Reconnecting with our roots is a hard thing for many Africans living abroad to do because so few of us know exactly where those roots lie, beyond the general continent of Africa.
But for Serena Williams that knowledge alone was enough. The tennis pro began taking trips to the continent in 2006 as a UNICEF ambassador and later opened schools in Uganda and Kenya. And in an interview with Fader she explained why going back to Africa was so important for her, particularly after being taunted with racial epithets in 2001, when she was just 19, by a crowd at California’s Indian Wells Masters.
When asked why, in 2015, she went back to compete at the place where she was called the n-word, Serena mentioned her trips to Africa as the impetus, prompting Fader to ask when exactly she had her lightbulb moment about returning. The Compton native replied: “I’ve been to Africa a lot, so there are a lot of trips molded together. I’m not sure which trip it was that I met Mandela, but I do remember it really impacting me. We’ve had conversations, but it wasn’t until years later and reading his biography that I really felt like I met this man. It took a minute to click, it didn’t just happen overnight. But I realized that everything that I’m about, the way that I was raised, and everything that I’ve been born to do is all about forgiveness and moving on, and I just felt like it was all about the right time to do it.”
Further explaining why traveling to Africa is so important to her, Serena added:
“Being African-American, I’ve always dreamt of going back to Africa. That was just my main goal for as long as I can remember. I gotta get back to Africa. I want to see my roots, where I’m from. I want to see the struggle. I want to see the slave castles. I need to see that journey. I just wouldn’t have felt full if I had never experienced that.
“And I think it changed me. It changed me to realize how strong I was and to realize that I, through my ancestors, am capable of doing anything. I’m really capable. They endured the toughest, and only the strongest survived. I realized that I was built from this incredible bloodline that many different types of people aren’t built from. The whole journey, and just visiting other places throughout the world as well, has been really educational for me and uplifting.”
Serena’s parents also put it in her head from an early age that connecting to her ancestry was a key to her future success.
“My parents always told me, ‘In order to be the best you can be, you have to know your history.’ History can create a lot of knowledge. All my family, we wanted to learn about where we came from. Being black in America, you don’t really know where you come from. You don’t really know your last name. You don’t really know a lot of things. So for me it was always important to visit that. And we were just raised to love one another and to put up with one another and to have intense affection for each other and protect each other. Throughout our lives, usually most tournaments I go to my family comes too. They’re always around. They’re always there.”
Judging by Serena’s current status as “the greatest athlete ever,” it looks like she made the right choice by reconnecting to the homeland. And by the way, she also connects to the people by picking up French along the way. She dropped this little tidbit to the mag as well: “It’s so funny because I was at the Olympic Village the other day, and I was talking to this African athlete. A lot of Africans speak French, and I noticed that his English wasn’t great, so I started speaking French to him. He stopped and was like, ‘You speak French?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah.’ And he said, ‘But you’re American…’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah.’ And he’s like, ‘But no Americans speak other languages.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s true!’
“Venus is really fluent, much more so than me. One of the reasons I learned French was I wanted to win the French Open, and I wanted to speak French when I won. The second was because, most African countries, the main language outside of their local language is French or English. So I figured: I know English, maybe I can learn French.”