color line: Arthur Ashe, still waiting on Black athletes to heed his call to glory, The
Rhoden, William C
On Feb. 6, 1993, Arthur Ashe’s heroic battle with AIDS came to an end. The tennis legend died in New York at the age of 49, five months shy of his 50the birthday.
Arthur was both a friend and a mentor. As we celebrate the 10th anniversary of his death, I’m concerned that the essence of his legacy will be buried beneath the wrong historical markers. Two weeks after Arthur’s death, a memorial was held in New York at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. There were kind words and touching tributes form hundreds of friends and admires. But the remarks that resonated the most were made by Arthur’s niece, Luchia Ashe.
After listening to speaker after speaker talk about how her uncle had touched so many lives, Luchia challenged those whose lives had been touched to pay tribute to his memory in deeds, not words. “Accept the challenges,” she said. “Eradicate man-made fences.” A decade later that challenge remains a steep hill most of us have chosen not to climb.
History will say that Ashe was a champion tennis player and a celebrity. He won the U.S. Open in 1968 while still an amateur. Two years later, he won the Australian Open, and in 1975, he upset the heavily favored Jimmy Connors to win Wimbledon. Ashe was (and still is) the first and only Black man to have won any of these championships.
But first and foremost he was an activist. His vision was that athletes, especially African American athletes, would play a pivotal role in shaping a society in which they command an increasingly visible presence on the global landscape.
Ashe constantly preached that African American athletes had to stop hiding from their responsibility to address hard social issues. He chided Michael Jordan for his neutrality on social issues and scoffed at the excuse that high profile athletes who remained silent were actually working for change behind the scenes.
The essential currency of the athlete is inspiration. Performance inspires us to transcendent moments. Ashe believed athletes should use their visibility and prominence to percolate a consciousness that has been dulled by a preoccupation with the pursuit of money.
Ashes view of the athlete’s latent power was echoed in November, when The New York Times, in an editorial, called on Tiger Woods to stay away from the Masters golf tournament at Augusta National this spring to protest the club’s exclusion of women from membership.
As an officer assigned to the Army Adjutant Generals Corps at West Point, Ashe was outspoken in defense of civil rights. His 1968 speech to a Washington church group about protests planned by militant Black athletes at the Olympics in Mexico City was criticized by the West Point superintendent as too political.
In 1985, Ashe was arrested outside the South African embassy in Washington, D.C., during an anti-apartheid protest. In fact, it was his public arrest in front of the White House in 1992 that inspired at least one athlete to act.
Two months after Ashes death, basketball player Olden Polynice stood in a downpour outside the Krome Detention Center in Miami to visit Haitian refugees who were being detained. He was inspired to become more active after watching Ashe being arrested in Washington while protesting the first Bush Administration’s policy on Haiti.
“That’s what really got me going,” he said. “Emotionally, I have a tie with Haitians because I’m one of them. But Arthur Ashe didn’t know them. This is about giving of yourself.”
Polynice was raised in housing projects in Manhattan and felt that too many of his colleagues in the NBA were running away from their roots. “There are too many of us making too much money to keep acting as if we’re scared, scared that if we say something they’re going to take our money away,” he said.
I was with Ashe in the winter of 1990 when he met in Durham, N.C., with John Hope Franklin, the eminent historian. During that meeting, Ashe outlined a blueprint for bringing together a diverse group of African Americans to discuss the issue of Black athletes in society.
Arthur and I shared a vision of a more enlightened breed of African American athlete. The dilemma, of course, was how to raise the consciousness of athletes in a formal way. The solution was to focus on high school athletes and develop a rigorous sports curriculum that would include every aspect of sports – history, economics, communication, administration – but would stress citizenship.
In 1991, Ashe established the African American Athletic Association as a vehicle through which to establish nationwide links with school systems. He was a staunch supporter of academic achievement for athletes and believed that the only way for students from disadvantaged backgrounds to succeed was to be challenged by higher expectations.
Ashe predicted that a new generation of Black tennis players was on the horizon and warned that this new breed would not look like him, sound or talk like him. Little more than a decade later, Venus and Serena Williams created a furor with their style of play, style of fashion and extroverted court demeanor.
What I appreciated most about Arthur Ashe is that for all of his accomplishments and all of his celebrity, he never lost touch with his Black self. He understood his unique position as a celebrity in a predominantly White country club sport. He understood his responsibility to the larger, multidimensional African American community. He recognized the pervasiveness of racism, regardless of accomplishments or popularity that he as an African American had attained.
One of the most haunting statements that Ashe made came shortly before he died. In the last year of his life he said racism was the most persistent struggle of his life. “It’s 24 hours a day,” he once said. “I don’t care who you are, it is a problem. It is something you have to plug into your daily computer and figure ‘now, how am I going to work around this today?'”
During the course of an interview about his illness, a reporter wondered whether his illness had been the greatest setback of his life. Ashe said that contracting AIDS had not been the greatest setback in his life, being born Black was.
A mutual friend, Dr. Edgar Mandeville, visited Arthur in the hospital shortly before he died. In the swirl of activity of nurses and doctors rushing to his side, Ashe looked over at Mandeville and gave him a “thumbs up” sign. Everything was okay.
This is a comforting thought as I contemplate the 10th anniversary of Arthur’s passing and what often seems to me to be the dismal state of African American athletes: large in number, rich in money, scattered in purpose, but collectively bankrupt in principle.
Will they ever pull together? You think, “No.”
Then I remember Arthur’s vision and optimism, and I say, “Yes.”
There will come a day.
William C. Rhoden is a sports columnist at The New York Times. He is working on his first book, Lost Tribe Wandering, a political and cultural analysis of African American athletes.
Copyright Crisis Publishing Company, Incorporated Jan/Feb 2003
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