- Arthur Ashe: Tennis and Justice in the Civil Rights Era by Eric Allen Hall
It boggles the mind that Eric Allen Hall’s Arthur Ashe is the first biography (excepting children’s books) of the tennis great. Ashe’s career straddled the turbulent period when professionalism supplemented tennis’s old amateur system and when talk of unionization upset the sport’s staid structure. Ashe was also the most important African American player during the civil rights era. His sporting status gave him a platform for addressing racial, gender, and economic issues not just in the United States but around the world.
Arthur Ashe is equal parts sports biography and intellectual history. Hall traces both Ashe’s rise from segregated Richmond to global stardom and his shifting perspectives on race. He positions Ashe as a racial moderate more willing to protest than Joe Louis or Jesse Owens but less radical than Muhammad Ali or Jim Brown. Ashe’s father was a cautious man who counseled patience in the face of racial injustice. The budding tennis star learned to let his racket do the talking when whites demeaned him or barred him from their tournaments.
Ashe became more outspoken while at UCLA in the late 1960s. In contrast to the rising black power movement, he promoted open dialogue between the races and urged young African Americans to embrace self-reliance as a social mobility tool. Ashe’s moderation alienated conservatives and radicals alike. As Hall astutely notes, multiple considerations drove Ashe’s perspectives. As a member of the United States Army and the nation’s Davis Cup team, he hesitated to join black radicals in criticizing the Vietnam War. As a prominent corporate endorser, he was reluctant to push beyond the mainstream lest he imperil his financial well-being.
South Africa’s 1969 rejection of Ashe’s visa application inspired a new awareness of global racism. Ashe made toppling apartheid his top priority over the coming years, often inspiring derision from African Americans who wanted him to focus on domestic inequality. Hall devotes considerable attention to South Africa—perhaps too much, as the narrative dives deep into the weeds at times—as he explores protests against the apartheid-ridden nation’s participation in international events and Ashe’s long, ultimately fruitful struggle to play in the country’s lucrative tennis tournaments. While never overstating his case, Hall makes it clear that Ashe helped end legalized discrimination in South Africa.
Although a moderate progressive on most issues, Ashe harbored some retrograde gender attitudes. He saw women’s tennis as a sideshow and lobbied against Billie Jean King’s crusade to equalize prizes for men and women. [End Page 253]
A foot injury cut short Ashe’s career. Hall does a fine job of contrasting the declining veteran, known for his on-court poise, against the boisterous new generation of tennis stars. Although Ashe befriended Ilie Năstase, he had strained relationships with Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe. This disjuncture became most apparent when Ashe, as captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team, butted heads with the childish McEnroe, whose outbursts reflected poorly on the nation, as well as the man.
Arthur Ashe is a well-crafted biography that fills a gaping historical void. Its subject is a fully formed human, warts and all. An even more complete picture might have emerged had the author expanded his source base. The Schomburg Center’s Arthur Ashe collection is used well here, but much of the book leans on Ashe’s four autobiographies. There are no new interviews here, even though the topic presents an excellent opportunity for oral history (Hall does use some older interviews). Considering the book’s intense focus on South Africa, it would be interesting to get more of a backstage perspective through internal South African documents or diplomatic correspondence sent between that country and the United States. To his credit, Hall dips into South African newspapers for alternate perspectives on apartheid.
Finally, there could be...