The Corner

U.S.

‘The Heaviest Burden’

Arthur Ashe waves to the crowd at the National Tennis Center in New York in 1992. (Ray Stubblebine / Reuters)

Today, I have an Impromptus column for you, touching on a variety of subjects, as is the column’s job. Yesterday, I had a piece on Ondrej Kolar, a district mayor in Prague. He has gone through a terrible ordeal, which required police protection, and two weeks in hiding. If you would like to hear my podcast with him, go here.

Kolar is an inspiring figure: a politician who stands up for freedom and democracy, even in the face of the direst personal threats.

Impromptus today begins with that old devil race. I speak a bit about the capitalization of “white” and “black.” (I think this is a bad and corrosive habit.) And I note an incident in Leelanau County, Mich., where I once spent some time.

A member of the Road Commission there said, “Well, this whole thing is because of them n*****s in Detroit.” By “this whole thing,” he meant the pandemic and the need to wear masks, I think.

Later, speaking to Interlochen Public Radio, he said, “A n***** is a n***** is a n*****. That’s not a person whatsoever.”

Forget the sentiment for a minute. What do you think of the asterisks? Namby-pamby? Too softening? Does that word have a greater impact — is its ugliness more amply revealed — without asterisks?

Let’s try it again: “A nigger is a nigger is a nigger,” said the road commissioner. “That’s not a person whatsoever.”

It seems to me that, in the last several years, racists have crawled out of the woodwork. They always exist, of course, but they are either in the woodwork or not. I prefer them in the woodwork, if I have to have them at all.

Yesterday, after I wrote my column, I had a memory of long ago. Arthur Ashe was dying of AIDS. This was in the early 1990s. And he told an interviewer that being black was harder than having AIDS.

I was brought up short by this remark. Ashe was a celebrity, a star, a revered athlete. An American hero. Was being black so hard as that — even for him? By his own testimony: yes.

Googling around, I have found an excerpt from his autobiography. I will paste.

I had spent more than an hour talking in my office at home with a reporter for People magazine. Her editor had sent her to do a story about me and how I was coping with AIDS. The reporter’s questions had been probing and yet respectful of my right to privacy. Now, our interview over, I was escorting her to the door. As she slipped on her coat, she fell silent. I could see that she was groping for the right words to express her sympathy for me before she left.

“Mr. Ashe, I guess this must be the heaviest burden you have ever had to bear, isn’t it?” she asked finally.

I thought for a moment, but only a moment. “No, it isn’t. It’s a burden, all right. But AIDS isn’t the heaviest burden I have had to bear.”

“Is there something worse? Your heart attack?”

I didn’t want to detain her, but I let the door close with both of us still inside.

“You’re not going to believe this,” I said to her, “but being black is the greatest burden I’ve had to bear.”

“You can’t mean that.”

“No question about it. Race has always been my biggest burden. Having to live as a minority in America. Even now it continues to feel like an extra weight tied around me.”

I can still recall the surprise and perhaps even the hurt on her face. I may even have surprised myself, because I simply had never thought of comparing the two conditions before. However, I stand by my remark. Race is for me a more onerous burden than AIDS. My disease is the result of biological factors over which we, thus far, have had no control. Racism, however, is entirely made by people, and therefore it hurts and inconveniences infinitely more.

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