NOTE – This was a column written four years ago, which the RTD turned down at the time…..not long after my submission, the RTD published a Michael Paul Williams column they felt preferable. I continue to be proud of this column while watching the Ashe Blvd. become a reality. So it goes.
The expression, “a legacy of slavery”, often surfaces when America’s racial problem and injustice arise in social conversations. I suppose the fact that over 70 % of African American children are currently being raised without a dad present…feeds the social disaster.
Clearly, Arthur Ashe proved this wrong forty years ago. He won the tennis championships at Wimbledon.
Editorially, the Richmond Times Dispatch summarized this man-champion: he earned eternal membership in the aristocracy of merit. Maybe it’s that merit-business that brings me back to Ashe – not the Confederate flag issue.
Rhapsodizing about my almost contempory Richmonder, the tennis champ conjures up exhausting appreciation – If we can bypass his tennis celebrity, Ashe was so much more… he empowered local student achievement by reconciling the irreconcilable. His model of pure integrity was important to struggling black and white youths alike.
“Days of Grace,” a life-reflecting autobiography, revealed the key. Growing up black and barred from playing tennis in segregated public parks, Ashe improvised. Receiving a UCLA tennis scholarship, after graduating from segregated Maggie Walker High School, this solemn-eyed student blended career with growing personal dignity.
He plunged into poised citizenship, catapulting into national celebrity with tennis achievements (818 wins – 260 losses) until exhaustion indicated a predisposition to heart disease in 1979. Richmond’s champion endured the early era of open-heart surgery – strength and faith abide. Thirty three years later it would be my turn.
A tainted blood transfusion intervened, passing on the AIDS virus; this would hound him into a death sentence…bitterness purged.
Ashe was five years my junior, so our connection was remote. As a public school teacher, I met him twice – for purpose of honoring top high school academic achievers, public and private – at Holiday Inn 3200 in Richmond. Obviously ill, ever resilient, Ashe buoyed by rapturous teen audiences, courageously, shaking hands, autographing automatically, enduring the energy of adolescent honorees…his mentoring reigned.
“Of all my possessions, my reputation means most to me,” he wrote. He tried to live up to rules set by his disciplinarian father, Arthur Ashe Sr. “Don’t do anything you couldn’t tell your mother about,” dad would chide. Amid the perceived quaintness, hamstrung with an ever coarsening culture, Ashe didn’t flinch – his behavioral code remained rock-strong.
As U.S. Davis Cup team captain, Ashe viewed personal conduct and behavior an ultimate responsibility. Lamenting Jimmy Connors’ refusal to participate in Cup rounds, and observing John McEnroe’s bratty exhibitionism sullying America’s reputation, Ashe was mortified.
Then – the honesty in “Days of Grace.” He expressed deep disappointment in basketball greats Earvin Johnson (Ashe thought it demeaning to call him “Magic”) and Wilt Chamberlain. When they publicly bragged of their sexual conquests, he ruminated: “What does this say to youth who idolize them?”
Political liberalism spoke to his personal values: activist government; endorsement of abortion rights; marching in protest movements against South African apartheid, and exhibiting near-worship of Nelson Mandela. He traced black American challenges to slavery and discrimination – then quickly would admonish: “this history of oppression not be used as excuse for anti-social behavior, black chauvinism, or bogus appeals to racial solidarity.”
I wondered what Ashe thought of Frederick Douglass’ quote in the 19th century concerning well-meaning whites. Thomas Sowell assures that Douglass said, “Everybody has asked the question, ‘What shall we do with the Negro?’ I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us.”
“Days of Grace” was required reading in my Advance Placement U.S. History classes at Mills Godwin High School. Frankly, it ought to be required reading in the company of To Kill a Mocking Bird, and The Great Gatsby. Standing alone, his work and citizenship dictate the movement to rename Richmond’s Boulevard: ASHE BOULEVARD.
Passing frequently by his Monument Avenue statue, Arthur Ashe was a god-send to Richmonders who took pride in his example. Abundantly bringing us qualities of soul-enhancing self-examination, the Ashe tradition may give us a Russell Wilson, who could emerge with similar qualities…our culture is desperate for them.