "joy and abandon," making the mat seem like a "magic carpet."

Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Simone Biles poses with one of her gold medals at the Rio Olympics.

This is not a description of mind over matter; it is matter minus mind. I beg to differ.

It is true that these women are athletically gifted. In reviewing these women's careers, what struck me as their most extraordinary characteristic as athletes -- a thing which the four have in common despite different personalities, experiences and backgrounds -- is their ability to come back from an injury or loss. 

This idea made me look at these young women through another lens.

Perhaps the most extraordinary comeback story is Venus Williams, who became the first African-American woman ranked No. 1 in the tennis Open era -- 15 years ago. In 2011, she revealed that she has Sjorgen's Syndrome, an auto-immune disease, that can cause chronic pain and fatigue.

In 2017, at the age of 36, Venus is ranked No. 12 in the world and was the runner-up, with a sore elbow and all, to her sister in this year's Australian Open.

Thirty-five-year-old Serena has regained her place as No. 1 and broken Steffi Graf's record, following a severe cut on her foot requiring surgery and 18 stitches in 2011. More seriously she suffered from a pulmonary embolism, a condition that is not always fully recoverable and which could have killed her. In 2012, Serena lost the French Open, but has since gone 74-3, including three Grand Slams and Olympic gold.

In 2011, Douglas had the kind of meltdown on the balance beam -- an apparatus in which faults are particularly dangerous -- that has destroyed the confidence and thus careers of other gymnasts. However, a year later she triumphed at the 2012 Olympics, winning the gold in the all-around and team competition.

Three years later she had a knee injury that had her hobbling on crutches until a month before the 2015 world championship. Douglas won the silver in the all-around in that competition, losing to Biles. Subsequently, Douglas earned a place and a medal on the 2016 Olympic team at the age of 20 -- quite a feat in a sport whose athletes are vulnerable to destabilizing injuries and growth spurts.

These achievements are all the more spectacular when you survey these three women's top competitors over the years. So many of them are no longer competing due to (often lesser) physical injuries, emotional stress and burnout.

Indeed, the Williams's are currently facing opponents more than a decade younger than themselves who used to watch them as preteens.

Biles' reputation in this regard is as iconic as her gold-medal performances at the Rio Olympics. In 2013, she performed so badly at the U.S. Classic on the balance beam, the floor exercise -- where she tweaked her ankle -- and the uneven bars that her coach pulled her out of the competition.

As an observer of the sport noted, Biles' subsequent visit to a sports psychologist and a session with gymnastics coach Martha Karolyi doesn't quite explain why or how three weeks later, Biles won the U.S. Championship, and two months after that, the world title.

By the way, her iconic vault, the Amanar -- aka "The Biles," with its two backward flips followed by a half-turn that ends in a forward-facing blind landing -- was actually devised to shift pressure away from a persistently painful bone spur in her ankle.

Now, I am not saying that this ability to recover from loss and injury is unique to black female athletes, or true of all black female athletes. It is not an inherent trait, but it may be a cultural one.

Sports psychologists will tell you that injuries, especially career-threatening ones, can expose an athlete's deepest sense of self. Recovery is not just a matter of the biological body's healing power. Even among the heartiest athletes, it can be deeply affected by an athlete's sense of self-worth and self-acceptance. 

Several recent socio-metric studies have shown that black adolescent girls test higher in self-esteem than their white counterparts. At first glance this seems counterintuitive because of the myriad consequences of racism, including the negative imagery of black women. Social scientists have found that racism is also a reason why we often have such efficient and effective defenses that teach us to distinguish between warped perceptions of ourselves and who we "truly" are.

As a result, we are less apt to see the opinions of others as the source of our self-esteem; we rely on our own core assessments.

If recovery from loss and injury is related to self-esteem and self-worth, I am thinking that instead of racializing bodies, maybe we should racialize our mindful abilities to overcome adversity.

They are champions: Serena, Venus, Gabby, Simone. They are us.

Paula J. Giddings is the E.A. Woodson Professor in Africana Studies at Smith College. She is also author of "Ida, A Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching."

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