Days of Grace, Arthur Ashe and Arnold Rampersad, One world-Ballantine Books, 1996, $7.99 (softcover)
Arthur Ashe was never known for his outward emotional displays and on several occasions, that tendency caused people to view him as aloof and icy.
In spite of that seemingly cool exterior, Ashe always had a deep desire to help others around him. His views weren’t always readily accepted by other Blacks, but they were always sought out and his sense of fairness was never questioned. A quote from his memoir, “Days of Grace,” recently released in paperback, illustrates his basic understanding of the role he played.
“There are moments when the individual must stand alone. Nevertheless, it is crucial to me that people think of me as honest and principled. In turn, to ensure that they do, I must always act in an honest and principled fashion, no matter the cost.”
Ashe, the only Black male to win Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, went public in 1992 with the announcement that he had contracted AIDS. It was determined that he had been infected when he received a blood transfusion during his second major heart operation in 1988. In December 1992 he was chosen “Sportsman of the Year” by Sports Illustrated, based on his work in a multitude of humanitarian areas. Two months later, he was dead.
In “Days of Grace,” Ashe discusses his viewpoints on an assortment of issues that run the gamut from AIDS education to Black political leadership in America.
As for AIDS education, Ashe made it clear that the world must understand that there is both a practical and a moral reason for getting the word out to children about this disease. The driving force behind this approach, he said, is that in America, the number of heterosexual people who are HIV-infected continues to increase. “To preach morality only and, at the same time, to ignore the practical aspects of the problem seems to me unwise. The distribution of condoms should be an essential part, but only one part of the overall effort at education. If the aim is to stop the spread of AIDS, we must have both condoms and moral instruction. One without the other will not do the job.”
What is most surprising about “Days” are Ashe’s views on race. He identifies race as clearly his biggest burden — bigger than any crisis he’d ever faced, including AIDS.
“Being Black in America is the biggest burden,” he writes. “It continues to feel like an extra weight tied around me. My disease is the result of biological factors that presently, nobody has control over. Racism, however, is made by people and therefore it hurts and inconveniences infinitely more.”
The former Davis Cup captain noted that the shadow of racism extends into all arenas, even the AIDS epidemic. A prime example is the drug, Kemron, which was developed in Kenya and according to reports, produced astounding results for HIV-infected patients.
Kemron was never approved for use in the U.S. because test results conducted by the National Institute of Health proved to be inconclusive. A Kenyan doctor who used Kemron on her patients questioned the validity of NIH’s testing, claiming that the samples used were not the same as what the Kenyans used.
Ultimately, Ashe never tried Kemron, and for him the rationale was very basic. He could find no consensus among reputable scientists about the drug’s effectiveness. And he would not allow his decisions on what drugs to try to be influenced by arguments based on racial conspiracies and racial genocide.
For example, when the disease first became prominent in America, intravenous drug users and homosexuals were the prime victims. Then the Haitians and some groups of Africans were singled out as people in high-risk groups. Those insinuations, Ashe contended, helped to fortify long-held negative notions about Africa. And an equally damaging assertion — which Ashe always rejected — was that AIDS resulted from a lab experiment designed to launch genocide against society’s “social outcasts”: drug users, gays and people of color.
Ashe makes a point of acknowledging his blessings — as a man highly respected by people from all walks of life, as a husband with a loving and devoted wife, and as the proud father of a radiant daughter. Throughout his lengthy battle with AIDS, he never whined about his fate. That was not his nature.
He wrote: “Quite often, people who mean well, will inquire of me whether I ask myself, in the face of my disease, `Why me?’ I never do. If I ask `Why me?’, as I am assaulted by heart disease and AIDS, I must ask `Why me?’ about my blessings and my right to enjoy them. … If I don’t ask `Why me?’ after my victories, I cannot ask `Why me?’ after my setbacks and disasters.”
In spite of his multiple ailments, Ashe didn’t fear death. He learned to live life to the fullest — not to give in to despair and resentment over his circumstances. Instead of becoming a hermit, he opted to maintain an active lifestyle for as long as his health would let him.
After going public with the news that he had contracted AIDS, the demand for Ashe to make public appearances grew three-fold. Responding in kind, he continued his work with the Arthur Ashe Foundation For The Defeat of AIDS, as well as serving on the board of the Aetna Life Insurance Co. Additionally, he founded the African American Athletic Association (AAAA), an organization formed to help Black student-athletes fully prepare themselves for college and life after sports. On top of all this, he continued to work as a tennis commentator for HBO and ABC.
“You come to the realization that time is short,” Ashe once told a reporter about his decision to continue to fully pursue his varied interests. “These are extraordinary conditions, and you have to step up.”
“Days of Grace” reveals Ashe’s joys and disappointments, his hopes and dreams, in a manner that’s fitting for a man of his stature. From start to finish, his honesty comes through loud and cleat. And because of his frankness, sensitivity and vulnerability, I’m constantly reminded of who he was. A man who exuded humility, style, dignity and lots of class.
Craig Greenlee is a sportswriter and a copy editor at the News and Record in Greensboro, NC.
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