The Icy Elegance of Arthur Ashe … And the Passion of Muhammad Ali

Stephen Tignor | Longreads | August 2016 | 22 minutes (5,613 words)

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The fifth edition of the ESPY Awards, held in 1997 at Radio City Music Hall in New York, was a celebration of the African-American athlete. Michael Johnson won Best Male Athlete, Tiger Woods and Desmond Howard received honors, black celebrities were on hand to pay tribute to Jackie Robinson, and Ray Charles performed.

But the loudest ovation was reserved for Muhammad Ali. The former heavyweight champion was presented with the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage, which for more than two decades has been given to a recipient who “reflect[s] the spirit of Arthur Ashe, possessing strength in the face of adversity, courage in the face of peril, and the willingness to stand up for their beliefs no matter what the cost.”

It was the evening’s melancholy high point. The spirits of Ashe and Ali were alive in the room. Yet the voices of these two heroes of the 1960s and ’70s could no longer be heard. The tennis player had died four years earlier, at age 49, of complications from AIDS. The boxer was only 55, but Parkinson’s disease had muted this most verbal of athletes. The man who introduced Ali at the ESPYs, Sidney Poitier, spoke for many of his generation when he said, “The first thing I remember is his voice.” But on this night, Ali could muster just two words for the audience: “Thank you.”

It would be hard to imagine two people, let alone two sportsmen of the same era, whose personalities diverged as much as theirs did. Ashe was cautious and cerebral, Ali brash and outrageous. Ashe excelled in a genteel sport, Ali in a brutal one. Ali refused to be drafted into the Vietnam War; Ashe was a lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Ali joined the separatist Nation of Islam and befriended Malcolm X; Ashe dedicated his life to the cause of Martin Luther King and integration. If we think of Ali by his given name, Cassius Clay, even their surnames—Clay and Ashe—represent opposing states of matter.

Yet it was fitting that they should be honored together on a night of African-American celebration. During the same tumultuous period, they had proved what a powerful impact engaged athletes can have on the world. Ashe had once said of Ali, “He was largely responsible for it becoming an expected part of a black athlete’s responsibility to get involved.” Ashe was one of those who had followed Ali’s lead.

Arthur Ashe in 1965. AP Photo

Arthur Ashe in 1965. AP Photo

Ali and Ashe were born within a year of each other, in 1942 and 1943, respectively, in large cities in athe segregated South. Ali grew up in Louisville, Ashe in Richmond. Their lives would run on parallel tracks for five decades, as each rose to the top of his sport and, at the same time, transcended it. They became spokesmen for African-Americans during the revolutionary ’60s, took their messages to Africa in the ’70s, and recorded their final triumphs in 1975. Through the ’80s, each man would show courage in the face of tragically early physical deterioration.

Ali and Ashe brought different messages to a country, and a black community, that had been upended by civil rights. Ali’s experience as an African-American in the South led him to believe that the U.S. would never live up to its professed ideals of equality when it came to blacks; Ashe’s experience led him to try to prove that the nation could. Their lives can be read as a conversation about what it means to be an African-American and, by extension, what it means to be American.

* * *

In 1955, Ali—then known as Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr.—turned 13 in Louisville and Ashe turned 12 in Richmond. That summer, both boys were deeply affected by the story of another African-American their age, from Chicago. While visiting relatives in Mississippi, it is believed 14-year-old Emmett Till had made the fatal mistake of calling a white cashier at a grocery store “baby.” Four days later, the woman’s husband and half brother dragged Till out of his great-uncle’s house, beat him, gouged out his eye, shot him in the head, and dumped his body in the Tallahatchie River.

Muhammad Ali in 1965. AP Photo

Muhammad Ali in 1965. AP Photo

When Till’s mother chose to have an open casket at his funeral, Jet magazine published photos of his virtually unrecognizable corpse. The murderers’ acquittal by an all-white jury, in 67 minutes, was taken by African-American families as a warning. When Cassius Clay Sr., a sign painter, saw the photos of Till, he showed them to his two sons. “This is what they do to us!” he told them.

