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Arthur Ashe: A Life


Arthur Ashe: A Life

Noted civil rights historian Raymond Arsenault has created a posthumous paean to Arthur Ashe. One of the most storied figures in sports, Ashe was a great competitor and a human rights activist, first by circumstance and then very much by choice.

For the price of $22.50, not an easy sum for a struggling family to come up with, world-renowned champion-to-be Arthur Ashe began his career with a cheap tennis racket. By age eight, he showed so much promise that a skilled tennis coach took him under his wing, and by age 25 he had “all the attributes of celebrity but one: money.” These remarkable happenings were centered on a young man who, as a child, had been so small and frail that almost any childhood illness might have wiped his name from the pages of history. He grew up, getting taller and stronger but always projecting a gentle, relaxed physical stance (except when tearing up an opponent on the tennis court) and genteel, well-articulated, morally purposed ethics.

"This thorough account naturally will be of particular interest to sports fans, as the author assiduously takes readers through the star’s career and his matches with all the great players of the day."

The ethics were the product of his impoverished upbringing as a dark-skinned son of the American South, a member of the black underclass in the former capital of the Confederacy, Richmond, Virginia. His father had made his way as a house servant for several prominent Jewish families, and then as caretaker for a large black park that included tennis courts. After his mother died, tennis seemed to fill a void in Ashe's life. When he couldn’t participate in local matches because of the color bar, he was supported in taking lessons and competing in other locations. He gradually climbed to the top of the game.

With many firsts and a life that put him in direct contact with the greats of the sports world and others on the big stage, Ashe is a profound subject for any biographer, and Arsenault spent nine years on this exploration of the man who was the first and still the only black man to win singles championships at Wimbledon, the US Open and the Australian Open. Owing to his upbringing in a racially tense atmosphere, Ashe learned to choose his words carefully, but would become a fierce supporter of anti-apartheid initiatives in South Africa and, of course, racial integration in his homeland. He was arrested twice for his role as an advocate for the rights of South Africans and Haitian refugees. After contracting AIDS from blood transfusions, he started the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS and later the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health.

Arsenault has worked through interviews with those who knew Ashe, and also with Ashe’s own extensive personal writings, so that the man’s voice is heard again. This thorough account naturally will be of particular interest to sports fans, as the author assiduously takes readers through the star’s career and his matches with all the great players of the day. His likeness appeared on a US postage stamp, but perhaps fighter Mike Tyson displayed the “most exotic” tribute --- a tattoo of Ashe on his arm, denoting his wish to be more like his hero.

Arsenault's book has the power to invade the hearts of those who did not experience the American Civil Rights movement directly. The many large and small ways that racial segregation could poison good lives and hurt innocent people --- as seen through Ashe’s eyes --- comprise a cache of knowledge that needs to be shared, noted and remembered.

Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on August 24, 2018

Arthur Ashe: A Life
by Raymond Arsenault

  • Publication Date: August 20, 2019
  • Genres: Biography, Nonfiction, Sports
  • Paperback: 784 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 1439189056
  • ISBN-13: 9781439189054