Serena Williams has come to represent so many amazing aspects of being a “strong Black woman.” Her resilience, fortitude and undeniable work ethic, while superhuman to the naïve among us, reflect the everyday lives of Black women all over the world who have grown accustomed to being the backbone of their families and communities at all times, regardless of the personal toll it could possibly take on one’s physical and mental health. Indeed, being a “strong Black woman” can be extremely taxing, and with HBO’s latest docuseries, Being Serena, the world’s greatest athlete expresses her own frustrations with living up to the damn-near impossible standards we as Black women set for ourselves while navigating the unreasonable expectations of the world around us, something the Compton-bred champion knows all too well.
The premiere episode, titled “Fear,” begins with Williams going head-to-head with sister Venus for the 2017 Australian Open title, which she went on to win while two months pregnant with daughter Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr. Even while accomplishing this unheard-of feat, the star reveals just how much pressure she places on herself to be at 100 percent, 100 percent of the time, as well as the anxiety of potentially falling short, earnestly sharing she fears, “I can’t be both the best mother and the best tennis player in the world.”
The balancing of work and home isn’t a new discussion for career women who’ve chosen to have children, but Serena’s sentiments still hit very close to home for many of us, especially when we’ve been brought up hearing you have to work twice as hard as White women, and three times as hard as White men, to earn your seat at the table. Even then, you better keep that momentum going if you want to hold on to your spot, and it’s clear the 23-time Grand Slam winner has no plans of relinquishing her crown, a lesson she hopes to pass down to her firstborn.
After placing the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup she won in Melbourne in her daughter’s room, Williams explained, “I wanted her to see the Australian Open trophy because she should know that having her in my body didn’t stop me from succeeding, from winning.”
Baby Olympia’s arrival also proved to be a trying moment for the tennis pro, as her dropping heart rate forced doctors to perform an emergency C-section. This led to a pulmonary embolism, a condition in which one or more arteries in the lungs becomes blocked by a blood clot. Speaking to CNN in February, she also connected her experience to that of other African-American women in the U.S., who are three to four times more likely than White women to die from pregnancy-related causes. Williams has had medical issues with blood clots for years, but it took her body going through intense, life-threatening trauma for the new mom to finally slow down. Sound familiar?
As “strong Black Women,” we’re often accused of “doing the most” or of being “too much.” Unfortunately, the 36-year-old wife and mom has been subjected to such inane accusations publicly on several occasions, being labeled “too strong,” “too masculine,” “too dark,” or any number of insulting critiques sexist, racist and straight-up jealous individuals choose to hurl her way.
It matters not.
WE will continue to be the strong Black women we were BORN to be. Mrs. Ohanian’s walk directly parallels the journey of so many who look like her. Who go hard every day, like her. Who balance it all under seemingly impossible circumstances, like her. We will continue to spread this #BlackGirlMagic in the boardroom, at the PTA meeting and on the court. Yes, we will continue to amaze you with our very existence, but no longer at the expense of our own sanity and well-being. Because being a Black woman means strength, but it also means being human, and while we love seeing ourselves and sister Serena rocking that superhero cape, it’s good to know we can set it aside from time to time to truly be ourselves for ourselves. That’s being a “strong Black Woman,” and that’s Being Serena.
Catch Being Serena every Wednesday at 10 p.m. on HBO.
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Born and raised in Compton, California, Jessica Bennett began her career as an intern at The Oakland Post, and later, The Source Magazine. She went on to write for respected hip hop publications such as DJ Booth and Hip Hop DX before becoming the Urban Editor of pop culture website, Wetpaint.com. She joined Ebony as the Entertainment Editor August 2017. Bennett has interviewed such names as Vanessa Williams, Spike Lee, Tyra Banks, Forest Whitaker, Magic & Cookie Johnson and several others.