bell hooks, Living to Transgress

bell hooks is a feminist author and activist from the United States. Her name by birth is Gloria Jean Watkins, but she took the name bell hooks in honor of her maternal great-grandmother. hooks was born, one of seven children, to Veodis Watkins, a custodian, and Rosa Bell Watkins, a homemaker. She was raised in Hopkinsville, a segregated town in rural Kentucky, where she experienced firsthand both the hardships of segregated schools and, later, the process of integration.

Upon graduating high school, hooks attended Stanford University graduating with a BA in English in 1973 then continued on University of Madison, receiving her MA in English in 1976. Afterward, she split her focus between teaching Ethnic Studies at the University of South California and writing—publishing her first work, “And There We Wept,” a chapbook of poetry in 1978 and Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism in 1981—while, also, working towards a doctorate in literature at the University of California, which she achieved in 1983[1].


hooks spent her academic career as a scholar of African-American literature, writing her PhD dissertation on Toni Morrison, but her influences include a wide array thinkers including, amongst others: playwright Lorraine Hansberry, pedagogical theorist Paulo Freire, theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez, psychologist Erich Fromm, historian Walter Rodney as well as peace activist Thich Nhat Hahn and civil rights leaders, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.[2].

As such, hooks quickly became one of the foremost theorists of intersectionality, a framework which has recently gained great popularity in the analysis of systems of power within society and has combined her analysis of power relations with her academic career, writing texts dedicated to the topic of pedagogy. In her 1994 book Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, hooks advocates for “a way of teaching in which anyone can learn.” One in which educators help students “transgress” boundaries of race, class, and sexuality to achieve intellectual and, so too, personal, social, and cultural freedom[3].

hooks 2.tif

Implementing her own theories into practice, hooks, as a professor teaching at a variety of institutions from University of California, Santa Cruz and San Francisco State, to Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut and Oberlin College in Ohio, often found herself referencing pop culture in efforts to help students connect to theories of intersectionality. In doing so, she found herself grappling with new material in an entirely different field, media studies that would become the basis for her 1994 book Outlaw Culture.

In bell hooks’ own words: “Whether we’re talking about race or gender or class, popular culture is where the pedagogy is, it’s where the learning is. So I think that partially people like me who started off doing feminist theory or more traditional literary criticism or what have you begin to write about popular culture, largely because of the impact it was having as the primary pedagogical medium for masses of people globally who want to, in some way, understand the politics of difference. I mean it’s been really exciting for someone like me, both in terms of the personal desires I have to remain bonded with the working-class culture and experience that I came from as well as the sort of southern black aspect of that and at the same time to be a part of a diasporic world culture of ideas and to see how there can be a kind of interplay between all of those different forces. Popular culture is one of the sites where there can be an interplay[4].”

Cecily McMillan

Works Cited

[1] Notable Biographies – bell hooks

[2] Notes on IAPL 2001 Keynote Speaker, bell hooks

[3] Teaching to transgress: education as the practice of freedom by bell hooks

[4] bell hooks – cultural criticism and transformation

Mayor Marion Barry is Arrested for Crack-Cocaine

Rabble-rouser, hero, thug, public servant, crackhead, role model, negro militant, freedom rider, scoundrel, prophet, radical, drug addict, philanderer, genius, convict, legend… he’s been called it all. When it comes to Marion Barry, the truth really is stranger than fiction and, like most things, it depends on your vantage point, it differs according to where you stand and, especially, which side of the tracks you live on.

Straight from the experts, the indisputable facts are as follows:

1) Marion Barry was a powerful black leader:

“In 1965, Marion Barry arrived in Washington to direct activities for SNCC […] a civil rights organization known for demonstrations, sit-ins, and boycotts. Mr. Barry was its first national chairman. In 1966, he led a one-day bus ‘mancott’ to protest a fare increase requested by D.C. Transit.

November 2, 1971: Marion Barry, seeking a Board of Education at-large seat, casts his ballot at the Ward 1 voting precinct at Cardozo High School (13th and Clifton Sts. NW)

He organized a ‘Free D.C. Movement’ to press for home rule. He called D.C. police ‘an occupation army.’ [In 1967,] With financial support from the U.S. Department of Labor, he organized and directed a group known as Pride Inc., which put more than 1,000 inner-city youths to work From 1972 until 1974, Mr. Barry was the school board’s president. In 1974, he was elected to an at-large seat on the D.C. Council […where] he was instrumental in defeating a 1 percent gross-receipts tax on all city businesses, winning the gratitude of the business community. He helped get a pay raise for the police department. He was among early supporters of equal rights for gay men and lesbians.

