In spite of its title, this is not a piece that advocates a return to legally enforced segregation. I repeat, I have no romantic notions about segregation and I am in no way arguing for its reimplementation or anything close to it. I’d like to suggest, however, that its by-products may not have been all bad.
Over the years, I’ve heard stories about how wonderful it was for black men and women, from doctors to cab drivers, from drunks to the highly pious, to grow up side by side in segregated, black neighborhoods. In these culturally homogenous environments, black people supported and looked out for one another in a way that paved the way for success story after success story. Similarly, advocates for historically black higher education, established in the segregated South, argue that HBCUs are still confidence-building, culturally rich, protective havens for its students. Even my friends who grew up in various African countries speak of never having the insecurity that they feel their African-American counterparts developed from being raised in culturally fractured environments — an insecurity that they feel could be somewhat debilitating.
When I dove into a sports documentary double feature at MIST Harlem last weekend, I wasn’t prepared to see similar models advanced for athletic achievement. What struck me most about Venus and Serena, a film about the Williams sisters’ navigation through the tennis world from childhood to present, and Doin’ It In the Park, a documentary about the best New York City pickup basketball, was that they both focused on the importance of exclusive subcultures or (co-cultures) in grooming black world-class athletes.
Doin’ It in the Park makes clear that until a basketball player has mastered street or pickup basketball on the most competitive courts in New York City, that player has not mastered basketball at all. Some of America’s most prized athletes earned their stripes on New York City’s blacktop courts, and some even used pickup to garner the attention they needed to secure professional positions — God Shammgod, Kenny “Chibbs” Anderson, Kenny “The Jet” Smith, Corey “The Homicide” Williams, and Brandon “The Takeover” Jennings, to name a few. Many of the moves that fans love watching in professional basketball come directly from street ball, including the “crossover” made popular by pickup king Richard “Pee-Wee” Kirkland.
Not only is street ball a legitimate sport that influences the way world-class basketball players are perceived by their peers and how (and sometimes if) they compete at a professional level; it’s a tight and elitist club and its rules are created, codified, and adjudicated, for the most part, by black men. The pecking order is rigidly enforced, and prowess in trash-talking and having the correct on-court attire are essential to survival. If a player calls “next” to enter a game, for example, but he’s not skilled or well known, he just may never get it. If a participant isn’t emotionally able to withstand heckling and arguing in the games, he quickly will be intimidated away. One of the funniest moments in the film breaks down the appropriate clothing for the court and shows people who were embarrassed, turned away, and “ticketed” because their gear was not up to par. Doin’ It in the Park suggests that a ball player’s ability to survive both the competition and the culture is what makes its legends the best in the world.
Similarly, Venus and Serena shows that Richard Williams and Oracene Price were determined that their daughters would learn to become world-class tennis players in a culturally distinct and separate environment. First, while their counterparts were playing on the best indoor/outdoor surfaces in Florida and elsewhere, the Williams sisters were learning to hit on glass-littered public courts in Compton, California. No mind. According to Richard Williams, “The ghetto makes you real strong, real tough, real brave,” all traits he knew his children would need going forward. The kids were homeschooled and, in a heavily critiqued move, opted out of the national junior tennis tournaments at a certain point, purportedly because Mr. Williams heard other parents talking about them in racially derogatory ways. As children, the sisters famously wore braids when they competed, a move calculated to show the public that they were proud to be black.
Like the best street ballers, Venus and Serena have never lacked original on-court style or trash-talking skills. They’re both known for their distinctive outfits — Serena’s black knee-high patent leather boots paired with a denim-tennis-skirt number at the 2004 U.S. Open, for example — choice of hairstyles, and nail colors. And then, of course, Serena’s ongoing battles with the umpires are legendary. She’s even made up an alter ego, Taquanda, acknowledging the cultural specificity of the way she communicates in those moments. And let’s not forget the infamous crip walk that Serena executed after winning the Olympic Gold in 2012.
The tennis world and media have always called Richard Williams crazy for cultivating this “unorthodox” environment for his kids. He was dealing with an unorthodox situation, however: taking two black kids from Compton and training them to reach the top of what, in the film, Gay Talese calls “an elitist white person’s folly.” And Williams’s experiment, for which he’d written a seventy-eight-page plan before beginning, worked. The Williams sisters are the best tennis players in the world, and, as Chris Rock says in amazement in Venus and Serena, they’re “black, black … black like I’m used to.” By isolating themselves and creating an alternative universe wherein their skills could develop, culture and confidence intact, the sisters emerged prepared to compete with exceptional physical and emotional strength (perhaps the kind my African friends speak of).
Obviously every athlete is different, and a training method that might work for one might not work for another. That’s beside the point. The takeaway from both documentaries is that, at the very least, nontraditional ways of mastering tennis and basketball should not be pooh-poohed, and, at most, should be respected and studied seriously as foolproof formulas for success in certain cases. Athletes like Venus, Serena and Pee Wee Kirkland (who went on to have an illustrious college career and become a Bulls draft pick) are filmworthy heroes because they’ve not only made tennis and basketball interesting to watch, they’ve raised the bar for all of their competitors. They’ve shown that it’s possible (and maybe even necessary sometimes) to go one’s own way, honor one’s own cultural spin, and win on the world’s stage.