There is no King Richard, without Queen Oracene.
I just watched King Richard and the story of his vision and work developing the potential of Venus and Serena Williams to become the greatest tennis players in the history of the sport.
As I watched King Richard, I reflected on my own journey with my brother, under our King Ted. Before there was King Richard in late 1980s, there was my father in the 1970s. My father, Theodore Pratt, had a very different life journey from King Richard.
I share about my father in an earlier blog post:
I share my father’s journey of discrimination in the Academy — his journey as a person of color, a citizen of from the African continent, a citizen from Sierra Leone, West Africa, a dark-skinned Black man; a man with an accent; a man with a PhD in nuclear physics; a man who spoke up; a man who challenged racism; a man who confronted the system; a man who fought for justice, equity, and fairness. Ultimately, he was a man who was not accepted in the Academy; a man whose identities were too radically inconsistent with America’s ideologies and stereotypes about who could teach and research nuclear physics; a man who could not be allowed to be part of any physics department in America’s sacred White higher education institutions.
My father’s story of discrimination and racism (like many other men and women of color) are hidden stories, stories that are often buried in conversations with friends, in conversations between spouses. They are experiences that are shared in secret conversations, words that rarely find the light of day, and words that are rarely shared with children. I did not learn of my father’s journey from my father. I learned it in bits and pieces from my mother, after he died; and after my mom died, I learned about it in the legal documents of discrimination in file folders that were almost 40 years old. They told a piece and part of a story in stark, bleak words — in petitions, in letters, in formal and legal tones. Although some of it is shared as part of my mother’s journey in A Black Woman’s Journey, it is a story that I hope to one day more fully tell.
My father’s journey was intertwined with mine. Our lives were so connected and intersected on a daily basis. He was essentially a “stay-at-home dad,” tennis coach, music coach, and disciplinarian. We spent many many hours together, every day. After I graduated from high school, I spent two years focusing exclusively on a tennis career, with him often as my only social contact.
My tennis career began around age 10, in 1977, with my brother. Our father was our coach and we would practice on the tennis courts in town with laundry baskets of tennis balls before school. On the weekends, we would be on the courts for hours.
I found an article in 1979 about my brother and I winning the Martin Luther King Open when we were 12 and 13 years old.
After I graduated from high school, my life was hours of tennis practice with my father.
His presence in my life was so strong that my mother sometimes felt invisible. Yet, she was ever present. When there are such dominant male personalities in a family, we often ignore the power of the feminine and of women.
In the story of Richard Williams, as a Black feminist, I focused on Queen Oracene. Even to this day, she is still a strong presence in her children’s lives. I can only imagine the fortitude and conviction it took for her to navigate that journey with King Richard.
Venus and Serena acknowledge the powerful role of their mother:
During the Red Table Talk on November 17, Serena said her mother worked tirelessly to financially support the family when their father announced he was giving up his job to coach his daughters full time. “She had to support seven people, as a family of seven,” Serena explained, adding, “To have that faith and to have that back end support, we wouldn’t have survived without that.”
On her website elevenbyvenuswilliams, Venus echoed the sentiment, saying, “My father soaked up the spotlight as a larger than life character who created two tennis phenoms, but it was my mother who was the backbone and driving force behind both him, Serena, and I. She provided the balance and stability, both emotionally and spiritually. She raised all of her daughters to be strong, confident unrelentingly successful women. Not just on the court, but in life as human beings. I’m forever grateful.”
I remember, like Oracene, my mother worked daily, after my father’s job was stolen from him. My mother, Mildred Pratt, was a professor at Illinois State University, teaching and influencing hundreds of students and founding the Bloomington-Normal Black History Project and capturing the oral narratives of almost 100 African-Americans in the community.
Yet, she was also a mother. She drove us to our music lessons; she cooked every meal; she canned fruits and vegetables; she did the laundry and hung the clothes out on the line; she grew gardens of vegetables and flowers; and she cleaned the apartments and real estate that helped support the semblance of a middle-class lifestyle. She was the backbone and the foundation. Our success in life was the result of both of our parents.
Awadagin would not be “Awadagin,” the world famous classical pianist, but for both of them.
And my mother was the inspiration for my academic career with her four degrees serving as a motivation for my five. I always wanted one more degree than her! Black mothers are often our queens in a world that overlooks and devalues and silences them.
Without Queen Oracene, there would be no King Richard, and there would be no Venus and Serena.
So, when we think of Kings, let us also remember the Queens.