As mayor of the District, Mr. Barry became a national symbol of self-governance for urban blacks. […] His programs helped provide summer jobs for youths, home-buying assistance for working-class residents and food for senior citizens. And he placed African Americans in thousands of middle- and upper-level management positions in the city government that in previous generations had been reserved for whites[1].”

2) The FBI pursued Barry for the better part of the 1980’s:

“For eight years, FBI agents were trying to get Barry to a point where they could read him his rights. They went through his bank records, tax returns, American Express bills, and they staked out his home. No luck. They even set up a fake consulting firm to try to infiltrate the mayor’s inner domain.

[…] Then, as part of this ‘scrupulously fair’ operation, the pursuit team decided to find a woman whom Barry trusted. ‘We talked about how the easiest way to get Barry was with a woman,’ a high-level law enforcement officer told The Post. Rasheeda Moore, then in California, fit the bill. Her fateful invitation to Barry to meet her at the Vista International Hotel followed.

With Moore – ‘the cooperating witness,’ in FBI lingo — was an FBI undercover agent who allegedly brought Barry the crack cocaine he allegedly asked and paid for. All this was recorded by cameras and audio machines in the bathroom and the joining bedroom[2].”

Shortly before 8:30 PM on January 18, 1990, Mayor Barry arrested at the Vista Hotel by FBI and D.C. police, the result of a sting operation coordinated jointly by the United States Attorney’s Office. In short order, Barry was charged with misdemeanor drug possession of crack-cocaine and released to face the facts of that evening, under the scrutiny of a nation divided, in the cold, hard light of day[3].

When the story broke the next day, it sparked, yet another, sharp divide in what was already a racially charged city. The overwhelming majority of black folks rallied around the mayor, accusing the white—mostly, wealthy Republican—officials of targeting Barry as a powerful leader who had effectively created an economy for and constituency out of, what was before Barry’s tenure, a wholly disenfranchised black community. Put simply by Jonetta Rose-Barras, award-winning journalist and author of The Last of the Black Emperors: The Hollow Comeback of Marion Barry in the New Age of Black Leaders (Bancroft Press 1998), “Black people thought, ‘He was set up[3]!’”

In the days and weeks leading up to his trial, crowds of black folks sprang up all over the city, waving signs that read “MAYOR BARRY MAY NOT BE PERFECT, BUT HE IS PERFECT FOR US”, “We thought lynching was outlawed in the 1920’s”, ‘Stop the persecution of our black leaders!” and the like, while community leaders made fiery speeches erupting in thunderous applause and endless cheers of “Barry! Barry! Barry!” One such preacher seemed to embody the spirit of general disillusionment and widespread anger at the personal nature of the attack on their mayor when he concluded his oratory with a bleak pronouncement and the wave of a condemnatory finger: “There is no justice in America for the black man or black woman. Let us not deceive ourselves[3].”

White voters, on the other hand, almost unilaterally called for his immediate impeachment, posting signs all over the city to that effect. As for their take on race at play in Barry’s case, consider the exchange between one every-day, middle-aged white lady and morning show host, Cliff Kincaid of WNTR, the flagship radio station for televangelist Pat Robertson’s conservative talk network. Calling in the woman exclaimed, “If I hear one more black claim that it’s because he’s black, I’m going to throw up!” Commiserating, Kincaid chimed in, “And let’s dismiss all this nonsense about entrapment. Nobody forced him to go to that hotel. Marion Barry is a pathological liar. He’s a crack head[3].”

In the trial that began on June 20, 1990, the U.S. Attorney ultimately brought 14 charges against Marion Barry: three felony counts of perjury, 10 counts of drug possession, and one misdemeanor count of conspiracy to possess cocaine from the night of his arrest[4]. The criminal trial ended in August 1990 with a conviction for only one possession incident, which had occurred in November 1989, and an acquittal on the other one. “I believe [the government was] out to get Marion Barry,” one juror said. U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson declared a mistrial on the 12 deadlocked charges[5]. The mayor was sentenced to six months in prison but came back to win a council seat in 1992 then rose, again, to claim the office of the mayor in 1994, where he remained for two terms[6].


