Even without a Grand Slam, Serena's quest was significant -- and successful

Illustration by Mark Smith

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A WEEK AFTER Flavia Pennetta engineered the Great Mic Drop of 2015 by winning a U.S. Open title that had been prematurely promised to Serena Williams, actress Viola Davis underscored the significance of what has been the Year of Serena, hoisting an Emmy for her role in the ABC series How to Get Away With Murder.

The Emmys were first presented in 1949, the year Jackie Robinson won the National League MVP. Nearly seven decades later, after years of African-Americans enduring insulting phrases such as "I don't see color," Davis finally became the first black woman to win an Emmy for best actress in a drama. Williams failed to reach the U.S. Open final, of course, losing in a seismic semifinal upset to Roberta Vinci, but Davis, in her historic moment, echoed the themes and grievances that the highly decorated Williams symbolized for women -- and especially women of color -- all summer. "In my mind," Davis said, quoting Harriet Tubman in her acceptance speech, "I see a line. And over that line I see green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful white women with their arms stretched out to me over that line. But I can't seem to get there nohow. I can't seem to get over that line. ... The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity."

The vitriol and passive aggressiveness directed at Williams for much of the year -- whether on social media, from the Wimbledon crowd or even from some peers (American Jamie Hampton looked small when she tweeted out "#forza #italiansonly" after Vinci beat Williams to set up an all-Italian final) -- was often explained as a mere byproduct of the familiar favorite-underdog narrative, or of Williams' personality. Neither explanation felt honest, not at those decibel levels, especially at Wimbledon, when Williams' physique was critiqued so crudely that author J.K. Rowling took to social media in her defense.

Davis' rare victory might seem unrelated to Williams, who has won virtually every title her sport offers. The connection lies beneath the surface. Williams is no underdog, but so many of her most devoted followers certainly are. For them, her tennis is not about sport but about her existing as a counter to nonexistence, to the 67 years of invisibility Davis' victory highlighted, to the invisibility that the visible -- those who look the part and get the opportunities -- often have the luxury of ignoring or dismissing. Serena exemplifies the black excellence that, as Davis pointed out, rarely receives an audition. African-American women channel through her.

Williams was not only fighting Garbine Muguruza in the Wimbledon final and Maria Sharapova in the Australian Open final. She was also fighting for a feeling on the part of many of her supporters -- the feeling that her victories, her presence, help stem the daily erasing, the smothering reality that black women really don't matter, cannot win, do not count in American culture. "You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there," Davis said. She could have been speaking of black female sports writers, whose voices were virtually nonexistent this summer, even though the season belonged to a black woman champion.

Serena always, and with particular urgency this year, represents actually counting, such a small yet critical thing.

The conversation of race in the United States has never been so much between black and white as between white and white, for the black demand of full citizenship has remained unchanged. For African-Americans, Charleston and Sandra Bland connect to Serena Williams' being ridiculed for her muscular frame, and to her making less endorsement money than Sharapova. They connect to Harvard-educated James Blake's being rousted in front of the Grand Hyatt by an undercover cop, and to a 67-year wait for a black woman to win a trophy for a TV drama.

Always convinced of their objectivity, too many white Americans denied the existence of the connective tissue, angry at the black response and uninterested in exploring its causes. They miss the significance of Serena. For her fans, often the unchosen, Serena's quest was deeply rooted in these themes of invisibility, of yearning to be attractive without ridicule, of the fight just to be seen. She ultimately did not lift the trophy, but across the country, in another industry, Davis did it for her.