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One Notable Exception, but It Deserves Top Shelf

February 16, 2001|DIANE PUCIN

The book is extraordinary, illuminating, heartwarming, informative.

"The African American Century, How Black Americans Have Shaped Our Country," is worth reading. It should be read by African Americans, white Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, Latinos. It should be read by Americans.

The book is written by two Harvard historians--Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Cornel West. It is 100 well-researched, well-presented chapters about musicians, poets, lawyers, doctors, inventors, explorers, cinematographers, preachers, generals, scientists and 12 athletes.

Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali, of course. Michael Jordan and Henry Aaron certainly. Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, Willie Mays, Tiger Woods, Carl Lewis, Althea Gibson and Jack Johnson. We've heard of them all.

Johnson and Jimmy Winkfield, maybe we haven't heard of them as much. But they are worth hearing about--Johnson won the heavyweight boxing title in 1908, resulting in race riots and fear among ill-informed whites who didn't want to think about a strong black man; Winkfield was the last African American jockey to win the Kentucky Derby.

All fine choices. All good people, champions and survivors.

But there is one missing person.

It is difficult for this Marquette University history minor to argue with two Harvard historians. It isn't easy for this white woman to disagree with two African American men about African American history.

So this is a respectful criticism. A serious rant. A calm shout.



No list of 100 or 50 or 20 or 10 African American heroes of the 20th century, athletes or not, is complete without Ashe.

He came from the South, Richmond, Va., where he faced discrimination. He was talented at a sport in which African Americans were least accepted, a country club sport where the dress code was all white. He was a child of poverty who carried himself with great dignity. He was a man of courage who came to UCLA, just as Jackie Robinson did, so he could be accepted as an athlete and an academic.

As Black History month is being celebrated, we've heard little of Ashe. As usual.

Maybe we all need reminding.

Ashe became a tennis champion, a winner of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, even though he couldn't play national junior tournaments because of his race. He developed elegant strokes, impeccable poise, sterling character and a cleverness of tactic without ever being able to hire the best coaches or play against the best competition in the time when his talent was developing.

Into the heart of apartheid South Africa, Ashe went to win a tennis title and the hearts of the indigenous black population. He started a national tennis program called Safe Passage, which is still vital and still providing disadvantaged children the opportunity of tennis.

He was a Davis Cup player of class and then became a Davis Cup coach with the fortitude to rise above the bad behavior of John McEnroe and then the dignity to embarrass McEnroe. Ashe was a scholar all his life. He wrote an important book on the history of the black athlete, "A Hard Road to Glory."

And he did much of this while suffering from heart disease. It was his heart disease which led to the contaminated blood transfusion which led to his acquiring the HIV virus and, eventually, the full-blown AIDS which cost him his life at age 49.

After his illness became public, against his wishes, he was asked how he was able to handle such a difficult and stigmatizing illness. His answer was simple and poignant. He said that living each day as a black man in America was more difficult than suffering with AIDS.

There has never been such an illuminating comment. To whites who don't experience or understand racism, hearing from a man who was living a life of grace and importance, who never used racism as an excuse for anything, that single statement taught a lesson.

And yet Ashe didn't make this important book.


Tiger Woods did. He has increased the popularity of golf like no one else. But he never faced the obstacles Ashe overcame. Ali is a citizen and hero of the world, but he is not the scholar that Ashe was. We might think of Jordan as the first racial crossover billionaire, but can anyone imagine Jordan marching in protest of any inequity?

In the month before his death on Feb. 6, 1993, Ashe marched in protest of the treatment of Haitian refugees. His body frail and weakened by AIDS, he still marched and was arrested.

As you look at the athletes who made this distinguished top 100 list, only Robinson faced and conquered the same kinds of hurdles as Ashe, handled them with equal dignity and made such an all-encompassing impact.

Ashe once said that if, in history, he was remembered only as a tennis player, "then I would consider myself a failure."

In 1996 the city of Richmond, his home, put a statue of Ashe on Monument Avenue. Next to statues of Confederate War heroes stands Ashe, who holds a book in one hand and a tennis racket in the other.

Which is the reason Ashe should be in this book. He should be in the book not only as an athlete, not only as a scholar, not only as a teacher or coach or crusader. He should be in the book for all these reasons. And if Gates and West, who has said in interviews that leaving Ashe out was a difficult choice, didn't want to cut any of their 100 standouts, the book should have one extra chapter.


Diane Pucin can be reached at her e-mail address:

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