In light of Black History Month, volunteer writer Vanessa Okonji pays homage to Serena Williams and Althea Gibson; also sharing her views on what Black History Month should represent and its standing in the UK
October. What may come to the minds of many when they hear the month of October has begun? Perhaps a time to: dress up for Halloween or the month where women and girls are reminded of the severity of breast cancer. Well, for me as a Black-British woman, alongside these significant days and events – I have to experience October as a month where my history is also shared.
A common question shared throughout the month is ‘who inspires me the most?’ and the only person who comes to mind is Serena Williams. Williams’ experience in tennis reflects the reality that many women who look like me have faced. Misogynoir (misogyny directed towards black women) has been a battle throughout her career which she still endures today. The media has attacked Serena for her muscular physique and associated it with being too strong and too ‘manly’ for a woman. Yet, these criticisms did not hold her back. In her own words, she has stated:
“Think of all the girls who could become top athletes but quit sports because they’re afraid of having too many defined muscles and being made fun of or called unattractive.” https://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/life/serena-williams-13-best-quotes-motherhood-victory-sexy/williams/
Serena inspires me because she did not let the negativity from the media and those in the tennis profession hold her back. Her dedication to the game as one of the best tennis players in history has and will inspire millions of young women no matter their race. Her passion and commitment teaches women to never let anyone hold them back from achieving their dreams.
But Serena was not the first black female tennis player to face these adversities. Racial segregation in the US prevented black Americans from associating with white Americans in tennis. At a time when black players were banned from entering tournaments that their white counterparts excelled in – Althea Gibson rose. Black players were not allowed to participate in the US National Championships leading them to create their own association and tournament.
Despite the restrictions placed upon Gibson, the Harlem native reigned in the tennis profession during the 1950s by breaking and setting records. In 1956, she was the first black person to win the Grand Slam title at the French Championships and a year later she was the first black person to win at the Wimbledon Final in 1957. Althea Gibson became an inspiration for black female tennis players, as she pioneered in a profession dominated by the people who oppressed her.
To no surprise, Gibson has not received the acknowledgement that she deserves and I believe more can be done to make people aware of those removed from history. Those who have remained unrecognised for their accomplishments should be taught more in schools outside of Black History Month. As a historian, I know the importance and significance of knowing the truth. Alongside this, what is considered ‘black history’ needs to be broadened and not centred on African-American history. I believe there is a limitation in the way black history is studied in schools and different histories should be assessed. I find it strange that the history taught in British schools, does not delve into the Black-British experience at the least. There is a large focus on African-American history and black people do not only come from the US. The Windrush Generation, the creation of Notting Hill Carnival and the first four MPs in Parliament should be but a few of the historical events discussed in schools. Young black people should not have to research their own history alone because the curriculum neglects the history of those who look like them and come from similar backgrounds to them.
Outside of Black History Month, more needs to be done for Black people living in this country which starts with education. Perhaps more can be done with discussions being carried out during this month.
Header by Label’s Assistant Head of Design Christos Alamaniotis
Article Edited by Uchenna Omo-Bamawo – Culture Editor