Our Legacy, Our Task: Grace Under Pressure

By Hugh B. Price

President

National Urban League

Grace under pressure. 

I’ve always been a fan of Venus and Serena Williams, whose entry into the upper ranks of women’s tennis brought a new and needed excitement to the game; but I have even more admiration for them in the wake of Venus’ defense of the Wimbledon title she won last year.

My increased admiration stems from her response to the stunning behavior of the majority of the Wimbledon gallery, which during the championship match was against her in no uncertain terms.

Not only did the majority of spectators vociferously cheer on her opponent and occasionally roar at her errors—which one columnist noted is “normally a Wimbledon taboo,” on one occasion they actually booed just as she was getting ready to launch a serve.

And at one critical point during the match, when Venus was again preparing to serve, one spectator shouted, “Come on, Serena!” –as if, shades of that old story, he couldn’t tell one sister from the other.

Reporters noted that it was unprecedented at Wimbledon, which prides itself as a place where civility and good sportsmanship reign, for a defending champion to receive such hostile treatment.

Against that boorish behavior, Venus’ sharp play and her impeccable response—to ignore the churlishness—stood out all the more.

After defeating the crowd favorite, Justine Henin, of Belgium, Venus greeted her opponent warmly at the net and a moment later, firmly embracing her championship plate, waved and smiled brilliantly to a gallery which had treated her so shabbily.

Henin, for her part, readily complimented the champion, and Williams responded that Henin ‘s “going to be back and she’s going to be a great player,” adding later that “This means more to me—I had to work a lot harder to win this one.”

That is the kind of grace under pressure—novelist Ernest Hemingway’s definition of courage—which Black America at its best has always adhered to in its quest to force a broader understanding in American society of what it means to be an American, and therefore, of what America itself must come to stand for.

Grace under pressure is why down through the long well of American history African Americans’ fierce, sustained—and nonviolent—protests pointing out the wide gap between the rhetoric about what America was and the reality of what it was never stopped them from acknowledging the unparalleled opportunity American society presented.

That was true in the first three decades after the Civil War, when black Americans, 90 percent of whom had been enslaved in 1860, made enormous advances before the Supreme Court’s infamous Plessy decision made segregation the law of the land.

And that has been true in the three decades since the passage of the civil rights victories of the 1960s brought true political democracy to this country.

As we at the National Urban League have noted many times, that can be seen in the great expansion of the black middle class since then: in, among other things, the increase in the number of African Americans going to and graduating from higher education, in the increased number of blacks holding elective and appointive office at all levels of government, and in the increased number of blacks filling the ranks of middle and senior management in America’s companies.

But, in fact, the most dramatic example of this grace under pressure came from the much-maligned black poor and unemployed.

In the late 1990s, when the effects of the decade’s booming economy finally reached all the way to the bottom of the economic ladder and provoked the creation of millions of low-wage jobs in the service sector, it was they who rushed to fill them—in the process refuting three decades’ of tendentious declarations that the black poor’s unemployment was their own fault.

That quality of grace under pressure—of course, not exclusive to any one people, by any means—is what black Americans will need more than ever as America moves into the ever more complex 21st century. Much remains to be done; and much of it will be the responsibility of younger African Americans and their peers across America’s ethnic, color and racial lines.

That’s why we’ve devoted the forthcoming issue of our policy journal, The State of Black America 2001, which will be available at the end of July, to examining several issues of importance to and about African Americans who are under-35. Providing more substance to that discussion is a groundbreaking National Urban League survey that presents what African Americans under 35 think about politics, education, religion, affirmative action, rap music, and several more of the significant issues of the day.

One point the volume as a whole makes is that the rising generation of black Americans must continue the tradition of marrying statistical data to trenchant observation and a commitment to activism if Black America as a whole is to continue its march into the mainstream of American society.

That, one might say, is another way of acting with grace under pressure.

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