Days of Grace, by Arthur Ashe
Profile in Courage
Days of Grace: A Memoir.
by Arthur Ashe and Arnold Rampersad.
Knopf. 366 pp. $24.00.
Days of Grace is not a traditional memoir but rather a collection of observations on sports, race, patriotism, sexual ethics, the individual’s obligation to his family, and coping with terminal illness—in Arthur Ashe’s case, AIDS contracted through a blood transfusion. The tone is dry, intensely rational, and somewhat aloof; to the very end of his life this past February, the late tennis champion refused to succumb to the bitterness we have come to associate with the personal accounts of AIDS victims.
All in all, this book reinforces the impression that Ashe’s demise has deprived America of one of its most gifted and worthy citizens. To some degree, no doubt, its power derives from its having been written under a sentence of death. The AIDS virus had already reached an advanced stage when the book was begun in 1992, and Ashe endured bouts of debilitating sickness and fatigue during the writing process, working right up to his death. (The finishing touches were added by his widow, Jeanne, and his collaborator, Arnold Rampersad.) In the end, Days of Grace is a strong statement about the importance of traditional values, individual achievement, and courage in the face of impending death.
Ashe was raised in Richmond, Virginia, during the waning years of segregation. His mother died when he was seven, and the dominant influence in his life was thus his father, a disciplinarian of the old school who worked hard to provide the material needs of his family, fretted over his children’s safety, and instilled by word and example a set of values which seems to have served Arthur Ashe well throughout his life.
Ashe tells us that “of all my possessions, my reputation means most to me,” and notes that he also tried to live up to the stricture set down by his father: “Don’t do anything you couldn’t tell your mother about.” These maxims, which many would regard as embarrassingly quaint, formed the basis of his code of behavior; although he does not say so directly, he seems to believe that they are good ideas for others to follow as well.
Ashe was also driven by an exemplary work ethic, whether the activity was a championship match, coaching the Davis Cup squad, writing books on the history of the black athlete, or raising a family. Thus, while he admires activist athletes like John Carlos, the American track medalist who stunned the 1968 Mexico City Olympics by giving the Black Power salute on the victory stand, he identifies more closely with overachievers like himself, whether white or black, among them Bill Bradley, the former New York Knicks basketball star and current U.S. Senator.
Nowhere did the Ashe code of personal conduct face a greater test than in his years as captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team. For Ashe, appointment as Cup captain—a position tantamount to coach—was extremely important. His playing days had just been prematurely ended by a major heart attack, and he was actively seeking new challenges. In addition, Ashe identified America’s quest for the Cup—the highest international team honor in tennis—as a patriotic mission; he once called the great American champion Jimmy Connors “seemingly unpatriotic” for his refusal to participate in the Cup rounds.
Ashe’s stint as Davis Cup captain was in many respects quite successful; under his guidance America won two consecutive championships, a feat unequaled in years. Nevertheless, victory had its price: with his strict sense of court decorum, Ashe was placed in charge of John McEnroe, Connors, and other American prodigies whose foul language, obscene gestures, and public tantrums were giving new meaning to the concept of unsportsmanlike conduct. Ashe found their behavior personally offensive; more to the point, he felt that the reputation of America was being sullied by the bratty conduct of the athletes on his watch.
If patriotism and graciousness strike one as unusual attitudes in the increasingly uncontrolled world of American professional sports, Ashe’s opinions on race relations must be regarded as even more unconventional. To be sure, Ashe writes that “being black is the greatest burden I’ve had to bear.” Yet one will search in vain in this book for the signs of racial self-pity, rationalizations for failure, or the embittered resentment of America which have become the stock-in-trade of so many commentators on American race relations.
It should be stressed that on most political questions Ashe comes across as a traditional liberal. He favors an activist government, endorses abortion rights, was a participant in the protest movement against South African apartheid, and regards Nelson Mandela with an almost worshipful attitude. What is more, he repeatedly traces the current predicament of black Americans to the centuries of slavery and discrimination they endured. Yet at the same time, he insists that this history of oppression not be employed as an excuse for anti-social behavior, black chauvinism, or bogus appeals to racial solidarity.
