The year before he died of complications associated with AIDS at the age of 49 in 1993, Arthur Ashe gave an interview to People magazine about how he was coping with the disease. "Mr. Ashe, I guess this must be the heaviest burden you have ever had to bear, isn't it?" the reporter asked.
"You're not going to believe this," responded the UCLA alumnus who grew up in the segregated town of Richmond, Va. and went to Ivy League schools. "But being black is the greatest burden I've had to bear."
That anecdote, from Ashe's 1993 memoir, "Days of Grace," was recounted in a recent talk, " 'Don't Tell Me How to Think': Arthur Ashe and the Burden of Race," by Damion Thomas, assistant professor in the Sport Commerce and Cultural Program of the University of Maryland. The Feb. 9 lecture in Haines Hall was organized by the Bunche Center for African American Studies.
"But why does Ashe use the phrase 'being black'?" Thomas asked. "Why doesn't he say racism is his biggest burden?" Because, he continued, "with Ashe, it was not racism but representation that was the problem — the idea, particularly pronounced in the 1960s, that there is an essential notion of how black people are."
The first part of the title of Thomas' talk is a defiant line from an article in a sports magazine that Ashe wrote in 1975, the year he became the first — and so far only — black man ever to win the Wimbledon singles title. In the article, Ashe publicly aired his frustration with the confrontational tactics of the black power movement at the time.
A leading civil rights and AIDS activist, Ashe contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion during heart surgery. "His 'burden' was the idea that all black athletes have to give back in a certain way approved by the community," said Thomas, himself an African American who earned his master's and doctorate degrees in history from UCLA.
"A lot of people wanted him to denounce racism, but Ashe was not an oppositional person," said Thomas, who is working on a book about the U.S. government's attempts to shape international perceptions of American race relations by sending black athletes on goodwill tours during the cold war.
Ashe was a conservative. "I am a black, an American black," he wrote. "But I am a 'have,' and essentially I am a capitalist. Primarily, I represent me. Secondarily, I represent us." (Ashe subsequently clarified that he represented himself 60% of the time and blacks 40%, said Thomas, observing jokingly: "I don't know how he arrived at that balance.")
Ashe was criticized for his involvement in Haitian immigration reform and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. His latter effort was seen as "a sign that he felt the race battle in the United States was, more or less, settled," said Thomas.
Throughout his life, Ashe was "increasingly challenged by the idea that he had a responsibility to the black community, and he found himself responding to that initiative," said Thomas.
Still, the major question of Ashe's life wasn't race but the "socially mandated responsibility for prominent African Americans to have a social role," said Thomas, adding: "I think in Black History Month, that's an important question to raise."