Days of Grace
Tennis champion, role model, black celebrity, heart patient, and AIDS victim, Arthur Robert Ashe, Jr., managed to record his third and final memoir with matchless integrity. Coauthor Arnold Rampersad, the distinguished biographer of Langston Hughes, helped to bring Ashe’s voice to the reader with great clarity. Arranged loosely by topic, the eleven chapters of Days of Grace focus not on the deterioration of Ashe’s body but rather on the evolution of his spirit. While typically reserved in tone, the book reveals Ashe’s deeply personal journey leading up to his death from AIDS on February 6, 1993. The details of his struggle toward altruism are related so simply that the reader loses sympathy for Ashe, finding it replaced by profound empathy. Assessing the material nature of modern living from the threshold of spiritual clarity, Ashe unifies his essays with pragmatic piety and intelligent faith.
The first chapter, “My Outing,” begins with the central turning point of Ashe’s last years: The threat that USA Today was about to reveal that he had AIDS. Mortified by the prospect of negative publicity, Ashe felt his most prized earthly possession—his reputation—threatened. Ashe’s roots in African American spirituality led him to believe that his ancestors (including his mother, who died when he was six) as well as his living relatives would share the shame of his potential ostracism. It is an idea which bookends the memoir; Ashe’s closing chapter reassures his own six-year-old daughter, Camera, that he will be “watching and smiling and cheering [her] on” from beyond the great divide. Deciding to hold a news conference before the story broke, Ashe had the benefit of following Earvin “Magic” Johnson, the first “prominent heterosexual” to reveal that he had contracted AIDS. Well- acquainted with international travel, Ashe feared many doors would become closed to him and recalled lying about his infectious disease in order to enter South Africa in November, 1991. He was relieved to discover that his golden reputation, intimate friendships, health-care coverage, and financial support by sponsors were not reversed by the turn of that one day’s proclamation.
In hindsight, Ashe’s proactive announcement proved cathartic, unburdening Ashe and freeing him to serve a new cause under the “Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS,” with half of its proceeds going outside the United States. Public speaking invitations (including an address to the United Nations) tripled following the briefing, and especially after Sports Illustrated named Ashe “Sportsman of the Year” in 1992. Having been “sacrificed to the fervent American mass media, Ashe’s HIV status provided an ironic contrast to that of earlier AIDS victims (gays and IV-drug users) who felt that the media failed to cover their stories adequately. Despite letters from U.S. presidents, flowers from Elizabeth Taylor, and a tremendous amount of contact from other AIDS sufferers, Ashe was keenly aware of the political backlash his disease could bring especially regarding race and sexuality. In his memoir, Ashe allies himself with a “guiltless” band of AIDS victims, obsessively stressing—more than a dozen times—that his own case of AIDS could be definitively traced to a second blood transfusion following his 1983 double bypass surgery. Yet Ashe once surprised reporters who wondered whether heart disease or AIDS had proven to be his worst cross to bear, responding that race was “a grave burden, one that outweighs all others in my life.”
The second chapter of Days of Grace, titled “Middle Passage,” opens with Ashe’s early retirement from tennis due to quadruple coronary bypass surgery in December, 1979. As the chapter’s title suggests, the complex issue of race complicated Ashe’s middle years and proved his greatest hardship. Rejecting black militancy, Ashe took the high road of trying to love an imperfect humanity. Though he had once dated a white woman (whose mother was appalled when she first saw Ashe on television and discovered that he was black), Ashe married Jeanne-Marie Moutoussamy, a black professional photographer, in 1977, and felt a strong paternal instinct shortly thereafter. Though reared primarily by his father, Ashe agrees in principle with a two-parent system.
Ashe’s middle chapters explore racism in sports, politics, the black community, and education. At times cumbersome, the section on sports is primarily for tennis fans, centering on a tedious account of Ashe’s reign as captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team. Ashe is uncharacteristically petty in his portrayal of John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors; here, atypically, Ashe himself is an all-too-human figure...
(The entire section is 1941 words.)