Cecily McMillan

Works Cited

[1] Washington Post Obituary

[2] Of Course it Was Entrapment – Washington Post

[3] The Nine Lives of Marion Barry

[4] Charges and Verdicts in Barry’s Trial
[5] Chasm Divided Jurors in Barry Drug Trial
[6] Marion Barry: Making of a Mayor


Ranking Races in Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala

Note: I have tried to keep this entry spoiler-free, so as not to discourage those who haven’t seen Mississippi Masala from finally watching this slightly-cheesy but lovingly-made film. It’s worth a watch if only because it’s one of the few films of that era (well, probably even now) that does not feature any main characters who are white: enjoy this large serving of melanin with a cup of spicy chai. But not that shit from the coffee conglomerate down the street. Warning: only one in ten American “chai” lattes is actually anything close to authentic chai.

The immigrants’-child-American-citizen experience that’s been successfully mined in shows like Master of None and Fresh Off the Boat made one of its first appearances in America when Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala hit screens in 1992.

Nair was born in 1957 to a Punjabi couple in India. Her father was a civil servant, so Mira and her family moved several times, and Mira herself later lived in several different places including the United States and Uganda.

(A Young Mira Nair)

As its title suggests, Mississippi Masala takes place in the southern state of Mississippi, a prominent part of the notoriously conservative Bible belt, still glowing with ghosts of its dark plantation slavery past.

My dad came to Atlanta, another of the South’s treasured gems, in the late 1970s after the city played a significant role in the Civil Rights Movements of the 60’s. He had friends who were attending Georgia Tech, and he attended Atlanta University to earn a Master’s in Business. He was heavily influenced by the blaxploitation films of the era, but, honestly, a lot of men, especially men of color, had gone all in on the macho magnetism of Richard Roundtree and carefully trimmed and greased their hair into Imitation Afros and thick, porkchop sideburns. It was a look they could actually recreate, and their plaid bell-bottoms and leather jackets completed the look in a comically dashing, or maybe dashingly comic, way. My dad seemed to absorb qualities of the black and white men he came to know, while honing his best Indian self with his friend family of other South Indian immigrants. He loved to listen to his folk and film songs from India, but he also sang along to Lou Rawls and Dolly Parton – he still loves the chorus of “Jolene.”

When Indian immigrants found each other, they tended to stick together, teaching each other where to find the right spices for their home-cooked food and how to do laundry and clean their homes – things they were never asked to do in India, where mothers, maids, sisters — basically, women — handled those chores for them. The wives they brought over also faced several firsts together, and, together, they learned how to pay mortgages, buy cars, get loans, attend universities. Their still-thick accents and obviously-ethnic looks might have alienated them from mainstream America, but they found comfort in each other and the warmth of Americans who did want to learn about another culture: one rich with tastes, traditions, and stories that their new brown friends were so eager to share with them in an effort to keep their memories of home safe from erasure. Immigration led to both situational hybridity (the forced mixing seen in public transit, schools, neighborhoods) and organic hybridity (the sharing that occurred wherever people eventually figured out how to work, learn, and live alongside each other, picking up bits and pieces of each other’s cultures until they formed a mosaic created by thousands of fine pieces).

Not everyone got along so harmoniously, though. In America and beyond, people of color, who had been displaced and dispersed throughout the world during the Imperialist Era, sometimes found it extremely difficult to collaborate, not compete, with each other.

East African countries and India share an extensive history, especially in regard to the trade they conducted via the Indian Ocean. (Some research even suggests that the roots of Rastafarianism can be found in ancient Hindu worship of Lord Shiva – a dark-skinned lord with matted, dreadlocked hair whose rishis, intense devotees, seemed to feel closest to Him while experiencing the highs of ganja, also known as marijuana – but that’s a different entry for a different sort of platform.)

However, some Indian immigrants of the 70’s wave arrived as exiles after Idi Amin commanded them to leave Uganda, indicting them for earning a disproportionate amount of money while native Ugandans struggled to compete – an echo of anti-immigrant sentiments which were also rising in America. Though the most vocal opponents of immigration were usually white, many black and brown Americans were also seeing such different faces for the first time, and the immigrants brought their own prejudices about skin color, class, and “appropriate” behavior from back home.

