By Richard Williams, with Bart Davis, 2014
The story of Venus and Serena Williams has been one of the most compelling sports stores that I know of. In an international sport, where there have been few Black champions, these two Black women, raised on the mean streets of Compton, California, have dominated the sport for 16 years.
I have always been intrigued by the question: Why are these sisters so good? In the many press clippings I’ve read, the Williams sisters’ father has been mentioned often. Those articles reported that Richard Williams had a unique strategy for preparing his daughters to become tennis champions.
This curiosity prompted me to Google “Richard Williams,” and I discovered that he actually wrote an autobiography with Bart Davis. Reading his life history, I discovered that the answer to the question: Why are these sisters so good? has a profound and inspiring answer.
Richard Williams dedicates his autobiography to his mother Julia Metcalf Williams. The following is a summary of what happened on the day Richard Williams was born.
The birth of Richard Williams
Julia was 19 and she was taking the dried laundry off the clothesline when her labor pains hit. She felt the need to finish taking down the laundry and place it in a dry place in the house before she went to the hospital. A storm was on the way, and Julia didn’t want the dried laundry to get wet.
Then, she climbed onto a wagon pulled by her mule Midnight to take her to the hospital. She needed to go to the Charity Hospital because this was the only hospital that would treat Black patients. The rain and lightning poured down from the sky. Julia was soaking wet and having labor pains.
Then, Midnight stepped in a deep hole and broke his leg. He wouldn’t be able to continue pulling the wagon. Julia attempted to wave down car after car. Those cars were driven by people who were white. They all passed her by, including the employer she worked for.
Then Mr. Leroy, a Black man Julia knew from Church, stopped his old pickup to give Julia a ride. The pickup didn’t have a seat, and Mr. Leroy needed to place some blankets over the hole in the floor so Julia could sit down. She made it to the hospital and gave birth to Richard Williams.
This is how Richard Williams summarized the day of his birth: “The truth is, but for her strength, the kindness of a stranger, my mother would have died that night and I would have died with her, left on the side of the road by depraved indifference, racism, and cruelty.”
Growing up as a Black child in Shreveport, Louisiana
Black women carried their babies into the fields where they picked cotton for hundreds of years. Julia Williams also took her son Richard into the fields where he saw her pick, perhaps a hundred of pounds of cotton, under the hot sun day in and day out.
From a young age he learned that this arduous work was rewarded with a home that was nothing more than a shack where the roof leaked. Finding adequate food to eat was a continuous problem. Electricity and running water were things reserved for people who had a different skin color.
In this atmosphere Richard Williams did everything in his power to aid his mother and his five sisters. This was not easy. Richard also trained himself to run fast so he could escape the racist mobs that beat him because of the color of his skin.
Once, as a child, Richard paid for an item in the local store. Accidentally he touched the hand of the storeowner. For this act, Richard was beaten over the head.
We might consider that if we look at the laws in the United States, this storeowner was clearly guilty of the attempted murder of a child. If prosecuted in a different atmosphere, this storeowner might have been sentenced to a lengthy prison term.
However, when Jim Crow was the law of the land in this country, Black people had virtually no rights. This was in spite of the fact that the Constitution was amended to give full rights to all citizens of this country. Yet, as far as the authorities were concerned in Louisiana, even the murder of Black children was legal.
In fact, Richard Williams had three close friends who were lynched. One of his friends was found dead and bound in a swimming pool that was reserved for whites. There wasn’t even an investigation by the authorities to find the murderers of Richard’s friends. In fact, of the thousands of individuals, both Black and white who died as a result of lynching, in almost all cases, there was no investigation into these murders.
In order to understand Richard Williams’ attitude towards this environment, we can look at the statement by the writer, James Baldwin, who argued that, to be Black and conscious in America is to live in a state of rage. Eventually Richard Williams moved to Chicago to escape the Jim Crow atmosphere in Shreveport.
Edward E. Baptist wrote a book titled: Half Has Never Been Told – Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. In this book, Baptist argued that the beginnings of the world industrial revolution started with the processing of cotton that was worked by Black slave labor. Richard Williams was conscious that Black people had never been paid for the highly lucrative work they have done.
This is how he explained it. In his later life Williams was asked how it felt to be a millionaire. Williams answered that he was a millionaire when he was sixteen. He said, “Hell, I made more than a million. I know this because I worked for white people who kept buying big plantation homes, big fields, big cars. Matter of fact, they bought the whole damn city. Sure, I made millions. They just kept my share.”
Richard Williams moves to Chicago and Los Angeles
In Chicago Williams learned that Black people had more opportunities than in Louisiana. However, he would also learn to appreciate the words of Malcolm X when he said: “Stop talking about the south. If you’re south of Canada you’re in the south.”
His frustration in Chicago provoked Williams to have a confrontation with a racist police officer. Williams told the police officer that if he didn’t leave him alone, one of them would die. Fortunately, William’s threat didn’t come to fruition.
For a while Williams volunteered to support the civil rights movement in Mississippi. The organizers didn’t want the support of Williams because he wouldn’t support the non-violent approach advocated by Martin Luther King.
