In 1968 Arthur Ashe won his first Grand Slam title, at the U.S. Open. He went on to win the Australian Open and Wimbledon, and he helped the U.S. win three consecutive Davis Cup titles. But Ashe’s interests and activities went well beyond the tennis court. A new biography by historian Eric Allen Hall presents Ashe in his various roles – as top-ranked tennis player, civil rights activist, anti-Apartheid demonstrator, university instructor, writer and editor, and proponent of AIDS awareness.
“Anyone who says sport and politics do not mix is silly and vicious,” bluntly claimed Arthur Ashe in 1970 – just two years removed from becoming the first African American to win the U.S. Open Tennis Championship. “They can no longer be kept apart.”
Though outspoken athletes like Ashe are still regrettably directed to “shut up and play,” sport’s political resonances are now commonly accepted. Ashe’s comments indicate that this was not always the case. Eric Allen Hall’s new biography, Arthur Ashe: Tennis and Justice in the Civil Rights Era, shows that one of the tennis champion’s important legacies was making apparent this mix of politics and sport.
Ashe stands among sport history’s most compelling and complex figures. While there is much to say about him, the task of shedding new light on the life and career of an athlete who was concerned enough about his legacy to co-author four memoirs is a daunting one. However, previous work on Ashe – from John McPhee’s Levels of the Game to HBO Sports’ Arthur Ashe: Citizen of the World to Ashe’s memoir Days of Grace, co-authored with Arnold Rampersad – can be unsatisfying for those who crave a more textured treatment of the man who leveraged his tennis stardom to become a global human rights activist and then died tragically from AIDS before his fiftieth birthday. Hall provides this in his book.
Hall shows that Ashe – from his first experiences on the tennis court in Richmond, Virginia – could not help but feel sport’s political power. Tennis is traditionally the province of the predominately white country club set. A working-class African American, Ashe stuck out in his first tournaments. His widowed father, Arthur Sr., impressed upon Ashe a Booker T. Washington-inspired ethic of self-reliance and industriousness, while not questioning the status quo. Arthur Jr. was instructed to endure mistreatment, however blatant, and to effect change by serving as a patient and humble example. This attitude would serve Arthur well growing up in the American South and help him to earn a scholarship to UCLA – the same university his childhood idol Jackie Robinson attended. While the tennis savant largely kept his head down, he was ever cognizant – and often disdainful – of the role his race played in shaping his renown. “I know people are staring at me when I play,” he explained early in his career. “I draw bigger crowds than I would if I were white.” He echoed this sentiment in 1968 after earning the world’s top ranking: “I’m a tennis player who happens to be Negro…I want to be No. 1 without an asterisk next to my name.”
Hall lucidly details Ashe’s development into an activist who maintained a personal politics that many – black and white, progressive and conservative – questioned. Ashe resented the racist norms that affixed asterisks to his accomplishments. At the same time, he proudly served in the Army during the years of the Vietnam War and relished playing for and eventually coaching the U.S. Davis Cup team. “Radical blacks accused him of selling out to whites,” Hall observes, “while conservatives, black and white, assailed him for adopting a militant posture.” Though Ashe eventually became more outspoken – not coincidentally after his discharge from the Army – he remained unapologetic in his convictions and willingly debated those who found him too liberal or too conservative. His memoirs and columns for prominent publications like the Washington Post and Jet suggest he sought out opportunities to explain his sometimes-polarizing views. Hall shows that Ashe was far from all talk. While teaching a course in 1982 on black athletes and society at Florida Memorial College (an institution he selected over Yale in order to work with African American students), Ashe realized that there were few suitable readings available on the history of African Americans in sport. Ashe spent the following six years – and roughly $300,000 of his own money – gathering a team of researchers to create the three-volume book, A Hard Road to Glory: A History of the African-American Athlete.
Ashe’s involvements in the struggle to end South African apartheid compose some of Hall’s most illuminating contributions. He outlines how Ashe, who was twice denied visas to compete in South Africa, lobbied international contingents to end apartheid; pressured South African athletes, most notably the golfer Gary Player, to speak out against their homeland’s inequities; and eventually co-founded Artists and Athletes Against Apartheid (AAAA).
Though most of Hall’s book gives praise to Ashe, it is not a hagiography. Hall, for instance, points out the younger Ashe’s surprisingly closed-minded views on women. Though Ashe later expressed regret for these attitudes and credited his wife Jeanne Moutoussamy with enlightening him, his earlier perspectives are shocking given his commitment to social justice. Moreover, and more interestingly, Hall’s discussion of Ashe’s evolving views on gender usefully shows that his beliefs – though often stated publicly and unrepentantly – were not intransigent.
As Hall’s subtitle suggests, his book focuses primarily on the Civil Rights era. His discussions of Ashe’s life after the early 1980s are certainly not cursory, but they lack the detail he provides up to that point. I would have liked to learn more about Ashe’s life after his HIV diagnosis; the controversial circumstances that prompted his 1992 announcement that he was afflicted with the virus; and his advocacy efforts surrounding HIV/AIDS until his passing in 1993. It would also be fascinating to know more about Ashe’s role in disabusing stereotypes surrounding those with HIV and AIDS. Ashe touches on these points in Days of Grace, but they could use the kind of contextualization that a meticulous historian like Hall might offer. But no book can do it all. These quibbles are less critiques than testaments to the many questions Hall’s rich study provokes – issues this biography will no doubt help future scholars to explore.
Arthur Ashe is a scrupulous and lively book that should achieve the difficult task of satisfying both academics and non-specialists. Anyone interested in how the mixture of sport and politics has become cultural common sense will benefit tremendously from reading it.
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014. 344 pp. ISBN: 9781421413945
Travis Vogan teaches in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Iowa. He is the author of Keepers of the Flame: NFL Films and the Rise of Sports Media. He tweets at @TV0GAN.