My personal experience with race-mixing was closer to that of the protagonist of Mississippi Masala. (Though, sadly, I did not fall in love with a handsomely adorable young black man with a blue-collar job and gold-colored heart.)

I grew up first in Atlanta, then Columbus, GA, attended a predominantly white Judeo-Christian private school, and spent too many years looking like Steve Urkel wearing one of Blossom’s or Brandy’s hats. There were about 15-20 Indian-American kids in my school, a smattering of Asian and Latino kids, and a few black students. My childhood was filled with Indian culture. My dad is a storyteller at heart, a master of voices and comic timing who thrilled me with Indian folktales and memories of his family’s village.

My parents loved to host large music parties during which they and their friends (The Greencard Fellowship, if you will) brought their instruments and sang, danced, and played cards well into the wee hours of the morning. My mother loved classical Indian music and dance; she enrolled me in Bharatha Natyam classes when I was four and became my dance mom and makeup artist for the next twenty years. My grandmother loved to knit and sew, and she was my source for Hindu mythology. My mother loved pointing out how “new trends” in America, like recycling or organic food or yoga, were old hat or common practice already in India. “Water conservation? India has been conserving water for centuries. Even in my house, we kept the cold water in a big well, and we’d only heat up whatever we needed for our bath, and we used to mix the hot and cold water in a bucket and use a big cup to pour the water. These showers you love so much waste so much water.” Then she’d passive-aggressively add “India did it first” in the same tone all moms use whenever they decide to eventually tell you “I told you so” before smiling smugly and returning to their Reader’s Digests.

All of this kept me deeply rooted in my culture even while I (unsuccessfully) wore Hammer pants, listened to Michael Jackson’s Bad while dancing in the kitchen with my mom, and, later, rapped along with Coolio. (Yes, Coolio. At least I’m brave enough to admit it, unlike y’all in the back who are chuckling. Stop. You know what you did. All of us 90’s Kids know, deep down inside, just like we all secretly know the lyrics to “Ice, Ice Baby.”)

Unlike Mina, one of MM’s main characters, I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to India several times. During the 90’s, when India was largely still healing from the devastating effects of the British Empire’s cruel reign, going there was neither the romanticized nor poverty-porn experience we’d come to associate with Exotic India, and while I felt connected to my supposed “homeland” though I was here in America, it was very easy to feel like the outsider I was once I was actually there.

In America, I felt most comfortable with other girls of color, and one of my best friends was (and still is!) the daughter of an immigrant from Nigeria, and I’ve recently realized how much of the “second-generation” experience we shared together. However, underneath these fun cultural exchanges and communities of support were also racist sentiments, which went mostly unaddressed in any significant way.

Sadly, whether the stereotyping and subtle fear of other cultures and colors was (a) the product of hatred deliberately spread and managed by the British Empire in an attempt to prevent Indian people from rising together to defeat them, (b) beliefs they heard at home in India, (c) paranoia they felt as strangers in a new country, or (d) naivete in the face of caricatures they saw on TV and heard in a language they didn’t fully understand, some of our parents’ private conversations about politics or religion sometimes carried tinges of racism that were never mentioned outside the home. Once my fellow second-gens started going to college, we realized that many Hindu parents raised their kids with almost the same set of rules: never score less than a 99 on any test, never forget the name of a relative (especially one in India), and never bring home a romantic partner – oh, and also, never, never come home if you are discovered with one who is White, Black, or Muslim. They eventually caved on the White thing, but the doors to the others remained firmly shut.

Radharani Ray’s article describes the kind of racism we saw within the Indian community and other immigrant groups. For one, colorism runs deep in Indian culture, as it does in most non-white ones. Women cover their faces and stay out of the sun in order to avoid becoming dark, store shelves are stacked full of skin lightening products, and families hope and pray for fair-skinned children and grandchildren, as dark skin can sometimes ruin job and marriage prospects. This fear of The Dark — perhaps another damaging effect of Imperialist propaganda meant to demean and divide native citizens — might have influenced the way some Indian immigrants interacted with (or avoided) other people of color.