“[I] felt a deep kinship to him,” Ali would say of Till. “My father talked about it at night and dramatized the crime. I couldn’t get Emmett out of my mind.”

“The horror that Cassius experienced looking at the pictures of Till’s brutalized face in the pages of the black press,” wrote Ali biographer David Remnick in the New Yorker, “helped convince him of the limits of his possibilities as a black kid in the South.”

At the same time that Till’s death was confirming Cassius Clay Sr.’s sense of injustice in Louisville, it was also confirming the long-held fears of Arthur Ashe Sr. in Richmond. Ashe, a single father whose wife, Mattie, had died five years earlier, was a stern, responsible maintenance man who watched over his two sons, Arthur Jr. and Johnnie, closely. Now his efforts were given a new sense of urgency.

“My father tried hard to keep us out of harm’s way, and the possibility of harm was real,” Ashe would later say. “We all knew what had happened to Emmett Till, whose death in 1955 cast a shadow over my youth and that of virtually all black kids in Richmond.”

Ashe Sr. believed that trouble lurked in all directions for young African-Americans in Richmond, and did his best to help his elder son navigate the all-powerful white world that surrounded him. Each day, Arthur Jr. was expected to return home 10 minutes after the final bell at school rang, and he was never to argue with whites or blame them for his problems. Young Arthur, naturally deferential, did as he was told.

Clay Sr. remained unbowed. “There was nothing modest about Cassius, Sr.,” wrote Ali’s friend Howard Bingham in his book Cassius Clay vs. the United States of America (written with Max Wallace). “I am the greatest!” the father would announce to anyone within earshot—including, presumably, his oldest son. The young Cassius would appropriate his father’s catchphrase; more important, the father’s racial grievances inspired a self-reliant ambition in the son. After Till’s death, Cassius Jr. knew that the only way he was going to beat the system was by doing it himself.

Ashe, a straight-A student, became famous for his thoughtful reserve and his ability to move easily between white and black worlds. But he would also be accused of not being militant enough in the African-American cause. Billie Jean King, tennis’s resident revolutionary, once claimed that “a lot of blacks have told me that in many ways they can relate to me better than they can to Arthur.”

The self-effacing patience and prudence Ashe learned in Richmond were just as much a product of the black experience in the South as the self-dramatizing rebelliousness that Ali learned from his own father in Louisville.

* * *

By the time Ali and Ashe entered their teens, each had found a refuge from their highly circumscribed surroundings. The boxing ring and the tennis court became places where they could remake their worlds the way they wanted.

Ali claimed that he started fighting as a way “to make it in this country,” but he took his first boxing lesson at age 12 for a more practical reason: His bike had been stolen. “The usually easygoing youngster erupted in fury,” Bingham and Wallace wrote, “and started to yell for a policeman.” It turned out there was one in the basement of a nearby building. Clay ran there in tears and found Joe Martin, an off-duty Louisville cop who trained young boxers.

Clay was hooked from day one. At first Martin thought the skinny kid’s talents were “just ordinary,” but he was easily the hardest worker he had ever trained. “It was almost impossible to discourage him,” Martin told Thomas Hauser, author of Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times.
Soon after meeting Martin, Clay beat a fellow novice fighter and promptly shouted, “I’m gonna be the greatest in the world!”

By 1960, the 18-year-old Clay was accomplished enough to win a gold medal at the Olympics in Rome. The ring wasn’t a place of violence for Clay; it was a stage where he could express the showmanship and artistry that he had inherited from his father. Clay won with speed rather than power.

Ashe discovered tennis at age 7, when his father took a job as a policeman at one of Richmond’s segregated recreational facilities, Brookfield Park. The younger Ashe may not have seemed a likely future tennis champion; in the 1950s, the sport was still the province of exclusive all-white clubs. But with daily access to the courts at Brookfield, he quickly caught the eye of local teaching pro Ron Charity. Like Cassius Clay, Ashe’s playing style belied his personality. Cautious off court, he was a slashing, risk-taking attacker on it.

