Imagining conversations between two legendary Black women who embodied greatness: Whitney and Serena
She has no other choice but to be great, because Black women don’t get to be mediocre.
by Cody Charles
The Whitney documentary details how the legendary singer would often meet up with Michael Jackson in his hotel room of ever they found themselves in the same city. They could both sit comfortably in silence, because they didn’t have to explain anything to each other. Their positions in life were that similar.
I sometimes wonder, who are other folks Whitney could have spoken so seamlessly to? Who are the folks who would understand such stardom, and possess unmatched talent? What Black women could she authentically share herself with, without spending most of her time explaining? I can only think of Serena Williams.
I wonder what a private sit down conversation between Serena and Whitney would look like. Where would they meet? What would they wear? What level of excitement would be present? What would they talk about? How would they support one another? I’m quite curious.
Their backgrounds are comparable. Serena had a father and mother committed to her greatness, the next best tennis player in the world as her sparring partner, and a God-given gift. In like manner, Whitney sang with the best at an early age. She grew up observing the vocal stylings of her mother Cissy Houston, her cousin Dionne Warrick, and her Godmother Aretha Franklin. She intimately knew what singing was, as she was coached by the best. Her voice was technically and emotionally superior to some of the greatest singers of all time. And like Serena, she knew her power. They both knew they were one of a kind, even as children.
At this year’s Wimbledon, Madison Keys, another talented Black women’s tennis player, said “[It] must be really difficult being Serena Williams because everyone ups their game every time they have to play her.”
Following Serena’s third round match, writer, Jamie Johnson asked what she thought of Madison’s comment: “What do you think? I mean you have to deal with that every single time you go on court, knowing you are №1, you’re the one to beat. Have you just gotten used to it by now?”
Serena to the Press: “Every single match I play, whether I’m coming back from a baby or surgery, it doesn’t matter. These young ladies, they bring a game I’ve never seen before. And it’s interesting because I don’t even scout as much because when I watch them play, it’s a totally different game than when they play me.”
She paused for a second.
“That’s what makes me great. I always play everyone at their greatest. So I have to be greater.”
Serena is talking about much more than being a great tennis player. I think her responses are rooted in a Black woman politic. She is saying that she has no other choice but to be great, because Black women don’t get to be mediocre. I imagine Whitney to have similar sentiments around her gifts.
This interview with Serena can help us better understand the life and legacy of Whitney, I think. To understand the magnitude of her talent, we must understand her greatness — and the responsibility she felt to that greatness — as well as the loneliness that comes with being so far ahead of your talented peers. While Serena had Martina Hingis and Kim Clijsters, Whitney had Mariah Carey and Toni Braxton.
Whitney Houston did not live to see her legacy fulfilled because the world is committed to devouring Black women. Whitney was a survivor of sexual abuse by a family member, she was preyed upon by most men in her life, and she was never allowed to explore her true sexuality. All of this forced her to find ways to cope with intense levels of misogynoir by both family members and her chosen industry.
While the documentary did a great job of exploring the making of Whitney into a global star, I’m not sure the creators were fully committed to finding out who she really was, particularly her queerness. They had no problem divulging the deepest secrets about Whitney’s drug and alcohol use, but were timid in exploring the actual romantic relationship between her and Robyn —her best friend, whispered to be one of her romantic partners. The documentary felt like a collection of folks projecting who they thought Whitney was and who they wanted her to be.
Both Whitney and Serena experienced intense levels of misogynoir, and of course, Serena continues to deal with this daily. She is unfairly judged by her competitors, the fans, chair umpires, sponsors, and the general public. Hated for her talent, her appearance, and her audacity to be happy with her husband and child.
As I daydream about the lives of these two brilliant artists, I ponder on what a meeting of their minds would look like.
I imagine it’s mid-day. They are meeting in the Midwest, somewhere no one would expect to see them — not Chicago, but perhaps St. Louis, taking in the spirit of the city that birth Black women legends like Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Josephine Baker, and Maya Angelou.
I imagine them meeting in Whitney’s hotel suite— a suite with a number of windows that frame the wondrous arch and the blue water , windows that zealously grant access to natural light.
I imagine them lying on a massive bed, oscillating between laughing their hearts out and crying stubborn tears. I imagine the remnants of their favorite foods and snacks scattered all around them as they lay— brown sugar pop tart wrappers, golden fried chicken wings, and an assortment of half-bitten sushi rolls.
In a moment of rest, I imagine soft music playing in the background, a Ledisi mix on Tidal.
Whitney asks Serena, “What will happen when you loses her gift. Who will you become?”
Serena responds, “I will become more of me.”
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I imagine them sharing silence, like good sisters do.
Whitney asks Serena how she moves around the court so quickly and gracefully, in addition to routinely serving at 115 mph.
Serena plays and replays the first 10 seconds of I Wanna Dance With Somebody, begging Whitney to explain how she breathtakingly sings the first two words “huh” and “yeah.”
I Imagine them dancing, joyously, and giving tender and affirming hugs.
I imagine them full.
Join Cody Charles for more conversation on Twitter (@_codykeith_) and Facebook. Please visit his blog, Reclaiming Anger, to learn more about him.