Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Black History Month: A Case for Serena Williams

Today, Fat Tuesday reminds me that as one season ends another begins. My students in San Francisco, California were unaware that Mardi Gras is much more than a singular day of bead throwing debauchery for gluttons masqueraded in green, gold and purple. No, the Mardi Gras season begins with the Feast of the Epiphany, also known as little Christmas, and concludes the day before Ash Wednesday. This day, Shrove Tuesday, reminds us of the human ritual to feast before the famine. Tomorrow, Lent begins and with that holy season Christians are called to pray, fast and give alms. As I prepared my students to enter into Lent, I couldn't help but realize we were exiting from Black History month—a time that should never go unappreciated in the world of sports and spirituality. 
As written on History.com
Black History Month, or National African American History Month, is an annual celebration of achievements by black Americans and a time for recognizing the central role of African Americans in U.S. history. The event grew out of “Negro History Week,” the brainchild of noted historian Carter G. Woodson and other prominent African Americans. Since 1976, every U.S. president has officially designated the month of February as Black History Month. Other countries around the world, including Canada and the United Kingdom, also devote a month to celebrating black history.
At St. Ignatius College Prep where I teach, students lead morning prayer over the school PA. During Black history month, this ritual integrates prayer with information and story telling. We pray for a more just society. We aim to give voice to those who were voiceless for too long. We give thanks to those African Americans who have extended their gifts and talents for all the world to enjoy and each day, we promote their contributions to music, the arts, literature, science and sports, politics and religion. 

If you walk around our school, you will see posters featuring a photo of a student of color holding a picture of an African American they admire and a personal statement explaining why. Students are the teachers; I learned about Guy Bluford, the first African American astronaut. I was touched to see the late Nina Simone and it should go without saying thrilled to see my favorite female athlete, Serena Williams.

The young woman holding a dynamic photo of Williams is one of my athletes. I can't wait to ask her how Williams inspires her own sport—golf. I want to know what she values in Serena as a competitor... Williams, a champion.... Serena Williams the 2015 Sportsperson of the Year.

In light of Black History month, I sincerely appreciate that Williams calls on the other black female tennis players who paved her way. She wants the world to know that long before Serena and Venus, there was Althea Gibson and Zina Garrison. She has named and thanked them from the winner's circle. She insists that her success cannot be separated from theirs. With her older sister, she has worked to extend tennis to the inner-city and other low income areas, for all children. She has spoken out against the racism she has endured (Indian Wells) and used her voice for the advancement of women, people of color and the game itself. 

I am not convinced that her peer, Tiger Woods who met equal success in another sport traditionally underrepresented by people of color has used his voice in the way she has. I do not believe that his fans would know that long before Tiger Woods, there was Calvin Peete or Lee Elder. Granted many people might not know the women that Serena has named but that is not because she has kept silent.  
Serena Williams is indeed is a worthy hero of this historic month. Not only is she (one of the) winningest female tennis players of all time, completing the Serena slam and bringing home four gold medals for the United States (one in singles and three with Venus in doubles) but Miss Williams is also a whole lot of fun. If you haven't seen it yet, the video is worth watching. That's Serena Williams: champion, one of the greatest of all time ready to surprise two amateurs on a week night with a fun and friendly round. I believe Black History month can celebrate that too. If only I still played tennis...

I hope tonight she is celebrating both Mardi Gras and the role she has played in Black History month. I'll keep my eyes peeled for you Serena in and around the city by the bay. Congratulations on your engagement. As they say in New Orleans, Laissez les bon temps rouler!

Photos Credits

Althea Gibson

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