At other times, these tensions more resembled classism, one serving as a coded cover for the other. Some immigrants from India came from middle-class or wealthy families and never told their loved ones back home that they worked part-time in restaurants or big box stores to supplement their meagre student allowances; other ones scrimped and saved to collect the funds to finally come to America, but once they invested what little they had in founding small business and motels, they moved up the class chain and sent as much money as they could back home. In time, like the Indians who fled Uganda, some Indian immigrants in America faced resentment from other non-white groups that were still struggling hard to achieve their American dreams, and some of those successful immigrants felt uncomfortable speaking out against racism for fear of alienating white people who they now worked with and for – they didn’t want to lose the newfound American-ness they worked so hard to develop, and they didn’t want to lose the security of the paychecks they worked so hard to earn after climbing out of abject poverty without running water or lights at home. At times, they falsely believed that their financial success was proof of their superiority over others. generally, whenever different non-white races collided, they seemed to silently acknowledge the cutthroat competition they were all lodged in, trying to climb closest to “White” or “Success,” which was still largely defined as “White” in the 90’s.

The conflicts in Mississippi Masala are reflective of this not-so-subtle “Fine, I’m not winning, but I’m not losing as badly as you are” attitude. Who’s always suing whom, who is racist despite being only a couple of shades lighter than the other, who can’t be trusted — these are questions that swirl around in the film’s dialogues, and the conclusion seems to be that a genuine connection is what truly defines a relationship between two people or a person and a place.

Mississippi Masala – Racial Tensions

Mira and Demetrius fall in love because they shared senses of humor, interests, similar relationships with their families, and desires to find something bigger than themselves and/or Mississippi. Kum-Kum Bhavnani notes bell hooks’s and Anuradha Dingwaney’s criticisms of the film, which focus on its oversimplification of the race issue: “love conquers all” is an empty cry when followed by a reminder of the bloody lynchings and the savage institution of slavery which occurred in Mississippi and abroad as a result of racist beliefs and practices. This movie makes an unrevolutionary, mostly sentimental statement. But the narratives of Mississippi Masala’s Jai and Mina show, however, that racial identity is ambiguous, since Jai says that despite his Indian birth he feels most at home in Uganda, and Mina reminds her parents that she is not Indian but  American, and class and race aren’t supposed to matter in America (Ray 171-2). When her mother explains that she and Mina’s dad are supposed to look out for their daughter, she adds a question loaded with fear a few immigrants felt about trusting “others” in a strange country away from the careful eyes of extended family and people with seemingly similar values: “if we don’t, who will?”

Mississippi Masala – Mina’s Complex Identity


Bringing America, India, and Uganda together highlights the reality Paul Gilroy brought attention to in Black Atlantic: that non-white cultures have always been tied together and existed in both situational and organic hybridity. The issue of assimilation, though, remained.  The 90’s was a decade of figuring out where these lines and boundaries between our separate worlds exist, and how, or if, they should be broken down or replaced with new ones. When I started going to school in Columbus with other Indian-American kids, I watched some of them keep the “Indian” part of “Indian-American” under wraps with ethnically ambiguous names like Neil, Nina, Jay. Over the years, we gradually became more confident sharing the other half of our identities with our classmates, but oddly enough, though we hung out often outside of school, we lived fairly separate lives at school so as not to seem like we were deliberately clumping together.

Meanwhile, in the early 2000’s, Bobby Jindal’s brief success in post-Katrina New Orleans seemed like evidence of this romantic notion of assimilation, but a closer look at his personal history reveals another reality that’s just as complex as the first: “Bobby” was born Piyush Jindal before he officially changed his name to match the youngest Brady boy (no, really), converted from Hinduism to Catholicism, and said, when he and his wife were asked if they kept up with any Indian traditions in their home, some version of “No, we’ve been raised as Americans. We do American things like other Americans who love America like we do since we’re all Americans.” I have vivid memories around that same time of attending a small rally for another Indian-American political candidate who claimed that even though he looked different, he was just as Southern as anyone else in that room on Georgia Tech campus; he even had a coon dog and a white wife. (Surprise!)

So, assimilate or separate? Play the game or create our own new games?