By the time he was 10, Ashe’s reputation had spread as far as Lynchburg, Va., and the home of Dr. Robert Walter Johnson. In between his medical rounds, Johnson had pioneered the idea of the junior tennis academy on a court in his backyard. His goal was to develop the Jackie Robinson of tennis, a player good enough to break the sport’s color barrier and beat whites at their own game. In 1950, he succeeded when his star student, Althea Gibson, became the first African-American to compete in the U.S. Nationals (now the U.S. Open).

As the ’50s continued, Johnson found a new goal: mentoring a black player who could win the National Interscholastic Championships, an annual all-white tournament held at the University of Virginia. It was one thing to integrate an international event in New York, another to do it in the South. Johnson was adamant; he didn’t just want a black player to enter the Interscholastics, he wanted one to win it.

“What made me maddest,” Johnson told Time magazine two years before his death in 1971, “was this idea that colored athletes were only good as sprinters or strong boys, who couldn’t learn…finesse.”

To break tennis’ color barrier, Johnson believed he needed not just a standout athlete, but one who also possessed manners that were beyond reproach. “Never question a line call, never confront anyone on a court,” is how one student of Johnson’s described his philosophy. “If one of us was to challenge a player, they [officials at white tournaments] might say, ‘See, this is why we don’t let them in.’”

Ashe, it was soon apparent, was the perfect vessel for Johnson’s ideas about decorum, as well as his regimented training program. “I always did exactly what Dr. Johnson told me to do,” Ashe said. “Usually, his strategy was right.”

In 1961, eight years after joining Johnson’s program, Ashe fulfilled the older man’s dream by winning the Interscholastics. Ashe would not only be the first black winner of the tournament, he would also be its last winner in the South. That same year, after hosting the tournament for 14 years, the University of Virginia asked to have it moved elsewhere. The college cited the financial burden, but, as Ashe biographer Eric Allen Hall has pointed pointed out, a Sports Illustrated editorial at the time asserted that people in the area were “unhappy at the university’s role as a tournament host since Negroes began to appear regularly.” In 1962, the event left Charlottesville for Williamstown, Mass. Ashe would move on to bigger stages and bigger victories as well, but this one was as significant as any.

* * *

The contrasting ways in which Arthur Ashe and Muhammad Ali were perceived in the culture in 1968 was evidenced by how they were perceived by the press. Photo by Spencer Henry

The contrasting ways in which Arthur Ashe and Muhammad Ali were perceived in the culture in 1968 was evidenced by how they were perceived by the press. Photo by Spencer Henry

Clay and Ashe entered the 1960s as two of the most promising young African-American athletes. What each of them would mean to this revolutionary era was summed up in a pair of magazine covers that appeared in 1968, the year when that decade reached its unruly nadir.

In April, Esquire portrayed the boxer—now with a new name—as St. Sebastian, pierced by arrows, above the headline “The Passion of Muhammad Ali.” Esquire was the bible of the counterculture, and Ali one of its icons. Three months later, Ashe appeared on the cover of Life. He was photographed playing tennis, in all-white clothes, under the headline “The Icy Elegance of Arthur Ashe.” While Esquire was the hip chronicler of ‘60s youth, Life was the graying photo album of the establishment. Ashe was celebrated in its pages for his calm under pressure, and held up as an antiradical black athlete—an anti-Ali.

How had Ali gone from smiling gold medalist in 1960 to being shot through with metaphorical arrows eight years later?

The transition began in 1964 when, as a 7­–1 underdog, Clay upset heavyweight champion Sonny Liston in Miami. Liston was a glowering ex-con, while the other heavyweight contender of that era, Floyd Patterson, was his opposite: polite, nonthreatening, a favorite of liberals. Ali didn’t fit either mold. He was youthful, charismatic, funny, and he didn’t defer to anyone. It was only a matter of time before he would test the limits of white America’s tolerance for a confident black athlete.

That tolerance began to crack soon after the Liston fight, when Clay revealed that he had joined Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam, and that the group’s leader had chosen a new name for him, Muhammad Ali. Ali never shared Muhammad’s belief that whites were “blue-eyed devils,” but he respected the fact that he “made people feel it was good to be black.” Many viewed the Nation as a criminal organization, and longtime boxing writers viewed Clay’s—they refused to call him Ali—association with it as an act of treason.

