Richard Williams: A life lived on his own terms

By Oscar Wailoo

Last August we published an excellent review of Richard Williams’ biography Black And White – The Way I See It by Norman Richmond. That review was the precursor to Williams’ expected visit to Toronto a week later for a book-signing.

He did not make it to Toronto; he said he couldn’t at a time when yet another black man, young Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri, had been executed by the police. Williams said that he had to go to Ferguson to stand with the people, and then he will come to Toronto.

Well, Williams fulfilled his promise and spoke last Saturday at the Black and Caribbean Book Affair staged by A Different Booklist bookstore.

Williams is the father of tennis greats Venus and Serena Williams. And those who have followed their careers need no convincing of their greatness, nor can they not have known about their father’s stern and unyielding support of his daughters in a game that has been the preserve of white players.

I recall seeing the no nonsense Richard on TV watching his girls play, and I thought he looked like so many basic, hardworking black men I had seen in my youth; men you really don’t want to tangle with. They are proud men who have carried the load of being black in a mean world and will not take it anymore; give them dignity or give them death. Richard Williams is exactly that.

Williams was born in 1942 in Shreveport, Louisiana, the deep American south where poverty and violence was a standard part of life for black people a generation removed from slavery.

Writer Paul Mooney describes Shreveport: “The deep, deep South. So deep, the Confederates there keep right on fighting for weeks after the Civil War ends.”

In his August book review, Richmond continued: “Williams remained in the apartheid south until he was 18 years old. It is a miracle that he lived to document his life story. Williams writes, ‘Life was a battlefield, win or die.’ His nose was broken three times, his teeth were knocked out, he was beat up with sticks, bats and chains, not to mention how many times guns were involved.”

Williams – tall, grizzled and looking every bit of his 72 years – was accompanied by his wife Lakeisha and 2½-year-old son Dylan. Despite the picture the media paint of him, there was nothing of the cross old man on display. He laughs easily, a giggle sometimes. He speaks directly and plainly.

But in Richard Williams, what you see is what you get. There is no guile in him. So believe him when he says that he does not subscribe to turning the other cheek, and that “the reason why things happen to black people is that we accept, we pray and then we leave. You can pray ‘til you’re tired. I never seen anything change through prayer … I believe in resisting. You have to fight!”

That hard pragmatism is the product of a shrewd mind that raised two champions through planning and the discipline to stick to the plan. What do you make of a man who wrote a 78-page plan to make champions of his unborn daughters and made it work to perfection? You would probably say that he got it right by following his rules for success, one of which is “failing to plan is planning to fail.”

You would also say that Richard Williams’ success would not have been possible without plain guts.

I left the room with “nuff respect” for the man and a sense that if you must fight, you want Richard Williams on your side; you certainly don’t want him against you.

Oscar Wailoo
Oscar Wailoo