Sports, Race, and Fatherhood – part 1: Elation, Sleeplessness, and Serena Williams

What do Serena Williams and my newborn daughter have in common? Not much...yet.

 

Being on paternity leave for 7-weeks allows for ample time to bond and grow with your new child; see, smell, and experience a full range of poop; and continually search for a link between sports, race, and the broader spectrum of societal issues. Sports, Race and Fatherhood is a 4-part series which highlights my experience as a first-time father, as I make meaning–for myself and my daughter–of a number race and gender issues in athletics.  

November 12th – 13th was a whirlwind of a 24-hour period, which included multiple bags of throw-up, Baja Fresh, screaming, yelling, and blood. And this was all before my wife and I arrived at the hospital. I’ll never forget the experience of watching my daughter – my first child – arrive in this world. It changed my life in many ways that I did not anticipate. I shed a couple tears once she was finally here due to sheer elation. Finally, I was a father. It was one of the proudest moments of my life. From there I immediately thought, at some point, I would need to figure out how to actually raise a child.

Cali (short for California…kidding, kidding) was born at 4:02 a.m. I am pretty sure that such an early birth threw off her circadian clock, because it’s 4:13 a.m. right now and this little girl just went to sleep. In doing my research for parenthood preparation, I came across this article from Panama Jackson of Very Smart Brothas. He had some profound words about sleep, among other things, in his advice letter to his colleague and friend, Damon.

There are probably countless people who have told you to get all of your sleep now.”

Yes, this is true.

“And though you can’t, it’s one of those things that scientist’s should be working on – a sleep bank.”

I’m saying, what’s good on my sleep bank. C’mon Google, get to work.

“Right now, you can go to sleep at, say midnight, and wake up at 8am after a night of uninterrupted sleep.”

Umm…ok, sure, let’s go with that. Continue.  

“Yeah, that’s going out of the window the DAY young homiette is born. See babies, they have to eat every 2 hours for
the first few days (weeks) of their lives. You don’t have to do the math to realize that means that at least 12 times a day, maybe less if she’s doing 2.5 hours, your child will be waking, seeking sustenance and attention. Many of those hours come at times you’d normally be asleep.”

Well D@mn.

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Newborn baby and puking master Cali (5 weeks old) already practicing for her senior pictures.

Don’t even get me started on putting the baby BACK to sleep. I had an active daughter; she didn’t just fall asleep while feeding. Nope. I had to PUT her back to sleep through song, dance, origami, yodeling, and rocking.” 

Ok, I understand babies just not being tired because their parents want them to go back to sleep, but I swear my daughter engages in real battles with sleep. It’s like she’s facing the last boss on Mortal Kombat. She’s all of 7-weeks old and is determined not to miss a single thing that’s about to happen. None of my research explained this part to me. I mean, sure they all said that babies are consistently awake, and sometimes it can be hard to put them back to sleep, but Cali burns the midnight oil like she has a final exam and needs to pull every possible all-nighter to graduate.

Did I mention that she threw up all over her mother? I was right next to my wife, but was so in awe of the sheer volume of puke spewing from my month-old daughter, all I could do was watch this seemingly never-ending waterfall of regurgitation.

All these sleepless, puke-filled moments seem worth it though when I get the chance to sing my daughter to sleep; when I get the chance to see her smile and laugh (silently) at who knows what; when I get to stop and think about how genuinely beautiful this little girl that my wife created (I mean because she really did all of the hard work) actually is.  

One afternoon, as I was attempting to figure out the calculus problem that is getting this little girl to sleep, I stumbled upon the latest Sports Illustrated cover featuring Serena Williams. And immediately, I began to think of my daughter, her natural beauty as a Black girl, and what could be in store for her one day.    

When I heard that Serena Williams won 2015 Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year, I was excited. Outside of a slip-up at the U.S. Open, she terrorized the competition en route to winning three major tournaments.

