When I started this blog back in April, I planned out a schedule of posts. Looking ahead to the U.S. Open, I wondered what I might like to write about during that time. For no particular reason, Arthur Ashe popped into my head, and I penciled the idea into the schedule.
I didn’t learn until a couple of weeks ago that this year marks the 50th anniversary of Ashe’s first Grand Slam championship–at, of course, the U.S. Open. It’s also, sadly, the 25th anniversary of his death from AIDS. It’s strange how things sometimes work out like that.
A new biography of Arthur Ashe came out recently, and I considered reading it…until I saw that it clocks in at 784 pages. There was a time in my life when I would read long biographies, slogging through accounts of the person’s lonely holidays spent with distant relatives or prolonged bouts of dysentery, and fighting my way through a dense thicket of footnotes. I just don’t have it in me anymore.
Instead, I turned to Ashe’s memoir, Days of Grace, published posthumously in 1993. A comparatively compact 304 pages, Days of Grace covers Ashe’s post-retirement years, from 1980 up until a few weeks before his death.
Ashe’s career was winding down right around the time I started watching tennis. I don’t think I ever saw him play on television, and I wasn’t familiar with his game. I’d assumed he’d won the U.S. Open–after all, they named the stadium after him–but I didn’t know he’d also won Wimbledon and the Australian Open. He remains the only African-American man to ever win a Grand Slam event.
A heart attack in 1979 marked the beginning of years of cardiac trouble and forced him into retirement from tennis. Not content to rest on his laurels, Ashe became involved in a wide variety of endeavors. He captained the Davis Cup team, leading it to two titles; served on the board of directors of Aetna; and wrote the first comprehensive history of black American athletes, the multi-volume A Hard Road to Glory.
The man liked to keep busy.
But it’s as a philanthropist and activist that Ashe is best remembered today. Days of Grace covers Ashe’s charitable foundations, his concerns about the low graduation rates for black athletes, his arrests at political demonstrations, and his work to help end apartheid. Deeply introspective, Ashe grapples with his comparatively apolitical stance during the civil rights movement of his playing days:
“To what extent was I trying to make up, with my anti-apartheid crusade, for my relative inaction a decade or more earlier during the civil-rights struggle?…While blood was running freely in the streets of Birmingham, Memphis, and Biloxi, I had been playing tennis. Dressed in immaculate white, I was elegantly stroking tennis balls on perfectly paved courts in California and New York and Europe. Meanwhile, across the South, young men and women of my age were enduring pain and suffering so that blacks would be free of our American brand of apartheid.”
Days of Grace is filled with these moments of probing and questioning, coming to terms with his choices and reckoning with the difficult issues of his day. In the current media landscape littered with celebrities’ tweet-sized McThoughts, Ashe’s considered and nuanced prose comes as a welcome change.
More than most other memoirs I’ve read, Days of Grace left me with a clear sense of the man himself, not just his deeds. Ashe was reserved and decorous. Highly disciplined, he demanded much of himself, and found it hard to understand when others didn’t also aspire to high standards. He was intellectually curious and rigorous. And when it came to the issues of his day, committed and compassionate.
Ashe contracted HIV during a blood transfusion following heart surgery. For a couple of years, he kept his diagnosis private. At the time, AIDS was still a death sentence–and still stigmatized as the scourge of the homosexual and drug-using cultures. Ashe wanted neither to be defined by the disease nor to have his young daughter, Camera, exposed to harassment by her peers.
But once editors at USA Today heard rumors of his illness, forcing him to make a public statement, he decided it was time to do more. Ashe began to speak about the disease at schools and established the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS. Despite the grim reality he was facing, he writes about his fate with restraint and dignity:
“This is my middle passage, but because of my illnesses I have to face the fact that it is both a middle passage and probably a terminus. I can’t avoid the fact that AIDS is a terminal disease. No doubt science will one day come up with a vaccine, or even a way to reverse the effects of AIDS itself in the human body. But that will be a cure for other people, too late for me.
“Meanwhile, I keep sailing on in this middle passage. I am sailing into the wind and the dark. But I am doing my best to keep my boat steady and my sails full.”
Days of Grace closes with Ashe’s letter to his then six-year-old daughter, expressing the hopes and guidance he knows he won’t survive to say in person. When I got to the final two paragraphs, I was a bawling mess. I won’t quote them here, or I’ll start blubbering again.
I came away from Days of Grace in awe of Arthur Ashe, a sports hero in the truest sense of the word. If you’re curious about the man whose name inspires reverence in tennis circles, read this elegant, absorbing memoir.