Shortly before that incident, I became aware of the controversy surrounding American tennis' latest female hopeful. In a publicized interview, Sloane Stephens, rising star, dared to criticize Serena Williams, currently number one female tennis player in the world and fifteen times Grand Slam trophy snatcher with a total of fifty-one career titles. Sloane has three titles but no Grand Slam—yet—and to get there she has to play and beat the big dogs. At nineteen years of age and ranked number twenty-nine at the time, she beat Serena in the quarterfinals at the Australia Open this past January, one of the four major tournaments (Grand Slams), the other three being the French Open, aka Roland Garros, England's Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open. Towards the beginning of the third set, a frustrated Serena was lead to destroy her racket in a temper tantrum. Sloane did not go on to win the title but she snatched it away from Serena who had been blazing a trail, and put it into the hands of the Belorussian, Victoria Azarenka.
After her upset win, the twenty-year-old Sloane says Serena stopped speaking to her altogether, sent out a tweet saying "I made you", leaving little doubt in most minds who the target of that tweet was, and then 'unfollowed' her on Twitter. Sloane caught a great deal of flack from media sages, and cyber fanatics who have nothing better to do than tweet like twits every fissure in a moment they find. "Whatever you say is going to get blown out of proportion," is what Martina Navratilova had to say. Maybe I should have provided some context for my Facebook posting, suggested my well-meaning critic—who experienced her own gut reaction—so that readers could understand better where I was coming from, that I wasn't being "flippant" about the horrific history of slavery in this country.
Pundit or player? Scholar or artist? Is history sacred? Is art untouchable? Are pop icons and superstars off limits if we don't share their status? I spent a lot of time trying to get a handle on the myriad thoughts and feelings that sprung into my head like wildflowers after a wet rain, surfacing around these two disparate occurrences (Sloane's experience and mine), resulting in even more questions to myself: When does an artist not be true to herself, keep her voice in check, in favor of not appearing sacrilegious? Just putting the questions to page kicks up pesky issues, like shaking a rug out the window dislodges inert particles of existence disturbed into motion.
I have a tendency to philosophize (which can get in the way of making a point, and the one I'm trying to make here is already evasive enough): It is human nature to reduce complexities to manageable dualities. Simplify with contradictions. Build on binaries. Make clear decisions based on opposites. Male or female. Black or white. Sane or insane. Rich or poor. Awareness of the vast expanses existing between two poles becomes mired with the ease of pretending they don't exist because it's easier to deal with extremes, to become polarized, to define something—and ourselves—by what it/we are not. Crossroads happen, creating murky spaces. Lines blur and bleed. I also have a tendency to free write, a natural urge, and a tool that many writers use to get their juices flowing. Both—waxing philosophical and writing off the top—are different manifestations of the same voice.
There it is again. Voice. I wrote about it in a recent blog post. Voice cannot be circumvented. Voice is who you are when you choose to express yourself.
The one sure thing that Sloane and I have in common, aside from being African American women, is we both spoke out. Each used her voice to say what was on her mind at a given moment under a certain set of circumstances.
Bill Macatee, sports broadcaster for the French Open, describes Sloane as "bubbly and unfiltered". This is why she is liked, he explained, for her freshness. I would add that with that freshness comes a certain political naïveté. The Williams sisters have many detractors—and Serena is not always 'warm and fuzzy'—among whom you'll find plenty of black people who, among other things, don't like that the sisters are currently dating non African American men. But they also have a huge support base and following, a great deal of status and respect, and have paid their dues many times over, from being discriminated against on the courts (the blatantly wrong line call in Jennifer Capriati's favor during the 2004 U.S. Open quarterfinals that handed the match to Capriati over Serena), to the murder of their sister, serious injuries, a pulmonary embolism that had Serena believing she would not live much longer, and Venus' diagnosis of Sjorgren's Syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that causes fatigue, and drying of tear ducts and salivary glands.
Putting words into the young players' mouths, senior writer for Sports Illustrated, Jon Wertheim, commented that "...you don't want us to be oatmeal. You want us to have color.." And when they do they get taken to task for it. "You want to be out there. You want to be open and candid...", he said. Now Sloane is criticized for being "robotic" in her interviews, practicing circumspection, wary of putting her foot into her mouth again and incurring even greater disdain from mountaintop dwellers. She has jumped back in line, censored for now. The lesson learned is not to say what she is thinking. In all fairness, this rule of thumb applies to everyone to some extent, and certainly until you learn how to say what's on your mind without pulling the pillars down around you.
My Facebook posting got little attention but I pulled it anyway. The visceral response was too strong to ignore. It settled in for days. I had taken a calculated, sober risk, to the extent of deciding I wanted to post on my recent 'professional' page rather than my 'fun' page which has been around years longer. In my opinion, nothing is taken seriously in terms of art on the 'fun' page. There is way to much going on and, as one Facebook friend recently posted, some people just need to keep a journal. My posting was a creative inspiration and I thought it belonged on my 'professional' page.
Midweek I began to understand what I was feeling. Shame. It wasn't the only emotion, but it was the strongest. It felt like the time I was told as a young girl of eight or nine to go put on a shirt because I was getting too large to go bare-chested. It was a hot summer Sunday in San Antonio and I was twirling like a spinning top with my brothers who were also naked from the waist up. Our chests all looked pretty much identical, but because I was a girl, there was something different about it that I could not see, something that placed a burden on me as a female. I was made to feel that I had done something wrong because it could lead to other things happening, ugly things, that it was in my control to prevent. I had done something morally wrong that I did not understand but which had a profound effect on me.
Shame is a powerful emotion. Toni Morrison writes about shame. It is what distorts and deflects the life of her character, Frank, in Home: "How he had covered his guilt and shame with big-time mourning for his dead buddies. Day and night he held on to that suffering because it let him off the hook... Now the hook was deep inside his chest and nothing would dislodge it."
When we allow ourselves to feel shame, we are viewing ourselves through a moral lens. A powerful lens of inordinate magnitude and power. When we are marked at a very early age with shame, a trigger later in life can cause it to manifest, often disproportionately so to the trigger. I'm not a psychologist; I have lived this. I felt shame that I might have crossed some unspeakable and invisible boundary, that I'd made an awful mistake without knowing it, even after much contemplation. How would I ever know or be able to trust my instincts ever again?
Taking a chance and succeeding means surviving the risk. I didn't. Not this time.
Sloane is toughening up and so am I.
To say or not to say? That is, however, still the question...