There hadn't been a Fourth of July like this before. Not that I could remember.
Phone ringing, early in the morning.
Phone ringing again.
"You got it on?"
Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Venus Williams is contending
for her fourth Wimbledon title.
Grand Slam tennis. Not always must-see TV for us, Americans of color. But this was different. Venus and Serena Williams were playing the Nos. 1 and 2 players in the world on the same day at Wimbledon. Fifty years after Althea Gibson became the first African-American to win at the All England Club (July 7, 1957). It was like a black
Independence Day. One where millions (far from all, though) of African-Americans got the opportunity through a sporting event to find some semblance of balance in the face of the inferiority complex we carry with us in our everyday lives.
And unlike times before when these sisters (and sistahs) have played against each other at Wimbledon, where only one of them has the chance to win, on July 4, they both had the chance. So many times in their careers, we, as black people, sometimes like to find fragments of our freedom in watching them play. On Wednesday, we had the opportunity to celebrate our independence in watching them compete.
As Venus began beating Maria Sharapova, my phone kept ringing. After every break point, my wife clinched her fist. After every one of Venus' 120-plus mph serves, my sons would thrust their little arms in the air.
As Serena dropped the first set to Justine Henin, but won the second, the phone continued to ring.
"You still watching?"
"You still got it on?"
There always has been an expanded sense of pride we have displayed and shared with each other whenever King Richard's daughters take on the world. But this was different. The Williams sisters "thang" was supposed to be over. The days of black folks rooting for them in droves just because they are black were supposed to be over. We'd been there, won that. It's Vivian Stringer's turn now. There's another mountain to hurdle.
But as people kept calling -- family, friends, Fave 5s, radio shows, wrong numbers -- asking if we were watching the matches, it hit me that I might be wrong about something. Or maybe in denial. Maybe there is still a need
for us as blacks of this land to see the Williams sisters win because of the color of their skin. Maybe that is why we still make a big deal about it when they play, and why we pull so hard for them to win. And maybe why -- after 13 Grand Slam titles between them -- we still make our wanting them to win mostly about them being black.
I began to ask questions without taking names. Every person who called was asked that question, and every answer varied. The range stretched from "because tennis is still a white-dominated sport." ("How many black players have you seen either one of them play against in a Grand Slam tournament?" my barber Shannon asked). Others mentioned the perceived racism that they still have to deal with, evidenced by how "they cheated Serena at the French Open in 2003 against Henin[-Hardenne] and on that horrible call at the 2004 U.S. Open against Jennifer Capriati that cost her both matches because they didn't want to see a sistah win." That came courtesy of my father.
And every answer came almost emphatically. Without hesitation or stutter. As if they were all saying to me, Why are you -- Scoop Jackson, of all people -- asking this question?
But I asked because I'm trying to find an antinomy in sports. A paradox where two contradictory principles are both correct. I thought, or maybe falsely felt that we (not me personally, because I know where I stand on issues like this: right or wrong, always bet on black) were past that need with the Williamses. And others like them. I thought Quinton Jackson's knockout of Chuck Liddell in the UFC did it for us. I thought Shani Davis deadened it in speedskating at the Olympics. I thought Lewis Hamilton deadened it at the Formula Grand Prix in Canada. Ray Emery deadened it by getting the Senators to the Stanley Cup Finals. I thought once Tony Dungy won the Super Bowl
I thought we had gotten to a place in sports where color and race were no longer the sole reason we rooted. I know the Bonds saga is different, but I thought we as blacks had achieved enough in sports to not just root for someone based on the color of his or her skin. I thought we'd eclipsed the private side of our "reverse" racism.
"Brotha [not the actual word he used]," a solicitor who goes by the name of Reverend Vernon and usually only rings our doorbell on Sundays reminded me, "you thought wrong."
As Serena lost, I was reminded by a white lawyer friend who called and said that "just as it is necessary for you all to support Obama and for me to support Hillary in their presidential runs," many of the same principles of thought and action apply to certain events in sports. "And Venus and Serena playing underdog to two white women ranked above them on the same day is one of those events."
This is because sports -- as much as many of us would like to think differently -- often is not a "bring everyone together, can't we all just get along" activity. The goal is not always to share. We get behind players (and teams) who best represent us regardless of outcome and outlook. That's the way millions of us roll. But it's because of their skin -- not in spite of the other player's skin -- that we do this. (I'm sure plenty of white fans root for Phil against Tiger or
rejoice when Steve Nash wins back-to-back MVPs for the same reasons.)
Wrong as it might be, just as my family and friends and I were overtly pulling for the Williams sisters to win, there probably were several millions who looked nothing like us pulling for them to lose because of skin color.
And even when black women voice their issues with the Williamses for dating outside of the race or black educators have problems with the impact the sisters have sometimes in publicly distancing themselves from their culture (i.e., Venus' recent comment that "My favorite band is 311" comes to mind), as members of the same checkbox, we still feel the need to have their backs at all cost because those backs still carry our race. And any victory by one of them (or both) is a victory for our race. Not just an advance to play Kuznetsova in the next round.
After the matches were over, I went to my wife's grandmother's house. I asked my Uncle Steve, who had just finished a round of golf with one of the elite black social golf groups in the city, if he saw the matches, and he said no because he was on the course, but plenty of people called his cell phone giving him updates. I asked him, being a historian on African-American heritage, why he thought we are the way we are about Venus and Serena. He snapped, "Because no poor black [not the actual word he used] was ever supposed to do what they did."
He took a seat. Made me take one, too.
"There's a different sense of pride that overcomes us when it comes to watching those girls play," he preached. "Yeah, we support 'em because they us, but our love is unconditional with them because they came up with nothin'. We understand that more than any other race in this country. Their careers are a microcosm of our existence in America, a reminder. That's why every time they touch that court it's a big deal with us. They are America's reminder of our struggle and our reminder of our triumph."
Just then, his granddaughter (my cousin) ran over to him and gave him a kiss. The next Venus or Serena? It was in his eyes. He just looked at me, lingering on the comment he just made.
"Happy Fourth of July" is all he said afterwards. Which at that point, in my mind and in agreement with every word he'd just spoken, was all that needed to be said.
Scoop Jackson is a columnist for Page 2 and a contributor to ESPN The Magazine. He's also the host of ESPN Original Entertainment's "NBA Live: Bring It Home". Sound off to Scoop here.