What led me to Compton was my belief that the greatest champions came out of the ghetto."Richard Williams
By Neil Armstrong
Richard Williams, the father of tennis champions, Venus and Serena, has written his memoir, Black and White: The Way I See It, that offers a lot of insight into his grit and determination to succeed.
It also tells of his plan for his daughters to become stars in tennis, a sport that was replete with racism that he lived with and which greeted them in their journey to victories. He had written a plan for their lives two and a half years before they were born.
Not only does the book, written with author, Bart Davis, show the lived reality of growing up in poverty in Shreveport, Louisiana, in the Jim Crow laws of the 1940s; it also opens a window into the strong will of his mother to survive.
It is easy to understand Williams’ reason for claiming his mother as his “greatest hero” and dedicating the book to her – Julia Metcalf Williams -- in the absence of a caring father and the hardships the family endured. Her presence in his life provided wise counsel and gave him the will to provide for her and his sisters at a very early age. It also engendered in him the determination to not accept the status quo as his mother advised.
He chose not to and railed against institutional racism to establish his personhood, even to the point of infiltrating the Klu Klux Klan and confusing Klan members with their own tactics.
Using a flashback style of storytelling with a dose of repetition, Williams opened the book reflecting on where he and his daughters were at the moment – Serena playing and winning at Wimbledon in August 2012 – followed by where life began for him, his journey and growth, and back to the victory at Wimbledon.
“I felt like a young father, not my seventy years. Watching Serena race up to the family box, and every time she hugged me, I got a chill. My life had been so unique and special. Amidst the applause and cheers, I sat back for a moment and thought how blessed I was to have the two champions I predicted I would have, and how far we had come,” he writes about his feelings when she won.
The book follows Williams’ account from the lead up to his birth and the racism his mother encountered as she tried to make it to the hospital after having labour pains, to life now with his new wife and son. He has a new plan for his son but not for him to become a champion tennis player.
What boggles the mind, as a reader, is that Williams, who describes himself as a great planner, wrote a 78-page document before Venus and Serena were born about his plan to teach them to play tennis. He notes that he had a goal and needed a plan to pursue it.
“The reality of our situation was that we had no shot at winning. We lived in the ghetto. We had no tennis background. The decision to raise the best tennis players in the world required planning that was outside the bounds of our family experience. We knew very few people in what was, and still is, an overwhelming white sport,” he writes.
So determined was he to carry out his plan that he moved his family from the comfort of Long Beach to Compton in South Central Los Angeles where gang and drug-related violence was rampant.
It would later be in Compton that Yetunde Price, his ex-wife Oracene Price’s oldest daughter, was killed in 2003. Williams notes that she was shot in the head by a Crips gang member while riding in a car driven by her boyfriend.
In her book, On The Line, written with Daniel Paisner, Serena recalls that she and her sister, Lyn, were in Toronto where the tennis champion was shooting a television show when they got the news of Yetunde’s death.
“What led me to Compton was my belief that the greatest champions came out of the ghetto. I had studied sports successes like Muhammad Ali, and great thinkers like Malcolm X. I saw where they came from. As part of my plan, I decided it was where the girls were going to grow up, too. It would make them tough, give them a fighter’s mentality,” Williams writes in Black and White: The Way I See It.
He taught himself to play tennis and decided to battle the drug dealers at a local tennis court to carve out a space for his daughters to play. He eventually won after many fights, including one in which his teeth were knocked out.
Williams talks about the central role that his wife, Oracene, played in the family and in trying to answer what happened to their relationship, he said: “Well, the power of money and success drives professional sports in America, and if you’re not careful, you can easily succumb to it.”
He describes her as “an amazing force for good in this family, and she remains one of the best women I have ever known in my life.”
The book is complemented with photographs of Williams, Serena and Venus, and his mother. There is also a chart of what he calls ‘The Williams Life Triangle’ which has confidence, courage and commitment at different ends and faith in the middle – the cornerstone of what he taught his daughters.
Chapters 1-19 and 25 are without verses from the Bible which appear as epigraphs from chapters 20-24 reinforcing Williams’ faith as a Jehovah’s Witness.
Declaring that along the journey, his greatest learning was about life, Williams posits that, “If you want to raise kids to be champions at life, sports, academics, or anything else, I’ve put together the most important principles I gathered as a father, a teacher, and a man.”
His ‘Top Ten Rules for Success’ includes “Failing to plan is planning to fail” and “Let no man define you but you.”
Published by Atria Books, Black and White: The Way I See It, is like an ode to Williams, his forebears and his children.