Mississippi Masala was less an answer to those questions and more a presentation of those questions on both smaller and larger scales (a small town in Mississippi, a small town in Uganda, and both cities sort of transferred onto those transparency sheets our teachers still used back then and laid on top of each other to show how those cities fit into the larger diaspora) and for its viewers’ consideration. In the 90’s, viewers of color saw themselves featured centrally in a film, and some white viewers saw Mina and other Indian faces for the first time, at least outside of a restaurant, a motel, or The Simpsons.

Thanks to Mira Nair, Americans, new and old, had at least some alternatives to Apu.

Radhika Nataraj

Works Cited

Bejarano, Christina, Gary Segura. “What Goes Around, Comes Around: Race, Blowback, and the Louisiana Elections of 2002 and 2003.” Political Research Quarterly, vol. 60, no. 2, pp. 328-37.

Bhavani, Kum-Kum. “Organic Hybridity or Commodification of Hybridity? Comments on Mississippi Masala. Meridians, vol. 1, no. 1, 2000, pp. 187-203.

 Desai, Gaurav. “Oceans Connect: The Indian Ocean and African Identities.” PMLA, vol. 125, no. 3, 2010, pp. 713-20.

Ray, Radharani. “Interrogating Race in Mississippi Masala.” Race, Gender, & Class. vol. 8, no. 4, 2001, pp. 155-75.

Taylor, Ian. “India’s Rise in Africa.” International Affairs, vol. 88, no. 4, 2012, pp. 779-98.


Venus and Serena Williams: From Compton to the Courts

With big smiles and several tiny braids adorned with colorful beads, the Williams sisters arrived on the tennis courts that never saw them coming. Legend (and a snippet from an E! True Hollywood Story) has it that their father Richard, who worked security before the sisters were born, once watched the winner of a women’s tennis match collect a check for more money than he’d ever made and prophesied his future daughters’ domination of the tennis world. He trained them on courts near their home in Compton, California – the same hood where those O.G.s of Gangsta Rap, Dr. Dre and Snoop, put both their raps and their macks down.

But, well, back to the lecture at hand.

Serena, Venus, and their five siblings were raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses in a part of Compton that didn’t make it to music videos: the wholly unglamorous one-story homes with picket fences surrounding small backyards. The Williams family led a fairly routine, “normal” life which included several hours of early morning tennis practice followed by home-school lessons. In a brazen move, while affluent parents sought expensive and exclusive lessons for their future tennis champions, Mr. Williams initially coached the girls himself after teaching himself the game via instructional videos. This tension between the carefully crafted game of prestige and the scrappy, can-do attitude of the Williamses played out in myriad ways, some nuanced and some blatant.

The Williams Sisters – Their Rise to Fame

Williams continued to coach the girls, only sending the girls to Brentwood coaches and tennis academies every now and then, and he boldly chose to keep his daughters out of the junior tennis circuits, where products of elite training schools competed for press and notoriety. The Williams Sisters’ sudden appearance on the courts seemed to shock the country club crowd that didn’t seem previously exposed to such… diversity.

They were viewed by some as disrespectful disturbers of the tennis circuit’s norms. Their powerful strength game visibly differed from the precision and speed game the beiger players had meticulously cultivated, and their absence from the prep schools and junior tournaments appeared to confirm their lack of “proper” training and etiquette.

Several platforms sustained efforts to subtly critique sisters’ background, family bond, dress/hair style, athletic strength. The intense media surveillance of them almost seemed determined to “keep an eye” on what was considered a threat. The media tried to downplay the sisters’ major achievements, their contributions to the black community, and their obvious inherent talent. But neither Venus nor Serena made an effort to hide signifiers of black culture and style, like braids, or their cultivation of outside interests, and the black community often voiced praise of the young women who had already broken barriers just by stepping onto those courts and appearing in the news articles which noted black talent, black excellence, and just overall black girl magic.

Even as they faced criticism from their peers for being aloof and daring to pursue educations, they quickly caught Corporate America’s attention and signed lucrative endorsement deals, one with Reebok for $12,000, 000 over five years.

