Arthur Ashe and his hard road to literary glory

December 23, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism, writers, writing.

Arthur Ashe we remember as a tennis star whose quickness and grace on the court masked a concentration and preparation that few athletes have matched. Ashe’s tennis career was cut short by health problems and his life ended tragically early by a medical accident.

Ashe was many things besides a tennis champion. Among them, he was an author.

Ashe wrote and co-authored a number of autobiographical volumes, inspirational books, and instructional books on tennis. His most interesting work, however, is hard to classify. It was a three-volume history of black athletes in America under the general title of A Hard Road to Glory.

The idea of doing a survey of African-Americans in athletics came to Ashe after he had retired from tennis. A noted bibliophile and collector of books on African-Americans, Ashe was teaching at Florida Memorial College when he realized there was a dearth of material on black sports figures in history. Bright and learned as he was, Ashe was not a trained historian, and his lack of credentials hindered him in gaining the interest of any major publisher.

The initial response did not deter him, however, and he continued to develop the idea.

In 1983, he landed a contract with Howard University Press, which gave him an advance of $10,000. The entire project would cost Ashe far more than that — by one account, Ashe spent $300,000 — because information and sources were often scattered and obscure. Ashe worked with a team of researchers and sought information in a variety of ways.

It was, to say the least, a daunting task.

Ashe persisted, convinced of the importance of the project. As the information flowed in, Ashe began to construct a manuscript, writing sections and then sending them to friends, colleagues and respected scholars. The feedback he received as mixed. Ashe was not a professional writer, and most of his previous books had been co-authored with people who were.

In November 1988, the three-volume work was published, and its existence was heavily promoted. Ashe wrote a piece for the New York Times (November 13, 1988) that ended with this paragraph:

Proportionately, the black athlete has been more successful than any other group in any other endeavor in American life. And he and she did it despite legal and social discrimination that would have dampened the ardor of most participants. The relative domination of blacks in American sports will continue into the foreseeable future. Enough momentum has been attained to insure maximum sacrifice for athletic glory. Now is the time for our esteemed sports historians to take another hard look at our early athletic life, and revise what is at present an incomplete version of what really took place.

Ashe’s volumes on the black athlete received mixed reviews. His scholarship and his writing were criticized, and many reviewers simply did not know what to make of what he had done. Was his trilogy an encyclopedia or a good set of stories. Those questions have persisted throughout the life of the book.

Ashe’s life ended tragically five years later. He died of HIV as a result of a blood transfusion. He was 49 years old.

Much of the information for this article comes from:

David K. Wiggins. “SYMBOLS OF POSSIBILITY: ARTHUR ASHE, BLACK ATHLETES, AND THE WRITING OF A HARD ROAD TO GLORY.” The Journal of African American History 99, no. 4 (2014): 379-402. doi:10.5323/jafriamerhist.99.4.0379.

 

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