Ali’s revelation in ’64 that he was a Muslim made him unpopular with many Americans; his announcement three years later that he wouldn’t fight for his country turned him into public enemy No. 1. The day after Ali announced his conversion, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who feared the destabilizing influence of the Black Muslims, and suspected that Ali had purposely failed the test, instructed his agents to look into the young troublemaker’s draft status.

It turned out that, six weeks earlier, Ali had failed an Army intelligence test. “I said I was the greatest, not the smartest,” Ali joked. Unable to force Ali to pass its aptitude tests, the Pentagon decided to lower its standards. Ali had scored between the 16th and 18th percentile; in November 1965, the passing grade was conveniently dropped from the 30th to the 15th, and Ali was made eligible for the draft.

According to reporter Robert Lipsyte, who was with Ali in Miami when he got the news, “Somebody asked, ‘What do you think about the Vietcong?’ By this time, [Ali] was angry, tired, pissed off, and he gave his quote, which is, ‘I ain’t got nothing against them Vietcong.’”

“With that one sentence about the Vietcong,” columnist Jerry Izenberg told Bingham and Wallace, “Ali became the patron saint of the anti-war movement. Before that, none of the protesters could really articulate why they were against the war. He gave them the reason.”

In April 1967, Ali, claiming that his role as a minister of Islam should make him exempt, refused to step forward to be drafted. For that he was stripped of his heavyweight title, banned from boxing for three years, and sentenced to five years in prison; it took a jury about 20 minutes to find him guilty. Yet Ali’s antiwar commitment only deepened.

From 1967 to ’70, as his case made its circuitous way through the courts, Ali traveled the country giving antiwar speeches. Through his fiery words, he helped change mainstream America’s attitude toward the war, and toward himself. Nowhere was Ali’s impact on the country more obvious than in the verdict that the Supreme Court handed down in 1971. Four years earlier, Ali had been quickly and decisively found guilty of draft evasion; now the country’s highest court unanimously upheld his status as a conscientious objector.

* * *

While Ali was telling the world that he didn’t have anything against those Vietcong in early 1966, Arthur Ashe was flying to Fort Lewis, Wash., to begin six weeks of basic training with the Army.

Ali saw segregation as fundamental to the United States. Ashe saw it as a regional derangement to be cured, a way of life that was ultimately antithetical to the nation’s character. Ashe’s attitude can be summed up in his feelings about Davis Cup, tennis’s international team event. Nothing would give him more satisfaction than becoming the first black man to be chosen for the U.S. team.

“Segregation and racism had made me loathe aspects of the white South, but had scarcely left me less of a patriot,” Ashe wrote. “In fact, to me and my family, winning a place on our national team would mark my ultimate triumph over all those people who had opposed my career in the South in the name of segregation.”

“Despite segregation, I loved the United States. It thrilled me beyond measure to hear the umpire announce not my name but that of my country: ‘Game, United States,’ ‘Set, United States,’ ‘Game, Set, and Match, United States.’”

Ashe began the ’60s by joining the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) at UCLA. Ashe’s uncles had fought in the Marines and the Navy, and his younger brother, Johnnie, would join the Marines and fight in Vietnam. In college, Ashe was a study in moderation when it came to political and racial issues. He thought deeply about the problems, but took no part in the demonstrations after the Watts riots in L.A. in 1965, and didn’t travel back to the South for the protests against segregation there.

“There were times,” Ashe said, “when I felt a burning sense of shame that I was not with blacks—and whites—standing up to the fire hoses and police dogs.”

When Ashe listened to the speeches of African-American activists at UCLA, he heard echoes of the white segregationists he had happily left behind in the South. Unlike Ali, Ashe believed that civil rights had made a difference, and that racial progress in the U.S. was possible.

“I never went along with the pronouncements of Elijah Muhammad,” Ashe told Hauser, “that the white man was the devil and that blacks should be striving for separate development—a sort of American apartheid. That never made sense to me.”