The family continued on The Glow Up (that Concept Formerly Known as The American Dream): Venus was representing international brand, they bought a mansion in Florida with its own tennis courts, and the girls started to attend a noteworthy private school. The Williams were following the footsteps of Althea Gibson, who was the only African-American woman to win a Grand Slam title before Venus and Serena basically won the 90’s – they won their first Doubles title in 1998 and the U.S. Open Doubles title in 1999, the same year Serena defeated longtime champion Martina Hingis to win the U.S. Open Grand Slam. Their international tennis rankings skyrocketed; their investments of time and hard work were finally paying off, and they would eventually continue on to win the 00’s. But performing on a larger stage brought even more visible racist sentiments to the forefront.

Serena, in particular, was routinely attacked for qualities white culture has often attributed to black women. In the 1800s, Saartjie Baartman (“Hottentot Venus”), a South African woman, was brought to London in 1810 as a symbol of racial difference (and the supposed superiority of white beauty) and placed in a circus display alongside conjoined twins, dwarfs, and other alleged “deviants.”

“… Hottentot was assigned the role of a creature bridging human and animal realms” (Strother, 4).

According to their father, the Williams sisters were trained to be “warriors,” “attack dogs.” But the media and several tennis enthusiasts ridiculed and chastised them for their “beast-like” physical appearances, “lewd” athletic wear, and “angry” outbursts. They tended to characterize Serena and Venus using some of the most common stereotypes of black women: overly sexualized women (who chose to wear outfits they liked whether or not those clothes highlighted physical features that tennis viewers were not used to seeing) and angry black women (who dared to express basic human emotions like frustration without wearing a mask to protect the “delicate” sensibilities of an audience famous for its dignified silence and barely audible clapping).

During the 1997 U.S. Open Women’s Singles Semi-Final match between an unseeded Venus and an 11th-seeded Irina Spirlea, both players bumped into each other as they customarily switched sides during a changeover. Williams said neither of them were looking where they were going; Spirlea said she expected Venus to move out of the way.

Venus Williams_Irina Spirlea US Open “Bump”

“She’s not going to turn … I’ve done it all the time, I turn. But she just walks. I wanted to see if she was going to turn. She didn’t.” – Irina Spirlea (This is the clean version of the quote. Make your best guess for which obscenity she used to describe Venus.)

Such inane controversies were veiled attempts to subdue the sisters who would routinely take long breaks from the game, only to come back stronger and more determined to embarrass those who underestimated them.

Venus and Serena continue to raise questions about what it means to be feminine, beautiful, strong, black, successful, wealthy, and sisters; despite their numerous successes, they also unfortunately still encounter racism, forcing them to boycott tournaments and defend themselves when they choose to finally fight  back. Their eagerly and bitterly watched debut in the 90’s served as a harsh reminder that the black athleticism which white audiences celebrated on basketball courts and football fields did not translate to women’s sports, especially one which still requires its players to dress in all white for certain tournaments. But their exuberance in play and dignity in the face of charged attacks and elitist snubbing also won them many fans who finally saw themselves represented in uncharted territory.

— Radhika Nataraj

Works Cited

  • Alexander, Rachel. “Open Final Lands on Venus.” Washington Post, 6 Sept. 1997, p. B1.
  • Bass-Adams, Valerie N., Keisha L. Bentley-Edwards, Howard C. Stevenson. “That Not the Me I see on TV…! African American Youth Interpret Media Images of Black Females.” Women, Gender, and Families of Color, vol. 2, no. 1, 2014, pp. 79-100.
  • Douglas, Delia. “Venus, Serena, and the Inconspicuous Consumption of Blackness: A Commentary on Surveillance, Race Talk, and New Racism(s).” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 43, no. 2, 2012, pp. 127-45.
  • Hobson, Janell. “The ‘Batty’ Politic: Toward an Aesthetic of the Black Female Body.” Hypatia, vol. 18, no. 4, 2003, pp. 87-105.
  • Strother, Z.S. “Display of the body Hottentot.” Africans on Stage, Indiana UP, 1999, pp. 1-
  • Wright, Joshua. “Be Like Mike? The Black Athlete’s Dilemma.” Spectrum: A Journal on Black Men, vol. 4, no. 2, 2016, pp. 1-19.