(Full disclosure: I am in love with Serena Williams. I love watching her play tennis. She is fierce, determined, an all-time great, and she’s gorgeous. If my wife ever decided that she has had enough of me leaving a trail of shoes and clothes from the front door to the bedroom every day I come home from work, or the way I just can’t seem to get everything on her list from the grocery store, and decides to leave me, I’m calling Serena the next day. Yeah, I know she’s in a relationship, but that’s only because she’s yet to meet me.)    

I lost some of that excitement after the announcement of her award. No, it wasn’t because some people questioned whether it should have been a horse and not Serena to win Sports PERSON of the year. It was when I saw Serena looking like she’s on the cover of The Vixen Manual and not a premiere sports magazine. I’m saying, look at that cover. All I see are legs. Nice legs, but legs nonetheless. I don’t see not nann tennis racket, ball, water bottle, sweatband, or visor. If I wasn’t stalking admiring her from afar, from this cover I would guess her sport was being a lingerie model or basketball wife, L.A. edition of course.

World class athlete? Reality TV star? Who really knows.

Now I’m sure you all are wondering, “What’s the problem J-mal? Even you said she was gorgeous.”  Yes, I did. And yes, she is. Please, do not misconstrue my uneasiness regarding this cover as an admonishment of Black beauty and aesthetics, and ones ability to appreciate their own body. Too often however, Black women are revered for their sexuality and their physical assets, but not nearly enough for their mind, their skills, and their talents. The stereotype of the hypersexualized Black woman is one that has existed for years, and this article even shares that “In 2013, Essence Magazine reported that negative imagery of black women appears in the media twice as often as positive depictions. The study cited showed that black female consumers detested the ‘modern jezebel’ and ‘gold digger’ tropes the most.”

Williams herself has been inappropriately oversexualized, scrutinized, and had her physical features described in hyperbole many times. This 2015 vox.com article does an outstanding job highlighting the racial stereotypes that Serena has faced and sought to overcome stating “In 2012, Williams’s friend the Danish tennis player Caroline Wozniacki brought to life all the scrutiny of Williams’s body, mocking her curves by stuffing her own top and tennis skirt with towels at an exhibition match.”

Serena did not get upset or identify the tiresome prank as racist, however Ms. Magazine‘s Anna Little wrote, “If Caroline truly wanted to impersonate Serena, she could have padded her legs and arms to represent Serena’s muscled physique, but she targeted specific body parts — breasts and booty — for her little prank. The supposed hypersexuality of a black woman’s anatomy is a ceaseless trope that is always used to get a laugh. The racist undertones of Caroline’s stunt may not have been deliberate, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t there.”

As a Black father, this is my concern. Cali can be super successful at her job or sport, and unless she’s attractive (and sometimes even that does not matter), that glass ceiling could appear at any moment. But if she is appealing to the eyes, it could overshadow her real talent and accomplishments. Even in all of Serena’s physical glory, this seems like a perfect chance to highlight her achievements first and foremost.

In her attempt to curb the obsession with women and their looks, Aliya S. King wrote in her article for one of my favorite web magazines, The Root, that she does not tell her daughter that she is beautiful. She states “Neither of us ever tells her, ‘You are so pretty.’ We want to celebrate the qualities that she controls and broaden her self-esteem. Some would say that telling her she’s beautiful also increases her self-esteem. But I don’t agree. She has no control over what she looks like. And I don’t think she should be congratulated for having a look that passes someone’s test of what pretty looks like.”

I can agree with that premise.

However the other side of that pillow is pretty cold. Your Black daughter, who you never tell is beautiful, could be in the process of winning multiple gold medals at the Olympics when she is nationally criticized, constantly and harshly, for her hairstyle.  

D@mned if you do, d@mned if you don’t.  

Look, I’m still learning this parenting thing. I still don’t know how to get my daughter to fall asleep. I don’t really know what to do with my hands when my wife looks like she has everything under control and I’m just standing there waiting for a chance to be helpful.  

But I do know I want my daughter to know she is beautiful. I just don’t want her attractiveness to be the reason she is celebrated. I want her to be admired and awarded for whatever she excels in, whether that’s throwing up or biomedical engineering, or anything in between. And if she has the chance to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated as their Sportsperson of the Year, she better have some remnants of her actual sport sharing the cover with her.   

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