Ashe attack on Magic's life as the black stud: Aids and the perpetuation of a racist myth . . . Patrick Cockburn reports from Washington on a tennis champion's posthumous memoirs
Patrick Cockburn is an Irish journalist who has been a Middle East correspondent since 1979 for the Financial Times and, presently, The Independent. He was awarded Foreign Commentator of the Year at the 2013 Editorial Intelligence Comment Awards.
Sunday 13 June 1993
Ashe, who contracted Aids after a heart bypass operation, says in his book Days of Grace that the promiscuous behaviour of Magic Johnson embarrassed their race. Johnson, who is HIV positive, has admitted sleeping with hundreds of women, sometimes up to six a night.
Of Johnson and Wilt Chamberlain, another basketball great who claimed to have slept with 20,000 women, Ashe wrote: 'African Americans have spent decades denying that we are sexual primitives by nature, as racists have argued since the days of slavery. These two college-trained black men of international fame and immense personal wealth do their best to reinforce the stereotype.'
The book, which has just been published in the United States, has been described by reviewers as 'brave and beautiful'. It includes a moving final chapter dedicated to his six-year-old daughter.
Magic Johnson has made no comment on the book, beyond pointing out that he has admitted responsibility for his actions. The Los Angeles Lakers star, one of the finest players of his generation and an icon for young black males, retired in 1991 after revealing that he was HIV positive. He played in the Dream Team, the group of US professionals that won the gold medal at the Barcelona Olympics last year. But an attempt at a comeback this season was abandoned when other players said they were worried about facing him on the court.
In Days of Grace, Ashe, the only black man to win Wimbledon, said he traced his own infection back to 'two units of transfused blood after my second heart-bypass operation in 1983'. He discovered that something was wrong with him in 1988 when the the fingers of his right hand went numb. This was diagnosed as full-blown Aids, but he concealed the illness until 1992 when his condition was revealed by the newspaper USA Today.
The book opens with this 'outing' and the debate over the right to know versus the right to privacy. Ashe said that the newspaper 'had put me in the unenviable position of having to lie if I wanted to protect our privacy. No one should have to make that choice. I am sorry that I have been forced to make this revelation now'.
The final chapter of the book, completed three weeks before his death in February at the age of 49, is an 11-page letter to his six-year-old daughter Camera. 'Don't be angry with me if I am not there in person, alive and well, when you need me,' Ashe writes. 'Camera, wherever I am when you feel sick at heart and weary of life, or when you stumble and fall and don't know if you can get up again, think of me. I will be watching and smiling and cheering you on.'
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