Tiger Woods Wins The 1997 Masters


On April 13, 1997, 21-year-old Tiger Woods became the first person of African and Asian decent to win the golf Masters at Augusta National in Georgia. The win was a pivotal moment in history for African Americans. The race finally received well-deserved recognition in the sport. For years, African American golfers were overshadowed by other white competitors. Under the racist policy of America’s lynching, financial oppression, and other acts of hatred, Black men carried their golf game on. Some like Charlie Sifford and Lee Elder went on to stellar careers and became well known. But many others such as Teddy Rhodes, James Black, Bill Spiller, Nathaniel Starks, and Joe Roach never got that opportunity.

Not only did Tiger Woods win the Masters, but he also broke a record by scoring the lowest in the tournament’s history. Woods’s 72-hole score, an amazing 18-under-par 270, was the lowest in the tournament history and shattered a record of 271 shared by Jack Nicklaus and Raymond Floyd. After the win, African Americans were extremely proud of the athlete and his success in the sport; however, the celebration by fellow professional golfers was short lived. Long time PGA tour golfer Fuzzy Zoeller was asked on his feelings about Woods having such a record breaking tournament. Zoeller acknowledged Woods’ stellar tournament, calling his play “pretty impressive,” but quickly retorted, “The little boy is driving it well is doing everything it takes to win…tell him to enjoy it, and to not serve fried chicken next year…or collard greens, or whatever they serve.” Zoeller was referring to the Masters dinner, held each year on the Wednesday before the tournament. The year’s previous winner gets to decide the menu. Playing on tired and hateful stereotypes to make a cheap joke landed Zoeller in hot water. Woods ultimately forgave Zoeller, but it was obvious that golf (and the Masters Tournament) had deep issues with race. Even until the 1980’s one of Augusta National’s founders insisted that the caddies were only to be African American. It took an African American winner to for that ugly past and its enduring legacy to be confronted. It’s still being confronted, too. Sergio Garcia made a similar “fried chicken” comment regarding Tiger in 2012 (Nixon).

On April 24, 1997, a post-Masters interview between Tiger Woods and Oprah Winfrey aired and caused many African Americans to see their golf champion in a different light. During the interview, Winfrey asked Woods, “What do you call yourself?” Tiger answered: “Growing up, I came up with this name: I’m a Cablinasian.” Tiger Woods continued by explaining his multi-racial background saying how he is a mix of half Asian (Chinese and Thai), one-quarter African American, one-eighth Native American and one-eighth Dutch.

Woods with his mother and father

As stated previously, Tiger Woods’s claim of “Cablinasian” descent outraged many African Americans. Some even referred to him as a “sell-out.” Many would agree that the one-drop rule should be applied to Tiger’s situation, however, some have argued that Tiger Woods should not have to deny more than half his racial ethnicity to please black America. Woods was certainly aware of his ethnicity in 1997 and continued to be throughout his career and even today. He isn’t disowning Blackness by combining it with Asian and Caucasian. (Though it’s certainly worth an examination of the order of ethnicity in “Cablinasian”). An NAACP board member at the time, Julian Bond, countered the backlash of the Oprah Winfrey interview with saying, “As proud as I am of Tiger Woods, I realize I have to share him. He is part of a new reality. If people don’t feel comfortable with that, they are going to have to get comfortable with it”(Fletcher).

In light of the scandal that culminated in his divorce from his wife and a stint at a rehabilitation center, it’s worth reexamining Woods’ impact on golf. He hasn’t won a major since 2008, yet is considered one of the most popular golfers on the tour. His comments regarding race were met with angst from some white and black people, but has Woods’ enduring popularity and skill allowed him to transcend race? He certainly has the earnings to do so, earning hundreds of millions of dollars since his 1997 Masters win.  He never has attempted to “cancel his blackness”; Woods could have let Sergio Garcia’s fried chicken comment slide, but instead, he addressed it by saying, “The comment that was made wasn’t silly,” and categorized it as “wrong, hurtful, and inappropriate” (Nixon). Woods never tried to  downplay his blackness by fully addressing hate speech. If anything, Woods is trying to be more inclusive by representing the multiple ethnicity’s he identifies with. Perhaps that is why Woods continues to appeal to a diverse crowd of people.

Jamari Devine, edited by Jeff Brown

Fletcher, Michael. “Tiger Woods Says He’s Not Just Black,” The Seattle Times. April 23, 1997.

Nixon, Khari, “TIGER WOODS NEVER SAID HE WASN’T BLACK,” Mass Appeal, May 31, 2017.