A Place for Grief : Rethinking Responses to Serena Williams' U.S. Open Performance by Shayna S. Israel
On this day of mourning, I reflect on the power of what it means to grieve. On this day, September 11th, seventeen years ago, I was a little girl from Brooklyn in the library of my high school, 90 miles away from New York City. That summer, I recently moved into the “Girls’ House” of the A Better Chance boarding school program, just outside a suburb of Philadelphia. In that library, like millions of Americans, I watched the towers fall in a plume of ash and smoke. From the hallways, I ran in, to find a TV after I heard the first tower had been hit, and saw the plane hit the second tower. My mouth dropped open. The librarian saw me, came and stood next to me, watching beside me. I could not believe what I was seeing. I felt helpless, from my 90 miles away.
The effects from that day are still rippling. The rolls are increasing by hundreds of applicants each month at the World Trade Center Health Program . Fire Fighters, first responders and recovery workers at Ground Zero are still suffering health and lung disease complications . Nearly 7,000 U.S. soldiers and 800,000 civilians died in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars . The people who lost their lives in those towers, nearly 3,000.
Years later I returned to New York City. This time working security at Vesey Street at the American Express tower in Lower Manhattan, after graduating college. At the AmEx tower, there is a reflective pool. Surrounding the pool are the faces of the AmEx employees who died that day. From the ceiling there are syncopated falling drops of water. Right above the pool's surface hovering--giant quartz crystal. The onyx colored pool doesn’t allow you to see in, only your reflection behind the placards telling the stories of the lives lost.
We have monuments for a reason. They help us place our mourning—and our anger, too.
In the frenzy following 9/11, there were calls for retribution that drowned out the voices calling out for thorough investigations, healing and rebuilding. People were angry, justifiably angry—and were seeking some locatable place or person on whom to unleash it.
Anger is a tricky thing. It like all emotions, must go somewhere—and like all emotions, derives from some place good. Emotions, even those inspired by the best intentions, can get corrupted along the way, amplified or misplaced.
Many Arab and Muslim-Americans in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks were targets of over 600 “vigilante attacks and threats” . Many Muslim-Americans began self-policing and working with law enforcement in counterterrorist and de-radicalization initiatives . Yes, there is, like in all communities, a radical fringe wing that does not represent the views and predilections of the group as a whole. The increase in terrorist attacks that the country that has seen since has been in the rise of domestic terrorism by lone gunmen.
Seventeen years later, two wars later, are we safer—and have we fully grieved those we have lost? In some ways, yes. In some ways, we still, as a country have a long way to go.
There are stages to grief. Healing from it is a process. Grief unattended sometimes becomes so bottled that it ferments in to anger.
What have we as Americans not grieved?
The Unite the Right events in Charlottesville, the protests in Ferguson, the Women’s March on Washington, have all shown us that we are still reeling over many of the legacies of injustice in our society. We have shown healthy ways to respond to our grievances. The Black Lives Matter movement offers a multi-race coalition around police brutality; there have been the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas organizing across the country to bring awareness to gun control; there have been a huge wave of minority candidates running for elected office unequalled in the country’s history including women, LGBTQ, people of color—and Muslim candidates. We have made progress. We have a ways to go.
I talk about 9/11 in a post about the Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka because I want us as a country to make a connection between what happened on that tennis court, at the Arthur Ashe Stadium and how the country deals with anger.
Williams got angry—justifiably angry. Carlos Ramos got testy—justifiably testy. I would argue that he, too, got angry and used a technicality to unleash his anger on an already tense situation. What I want to highlight is: We have two models of how Americans get angry. Williams' rage was easily locatable, easier to point at. Ramos' rage was more evasive and masked, yet no less forceful in that his call ended Williams' and Osaka's well-matched, high-stakes game. Both Williams and Ramos equally escalated their anger such that the stunning performance by Naomi Osaka was eclipsed. (By the way, one of her returns clocked in at 114mph. Impressive!)
Anger is a need. Nikki Giovanni at the assignation of Dr. Martin Luther King wrote a poem where she questioned the "rightness" in trying to tell a lover how to mourn for a beloved . What Giovanni was bringing into focus is that when we are grieving, not all of us can be composed--someone needs to be angry.
Williams was angry, but according to Juliet Macur, at the wrong time about the right issue. Macur writes, “Let’s be clear: Tennis has a problem with gender equality,” she continues, in writing about Ms. Williams, “She completely had the right message about women’s inequality, but it wasn’t the right time to bring it up” . Macur’s piece is a poignant one to read. It is balanced in its perspective on each of the three persons involved, Williams, Ramos and Osaka.
"When we are grieving, not all of us can be composed--someone needs to be angry."
In an article titled, “How Neko Case Finally Unleashed Her Feminist Rage,” Joe Coscarelli interviews singer Neko Case on her new album “Hell-On," released earlier this summer, where “she confronts challenges and celebrates the power she was able to unlock.” While unlocking righteous feminist outrage, she also unraveled a depth of grief. Last year a fire decimated Case’s village and home in Vermont. Singing helped her process much of her grief. The blaze consumed a barn full of horses, dogs, cats and baby chickens. Case, distraught, described the aftermath of the tragedy—as “a seven-car pileup of emotions” . She’s still reeling from it.
Serena Williams, while justifiably angry, may have, in slamming her racket, demonstrated a visible representation of a “seven-car pileup of emotions.” Her finger wag at Ramos while calling him a thief and asking for him to apologize, may have been a larger plea to have a decade and a half of slights and overt bigotry that she had not fully placed—placed. Her finger wagging was pointing to a need: She wanted her pain recognized.
Anger is a call to transfer tensions from a resulting hurt to a structured, definitive place that can handle it, dissipate it or meet its need.
Ms. Williams has much to grieve. Most recently, after giving birth and all of the emotions that come with it. She suffered life-threatening complications that followed. She may have needed some time to mourn—the trauma to her body, the many years of vociferous commentary about her body--before getting back onto the court. She may have needed an intimate memorial, a place to put her grief.