Serena Williams: The Change

Laurie says:

This blog is a huge fan of the Williams sisters, Serena and Venus, as athletes and as world changers. I saw Serena winning the US Open and then found this poem in a post on A Philosopher’s Life.



The Change by Tony Hoagland

The season turned like the page of a glossy fashion magazine.
In the park the daffodils came up
and in the parking lot, the new car models were on parade.

Sometimes I think that nothing really changes –

The young girls show the latest crop of tummies,
and the new president proves that he’s a dummy.

but remember the tennis match we watched that year?
Right before our eyes

some tough little European blonde
pitted against that big black girl from Alabama,
cornrowed hair and Zulu bangles on her arms,
some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite –

We were just walking past the lounge
and got sucked in by the screen above the bar,
and pretty soon
we started to care about who won,

putting ourselves into each whacked return
as the volleys went back and forth and back
like some contest between
the old world and the new,

and you loved her complicated hair
and her to-hell-with-everybody stare,
and I,
I couldn’t help wanting
the white girl to come out on top,
because she was one of my kind, my tribe,
with her pale eyes and thin lips

and because the black girl was so big
and so black,
so unintimidated,

hitting the ball like she was driving the Emancipation Proclamation
down Abraham Lincoln’s throat,
like she wasn’t asking anyone’s permission.

There are moments when history
passes you so close
you can smell its breath,
you can reach your hand out
and touch it on its flank,

and I don’t watch all that much Masterpiece Theatre,
but I could feel the end of an era there

in front of those bleachers full of people
in their Sunday tennis-watching clothes

as that black girl wore down her opponent
then kicked her ass good
then thumped her once more for good measure

and stood up on the red clay court
holding her racket over her head like a guitar.

And the little pink judge
had to climb up on a box
to put the ribbon on her neck,
still managing to smile into the camera flash,
even though everything was changing

and in fact, everything had already changed –

Poof, remember? It was the twentieth century almost gone,
we were there,

and when we went to put it back where it belonged,
it was past us
and we were changed.

from What Narcissism Means to Me © Graywolf Press.

4 thoughts on “Serena Williams: The Change

  1. Tony Hoagland’s poem is hugely controversial to say the least. The comments section at A Philosopher’s Life has some of the relevant links.

    I tend to agree with sonya (

    “The issue with this poem is that while it acknowledges change is coming, it does so from a lens that dehumanizes and exoticizes this Black player(Black people)thus negating any real change. The dehumanization of people of color is the foundational reality that ensures the enshrining of racism and ultimately systemic and structural oppressions. All of the characters in this poem who begrudged this enormous, aggressive, brash, obnoxious Black woman her title, all ultimately play a role in her experience and trauma moving through the world. The question for me as a Black woman reader is, what am I to do in this world where the majority of people, see me as the speaker sees this tennis player (a caricature). Whether I want to be Vondella Aphrodite or not, I am. Not just to the speaker in the poem but unfortunately to the eyes of readers who knowingly or unknowingly relate to the poem. A willingness to acknowledge that one is a bigot is not enough. I would hope the poet would own a sense of responsibility in dismantling that within himself and within his readers through his work. If that is not an intention, I am not sure how anything more than thin, superfluous “Change” will ever be achieved.”

  2. Lori,

    I’m really glad you brought this up. The issues of representation are important and I agree with Sonya’s comment on the writer’s lens and certainly the language can be deeply hurtful.

    I posted the poem viewing it from a different lens, because for me it effectively expressed change “in spite of” rather then”because of”.

    The “because of” change we want is when people genuinely see their prejudices, understand them, overcome them, take responsibility and truly behave differently.

    The change for me in the poem shows the power of the Williams sisters’ presence in tennis “in spite of” the deep prejudices in the white audience. I think it is a tribute to their power that they can have this effect. It’s not the change we want at the end of the road, but it is a part of what needs to happen.

    A lot of the positive developments I’ve seen in my life have been “in spite of”. A good example is: when I was growing up in the 50’s blatant racist speech became unacceptable. Peoples’ minds may not have been changed but their behavior had, and that was part of the larger social change of the period.

    The poet’s privileged self contempt and the representational language Sonya talks about angers me and I think the poem effectively reflects the way some change happens.

  3. I personally don’t think the poem works in part because it presumes a white audience — it’s such a “white person talking to white people” poem I can’t even say, and even Hoagland himself owns that — and partly because of master’s tools etc. More importantly, I was very concerned to see this poem presented without commentary because the discussion around it was so huge and imho so important. It’s clearly ambiguous enough for many, many readers that to just sit there beneath a picture of Serena is very disturbing to me (and not just me).

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