Black people don’t need to be “twice as good”: Unpacking the communal depression of watching Serena lose
Our strength and perseverance should not be expected always and indefinitely.
As far as I can tell, no one really knows who first stated that Black people have to work twice as hard and be twice as good to be as successful as white people. I’d like to think that a great mass of ancestors came up with the old adage apart but simultaneously, a testament to the universality of our struggle and the powerful connectedness that comes with the Black experience.
I don’t ask this anti-Black world for much, so I’d also like to think that at the very least the adage is true; that getting even on 400 years of slavery and its progeny is a simple math equation involving nothing more than putting in the work. But I’ve worked twice as hard and have been twice as good, and even that has rarely been enough. Even still there is always more to prove, and so I find myself always trying to prove it. Working obscene hours to get my career off the ground. Never being satisfied with what I have achieved. Always needing more. And more. And more. The expectation is many times as damaging as it is exhausting.
But after hearing it repeated ad nauseam throughout my entire life, “work twice as hard” and its implications are almost impossible to rid from my mind, for better and for worse.
I don’t watch tennis, really. Like many Black people, I mostly just watch Serena and Venus (although now I cheer just as excitedly for Naomi Osaka, Sloane Stevens, Coco Gauff, and Taylor Townsend, a new crop of Black women for whom the Williams sisters laid the groundwork). So I have seen the last four times Serena made it to the finals of a Grand Slam tournament since she gave birth to her daughter two years ago, and the last four times she has come up short.
Each time she has lost in these past two years has been more devastating than the last. And though there is a lot going on in my life to contribute to a general sense of sadness right now, there’s no mistaking the dread and depression that struck me when Serena lost this last time against Canadian teenage phenom Bianca Andreescu at the U.S. Open on Saturday.
Serena Williams has worked at least twice as hard and has been twice as good as any other tennis player in history (and, arguably, of any other player in any other sport), if not more. I know this. She knows this. Her 23 Grand Slam titles, only one win shy of the record held by Margaret Court—who won her last Grand Slam in 1973, an era featuring much less competition—is proof of this. But there is something in me that needs to see her prove it again. And again. And again. Something in me that breaks when she doesn’t. Something in me that needs her to be as successful as her white peers because I haven’t completely given up on their rigged system. As much as I try to refuse it, I still end up playing their game.
I have began to notice that when people say, “we have to work twice as hard,” they say it with such pride. As if it is evidence of some divine quality we possess—of our strength and perseverance. “Yes, the world is rigged against us, but there is a way to beat it, and we know it.”
The flip side of this pride is the shame and judgment we cast upon ourselves when we don’t utilize this relatively simple answer, both subconsciously and consciously. All we have to do is work twice as hard. We can do that. We have done that. The last 400 years is proof of that. Then why aren’t we as successful? Why do they still beat us? We must not be working hard enough.
“Let’s jump her,” I jokingly texted my friend when Serena went down 4-1 in the second set against Andreescu. Of course I meant this facetiously, but the anger was real. I was angry that she didn’t show what I know her to be. Angry that she wasn’t playing like the Greatest Of All Time that she is. Angry to see Black people, not just an individual Black person, losing again.
When Serena loses, it’s as if Black people as a whole lose. This too is the universality of our struggle and the powerful connectedness that comes with the Black experience. In Serena, I see my mother, my sisters, my cousins, aunts, uncles, and neighbors. I see myself. Working obscene hours to get my career off the ground. Never being satisfied with what I have achieved. Always needing more.
On the shoulders of Serena, of myself, of Black people, I have placed an unfair burden. This was a burden that was almost palpable enough to see weighing down on Serena’s shoulders when she began to cry the last time she played Andreescu and had to retire within the first set because of a back injury. Whenever she smashes her racket in frustration. When she comes this close to the record you know she’s chasing so hard after, and the magnitude of the expectations seem to rattle her mentally.
Yes, Black people are divine, but we have faults too. Our strength and perseverance should not be expected always and indefinitely. We deserve to fuck up, to be weak, to lose, and to still claim success. To not be dragged down into depression when we come up short. White supremacy needs us to believe that losing in the face of all that is stacked against us is a moral failing so that it never takes responsibility for stacking the decks. And so we need to stay assured of ourselves when we have already demonstrated greatness, despite any loss that is sure to come.
There is no beating this rigging. Twice as good has only ever been enough to score points, but not at winning the game. If it wasn’t enough when in 2003 the Williams sisters became the first to compete in four consecutive Grand Slam titles, if it wasn’t enough when Venus smashed the fastest serve by a woman in 2007, if it wasn’t enough when in 2015 Serena became the first woman to win 50+ career matches in all four Grand Slams in the Open Era, or when she became the first woman to win 60+ career matches in 2016, if it wasn’t enough when Serena became the first player, male or female, to win 80+ matches at 3 of the 4 grand slam events in 2017, it never will be. Even when Serena beats Court’s record, it won’t be enough, as those who will continue comparing her to other athletes in her wake will remind us. There is only refusing the rigging entirely. There is only supporting each other regardless.
Serena doesn’t need to beat Court’s record in a much more difficult era for her record to demonstrate the same success. There is no getting even on 400 years of slavery and its progeny except to live outside of its standards. I am working to redefine what success means to me outside of white supremacist binaries of winning and losing, and I’m not there yet. But one day Serena will retire. One day, I’ll be okay if she’s not still at the top of her game when she does. One day Black people will have nothing left to prove, at least to me anyway.