It is the 2018 US Open’s Women’s Singles Final. Playing is Japan’s Naomi Osaka, and opposite her is perhaps the most famous tennis player of all time: Serena Williams. A friend of mine speculates, perhaps redundantly but not incorrectly, that this must be an important match to Williams: on home-soil, returning from a complicated child-birth and a series of health concerns, a victory here would be her answer, perhaps, to those detractors that claim she has no place in the sport. This is how the match begins.
But what does this have to do with Claudia Rankine, and her bestseller ‘Citizen: An American Lyric’?
Well, put simply the connection lies in the match’s end: Williams does not win.
During the second set, she is ushered three code violations by umpire Carlos Ramos: for alleged coaching, for racquet abuse, and for verbally abusing the umpire. That her “abuse” hardly compares to the behaviour of unpenalised male players does not matter, and for Williams’ violations, Osaka is first awarded a point lead, and then the next game by default. The match does not continue for a third set; Osaka skilfully wins the current set, and with it the match.
And for Serena Williams, as media coverage once again sets about questioning her conduct and behaviour, the 2018 US Open’s Women’s Single Final becomes yet another mark on her record which, on some other court, in some future Open, will be remembered by speculating commentators as yet another reason she’ll feel obliged to win. Yet another transgression demanding she prove herself. The latest, in a trend that Rankine’s Citizen documents, of repeated attempts by others to criticise Williams both for her body and for the emotions that her body expresses:
“For Serena, the daily diminishment is a low flame, a constant drip. Every look, every comment, every bad call blossoms out of history, through her, onto you. To understand is to see Serena as hemmed in as any other black body thrown against our American background.” (Rankine, 32)
And one gets the impression, as she is heard in exchanges with officials, that Williams is all too aware of this:
“Unbelievable. Every time I play here I have problems.”
“This has happened to me too many times. This is not fair. This is not fair.”
“I get the rules, I get the rules but I’m just saying it’s not right. And it happened to me at this tournament every single year that I play. It’s just not fair.”
Williams recalls, and Rankine reminds us, of past events where we have seen this before: the 2004 US Open Women’s quarter-final. The 2009 semi-final. The 2011 final. The 2012 Olympics. In other words, we witness in the 2018 US Open an event that refuses to become history, and instead seems to insist upon continually re-occurring and re-establishing itself in the here-and-now; a state of the world that has stagnated in it’s inability to flow, and so has persisted as a feature of our present. And in concerning itself with these events, we have in Citizen literature that tries to engage with and express that present in a way that is not quite poetry nor prose, but a similarly ambiguous blending of the two, as Rankine presents to us vignettes that are not bound to any chronological ordering. Ranging from accounts of microaggressions, to meditations of what it is to be trapped in one’s own body, to manifestations of that body’s discontentment, we are extended an invitation by Rankine to engage with these moments not as isolated occurrences, but as parts of an unspoken tradition that some are all too happy to ignore and contribute to.
She asks us, in other words, to act as Contemporaries of our time, and to recognise from within it events that are characteristic of our age – in a way very much in keeping with Giorgio Agamben’s definition of who ‘the Contemporary’ is: one who “is able to read history in unforseen ways, to ‘cite it’ according to a necessity that does not arise in any way from his will, but from an exigency to which he cannot respond.” (Agamben, 53). The Contemporary does not to treat history as a closed book, but rather recognises that the past is in no way isolated from our present, and so cannot be read in search of conclusions – only for indications of where we are now:
“We never reached out to anyone to tell our story because there’s no ending to our story.” (Rankine, 84)
It should be acknowledged that William’s does not attribute Ramos’s treatment of her to race; rather, she considers it a matter of ingrained sexism within tennis. To confuse issues of race and sex, or treat the two as interchangeable, would do discussions of either a severe disservice, if not outright harm. But as Rankine’s vignettes show, there are some events that seem to transcend the context in which they take place, and take on meanings that, though unintended, are nonetheless carried in powerful ways:
“…if Serena lost context by abandoning all rules of civility, it could be because her body […] is being governed not by the tennis match she is participating in but by a collapsed relationship that had promised to play by the rules. Perhaps this is how racism feels regardless of context – randomly the rules everyone else gets to play by no longer apply to you, and to call this out […] is to be called insane, crass, crazy.” (Rankine, 30)
Perhaps this is what it means to be “Contemporary”: to find that the context of time ceases to have meaning where wider contexts develop; to find the confluence of other factors (of one’s lived experience, of what one sees in media, of what legacies one inherits) can imbue moments with signifying powers that they wouldn’t otherwise have; and, by extension, to find moments can be transformed into what we can’t help but read as emblematic of our world today.
Agamben, Giorgio. “What is the Contemporary?” in What is an Apparatus?. Stanford University Press: 2009
Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric. Penguin: 2015.
News Coverage Cited:
“US Open 2018: Serena Williams fined over outbursts during final” BBC Sport. BBC: 09/09/2018 [https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/tennis/45463752] Accessed 11/10/2018.
Healy, Jon. “Serena Williams’s US Open final breakdown blow-by-blow” ABC News. The ABC: 09/09/2018 [http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-09-09/serena-williams-us-open-breakdown-blow-by-blow/10218962?section=sport] Accessed 11/10/2018.
Kudacki, Andres. “Naomi Osaka walks away covering her face as Serena Williams argues with umpire Carlos Ramos” via ABC.net.au, 09/09/2018: [http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-09-09/naomi-osaka-walks-away-as-serena-williams-argues-with-the-umpire/10219032?section=sport] Accessed 13/10/2018.
Lucas, John. “Author Photo of Claudia Rankine” via Wikimedia Commons, 2014: [https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Author_Photo_of_Claudia_Rankine.jpg] Accessed 13/10/2018.