Then, Richard Williams moved to Los Angeles, California and managed to start a few businesses. He eventually ran a security business in Compton, California and married Oracene Price who already had three daughters.
Then, one day Williams was watching television and he saw a professional woman tennis player being awarded $40,000 for winning a tournament in four days. Williams immediately saw the potential for raising daughters who might be able to compete in that environment.
Richard Williams’ plan to raise tennis champions
Although Williams didn’t know anything about tennis at the time, he made a determined effort to learn everything he could about the game. Eventually he wrote a seventy-eight page proposal that argued how he would have two daughters who would learn to dominate women’s tennis. Williams wrote this proposal before Venus and Serena were born.
Richard Williams’ father had abandoned his children and Richard was determined that his daughters would not experience a similar abandonment. While he established a nurturing environment for his children, he also taught them to have responsibility for their actions. He learned how to raise his daughters from his mother who established a nurturing environment in the midst of racist hostility.
Unlike many people who work to move out of the inner city, Richard Williams moved his family from a decent home in Long Beach, into a home in the midst of the mean streets of Compton. He did this so his children would be “toughened up” to make them better competitors.
Richard needed to battle gangs every day for two years just so his daughters would be able to play on the Compton tennis courts. He and Oracene spent their days training their daughters and Richard managed his business during the evenings.
Richard understood that his daughters needed to have a childhood and he limited the number of tournaments they played. In one instance, while they were practicing, Venus said that she wanted to go shopping instead of practice. Richard then took his daughters to go shopping. He also showed them all the professions his daughters might choose. Venus and Serena were the ones who chose to pursue a career in tennis.
We might contrast the way Richard Williams raised his children, to the way other parents raised professional tennis players. Andre Agassi was one of the best tennis champions of all time. He wrote a book titled: Open - An Autobiography. Agassi stated that he hated the pressure-cooker atmosphere of competitive tennis and resented all the pressure his father placed on him to succeed. Agassi acknowledges that he used methamphetamine to ease the pressure he felt.
Richard Williams’ ideas for raising his children
In the following passage Richard Williams wrote about his thinking with respect to raising his children:
“I remembered my family in Shreveport, unable to envision a world filled with possibilities or promise. I didn’t understand it then, but understood it now. When you condition people to inequality instead of equality, injustice instead of justice, failure instead of success, and hate instead of love, it is almost impossible for them to escape deep feelings of self-doubt and mistrust.”
This statement by Richard Williams is similar to the theories of the psychologist Erik Erikson. Erikson studied the Lakota and Yurok Indians in this country and learned how they raised their children. We might consider that the indigenous people of this country needed to live their lives with a total dependence on the natural environment. This wasn’t easy, so the methods used in raising children were extremely important.
Erikson used his knowledge of the indigenous peoples to develop his theories for raising children. He argued that if children do not establish feelings of trust, they will be mistrustful. If children do not develop a feeling of autonomy, they will feel shame. If children aren’t given the opportunity to take initiatives, they will develop a sense of guilt. If children aren’t allowed to be industrious, they will develop feelings of inferiority. If children are raised in a way where they are trustful and industrious, Erikson believed that they would become competent.
Erikson also believed that parents need to set an example their children can admire. This is how he explained it:
“Healthy children will not fear life if their elders have integrity enough not to fear death.”
When Richard Williams battled the gangs of Compton, he taught his children what the word courage means. Richard also taught his children about the history of Black people in this country. This was a story of how a people managed to survive under the most horrendous atmosphere imaginable.
Malcolm X understood the importance of exposing people to their history. He was asked if he was teaching people about their oppression. Malcolm responded that he was about talking to people about their humanity, their heritage, and their worth as human beings. He argued that if you do these things, then you will get action.
Richard Williams taught his children to think for themselves. He learned that this was important from his mother Julia Williams. In the racist environment of Shreveport, Black people needed to have an ability to think for themselves just to survive.
Richard Williams raised his daughters with the idea that they could do anything. He developed their curiosity by having long conversations. The results of these efforts weren’t just seen on the tennis courts.
Venus became an avid reader. When she didn’t like the fact that she could not understand the German language, she learned German. Serena became fluent in the French language.
Before reading this book I had a misconception as to why the Williams sisters were so good. My idea was that they had a certain natural ability.
After reading Richard Williams autobiography, I’m of the opinion that the primary reason for Venus and Serena’s overwhelming success has been the way they were raised by Richard and Oracine Williams.
With all the publicity Venus and Serena have received, the press has chosen to ignore this part of their story. My opinion is that there is a clear connection between the hundreds of years of African-American history, and the success of the Williams sisters.
The one drawback to this autobiography is that it was written, in part, as a how-to book for raising children. Clearly, there is much insight into this question in Richard Williams’ autobiography.
However, if humanity is to be liberated from the reality we face today, we will need a collective struggle. This will mean that we will need leaders as well as people who can work together to put in place a government where human needs are more important than profits. This kind of world will make it the top priority to insure there will be human dignity for all.