Cornrows, Curls, and Crowns

Serena Williams wearing her signature braids at the Everet Cup in 1999 | Getty Images

Serena Williams wearing her signature braids at the Everet Cup in 1999 | Getty Images

What comes to mind when I say Serena Williams?

Tennis player? Mother? Champion? Designer?

Anyone who knows me knows I have [more than a] slight obsession with this particular Queen – so much so that she has starred in more than one of my college research papers and several posters on my walls. There’s so much to admire in her sports career alone.

There are, of course, her 23 Grand Slam titles in 20 years of professional play (that’s just one title short of the all-time record).

We could talk about the way that she battles racism, sexism, and ageism on a daily basis, redefining what it means to be curvy, feminine, athletic, and a celebrity.

We could talk about how she played in a Grand Slam final just one year after giving birth and nearly dying from the ensuing medical complications.

There are so many things we could talk about, but, right now, I’d like to talk about her hair.

I’d like to make the argument that hair, fashion, and Serena Williams go together like Jamaican black castor oil and shea butter. First turning heads in 1998, Serena and her sister, Venus, appeared at their first professional match with hundreds of beads braided into their cornrows. What the nation saw as some dramatic cultural statement to shake up the majority-white tennis world was/is the reality of many little black girls who like playing sports: there’s simply no time to do and re-do protective hairstyles while sweating day in and day out. Nonetheless, the Williams sisters cemented themselves as strong, athletic, and unapologetically black, bringing their Compton style wherever they went – no matter how much the click-clack of their beads provoked their critics.

Why does it matter that we remember?

Artwork by Darley Sackitey

Artwork by Darley Sackitey

Serena Williams will go down in history as one of the greatest athletes of all time – that’s no question. Her tireless efforts off the court, however, have also shaped her public persona,  adding her work as an activist to her legacy. I believe that part of this activism was first reflected through Serena’s hair.

Serena’s hair is, in fact, political... much like any black woman’s hair. No matter how we choose to wear it, we will always face the judgement and questions – active or subconscious – of our peers. We will always be asked if it’s a weave or our own, fending off stray hands that equate their curiosity with our consent to touch. Originating from slavery, when the “naps” of cotton picked on plantations were compared to African American hair, so-called “nappy” hair has yet to find its accepted place in the mainstream.

Sure, there’s a movement afoot for natural hair, and many professional workplaces claim they are in support...but it seems this support is only consistent for our sisters of the 3C variety.

So, when Serena steps on the court before millions of viewers sporting her natural, “nappy” hair – or any one of her more dynamic weaves or twists (how can we ever forget the thigh-length Senegalese twists Serena wore to the Royal Wedding that left us quaking?? *heart eyes emoji*)– she is leaving not just an incredible athletic career behind, but a legacy of self-love. She teaches us to love our authentic selves and styles, no matter what the mainstream believes we “should” look like.  

Couple all this with her iconic fashion sense (think: hot pink leopard prints and full-body catsuits) in a rather conservative sport, and Serena undoubtedly earns her reputation as the greatest of all time.

Yes, beyond the court, beyond motherhood, beyond business-owning, beyond it all –

Serena is #hairgoals

And she’s building a legacy for all of us.

A legacy of phenomenal proportions.

Now you understand

Just why my head's not bowed.

I don't shout or jump about

Or have to talk real loud.

When you see me passing

It ought to make you proud.

I say,

It's in the click of my heels,

The bend of my hair,

the palm of my hand,

The need of my care,

'Cause I'm a woman


Phenomenal woman,

That's me.

- Maya Angelou