Ashe is especially concerned with what he sees as the corruption of black youth by the expectation that jobs and university admissions will be distributed to them on the basis of their skin color. He recalls with dismay a dialogue with black male athletes from Stamford, Connecticut, who insisted they were “entitled” to scholarships, even over athletes with better academic records. “On display,” he observes, “was the increasingly dominant African-American adolescent ethos of entitlement, of ‘You Owe Me,’ which I consider monstrous.”
Ashe encountered a similarly depressing response from the son of an affluent physician and personal friend. This young man had attended elite prep schools and had recently graduated from a prestigious law school. Yet despite his background, he told Ashe that he would have accepted admission to law school on an affirmative-action track, with the justification that as a member of a group which had been “historically abused and discriminated against” he was “entitled to redress,” that it was important that the law profession be more ethnically diverse, and that law-school entrance tests were anyway “slanted” to benefit whites.
In criticizing the entitlement mentality, Ashe does not limit his discussion to its effects on the sons and daughters of the well-off. Once, given the option of teaching a course at Yale or at a predominantly minority college in Miami, Ashe chose the latter out of an obligation to serve black youth. His first jolt came when, with few exceptions, he received student essays that were incoherent, ungrammatical, and lacking in logic. A second jolt came when the friend who had persuaded Ashe to accept the teaching post counseled him to refrain from judging his students by the standards to which he, as a student in segregated schools, had been held, and suggested that Ashe had a responsibility not to allow black youths to fail.
Grudgingly accepting the premise that his standards were too demanding for these particular students, Ashe received a final jolt when they reciprocated by adopting a lackadaisical attitude, cutting sessions, drifting in late, and refusing to complete the assigned work. At this juncture, Ashe reports, he “didn’t want to hear about the effects of history and the legacy of slavery and segregation. At some point, each individual is responsible for his or her fate.”
Ashe’s pointed remarks about the condition of black America are couched in a tone not of chastisement but rather of agonized concern. The spiritual decline of blacks, he emphasizes, mirrors a breakdown in values that has infected the entire society. But the consequences have been most severe for blacks, and he charges those in positions of leadership openly to confront their people’s problems and not evade the challenge by heaping blame on white society.
Ashe is particularly harsh in his assessment of the Black Power philosophy, which he identifies as the source of a ruinous decline in political morality. He sees the emergence of Black Power in the late 1960’s as ushering in a time when “the amoral quest for naked and vengeful power” would supplant “the dominance of morality in African-American culture.” The advocates of Black Power, Ashe contends,
. . . seemed to abandon principle in their thinking and their actions. What started as a movement toward liberation ended too often as a regime of dogmatism, coercion, hatred, violence, and what would later be called sexism. I saw a chilling similarity between the segregation that ruled my youth and the proposed new order under Black Power. For the first seventeen years of my life white people in Virginia told me what I could do, where I could go to church, in which taxi I could ride, where I had to sit on the bus, in which stores I could try on a coat. Then, in my second seventeen years, militant black people were trying to tell me, once again, what to think and do.
That such uncompromising opinions have appeared only after Arthur Ashe’s death unfortunately means that their impact has been blunted. For while Days of Grace has been quite favorably reviewed, most comment has been directed toward Ashe’s struggle with heart disease and AIDS, his tennis career, and the brief passage in which he criticizes two prominent black basketball stars, Magic Johnson and Wilt Chamberlain, for publicly bragging about their sexual conquests. His opinions on race, highly controversial under normal circumstances, have failed to stimulate serious debate.
One feels certain that, had he not fallen victim to AIDS, Ashe would have continued to speak out boldly on issues of American racial policy. Days of Grace reveals a man who seems to have succeeded in realizing the combination, highly unusual today, of a strong degree of American patriotism and a powerful sense of racial pride. It also reveals a man unsettled by the moral condition into which his country has fallen and disturbed by the deteriorated state of many of his fellow blacks. And it reveals a man who, by his achievements and his example, made an inestimable and still underappreciated contribution to his society and to his race.