Graphite Against a Sharp White Background

Serena Williams returns to Monica Niculescu, of Romania, in a match at the BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament, Friday, March 13, 2015, in Indian Wells, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Serena Williams returns to Monica Niculescu, of Romania, in a match at the BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament, Friday, March 13, 2015, in Indian Wells, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Serena Williams returns to Monica Niculescu, of Romania, in a match at the BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament, Friday, March 13, 2015, in Indian Wells, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Excerpted from Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine. Out now from Graywolf Press.

(Slate) – One Sunday afternoon, drinking an Arnold Palmer, watching the 2009 Women’s U.S. Open semifinal you are brought to full attention by the suddenly explosive behavior of Serena Williams. Serena in HD before your eyes becomes overcome by a rage you recognize and have been taught to hold at a distance for your own good. Serena’s behavior, on this particular Sunday afternoon, suggests that all the injustice she has played through all the years of her illustrious career flashes before her and she decides finally to respond to all of it with a string of invectives. Oh my God, she’s gone crazy, you say to no one.

What does a victorious or defeated black woman’s body in a historically white space look like? Serena and her big sister Venus Williams brought to mind Zora Neale Hurston’s “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” This appropriated line, stenciled on canvas by Glenn Ligon, who used plastic letter stencils, smudging oil sticks, and graphite to transform the words into abstractions, seemed to be ad copy for some aspect of life for all black bodies.

Hurston’s statement has been played out on the big screen by Serena and Venus: They win sometimes, they lose sometimes, they’ve been injured, they’ve been happy, they’ve been sad, ignored, booed mightily (see Indian Wells, which both sisters boycotted for more than a decade), they’ve been cheered, and through it all and evident to all were those people who are enraged they are there at all—graphite against a sharp white background.

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