For the war effort, Ashe played exhibitions, met with troops, and worked as a tennis coach at West Point. He got to hit balls rather than dodge bullets, while the Army got to show off an African-American officer and star athlete in its ranks. It was the type of arrangement that Ali, who was offered the chance to put on boxing exhibitions for the Army instead of fighting, had risked jail time to reject.

By 1968, Ashe could no longer resist the pull of politics or the example of Ali. This was the year of the Revolt of the Black Athlete, illustrated most vividly by U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who raised gloved fists on the medal stand at the Mexico City Olympics. At a meeting of black athletes that year, Jesse Jackson challenged Ashe to use his fame to greater effect. “Jesse, I’m just not arrogant, and I ain’t never going to be arrogant,” Ashe said. “I’m just going to do it my way.”

In March 1968, Ashe accepted an invitation to speak at the Church of the Redeemer in Washington, D.C., from the same pulpit where Stokely Carmichael, the man who coined the term “black power” two years earlier, had recently given an impassioned oration. Ashe’s speech was modest by comparison. He emphasized personal responsibility—“poverty is half laziness,” he asserted—and echoed the words of King. According to Ashe, African-Americans needed militants like Carmichael to lead, but they also needed moderates like himself to back them up. The mostly black congregation gave him a standing ovation.

Ashe now knew that his words mattered, and his self-assurance grew accordingly. Six months later, he would become the first black man to win the U.S. Open. As he stood on the trophy stand at Forest Hills with his arm around his father, Ashe’s win was hailed as a victory for race relations in America.

But it hadn’t come without controversy. In the quarterfinals, Ashe had faced his friend, Cliff Drysdale of South Africa. There was talk that Ashe, a child of segregation, should withdraw to protest apartheid; earlier that year, he had told a reporter that he would consider such a boycott. But Ashe, who knew that Drysdale was against segregation, decided to play.

When he won the match, Ashe was saluted by New York sportswriter Arthur Daley. “He proved his own superiority,” Daley wrote. “If he had withdrawn in protest, he would have proved nothing.” To Daley, “direct confrontation” was the best way for this black athlete to deal with the situation in South Africa. Over the next five years, Ashe would put that theory to the test.

* * *

Arthur Ashe after upsetting Jimmy Connors in the 1975 Wimbledon final. AP Photo

Arthur Ashe after upsetting Jimmy Connors in the 1975 Wimbledon final. AP Photo

Yes, master.

When Ashe heard a maid at a Johannesburg mansion address him with those words, he stopped in his tracks: “For the love of God,” he thought.

It was November 1973, and Ashe was fulfilling a long-held but still controversial dream: becoming the first black man to play in the South African Open.

In 1970, Ashe had applied for a visa into the country. Instead, he had been banned by the South African government. Saying, as he had, that “I just want to take an H-bomb and drop it right on Johannesburg” probably hadn’t helped his cause.

Ashe’s 1969 ban only made him more determined to isolate South Africa from the international community. The following year, he succeeded in having the nation suspended from the Davis Cup, and he began to travel in other parts of Africa. In 1971, on a visit to Cameroon, Ashe singled out a talented 11-year-old named Yannick Noah for further attention. Seven years later, they would play doubles together at Wimbledon.

Finally, in 1973, talks began between Ashe, the South African government, and the promoters of the South African Open about bringing him to Johannesburg. Many people, believing that the regime would only use Ashe to make itself look humane and reasonable, tried to persuade him not to make the trip. But Ashe thought that the sight of a free black man competing with whites, and beating them, would offer hope.

Ashe spent the week of the South African Open in a state of wonder, and sometimes fear, at the subtly sinister quality of apartheid. He visited the slums of Soweto, met with high-ranking officials, and debated his trip with activists. One day Ashe was followed by a young boy as he walked through the city; when he asked him what he was doing, the boy said that he had never seen a free black man before. And at the home where he stayed in Johannesburg, Ashe had the surreal experience of being addressed as “master” by the domestic help.

“See, here is little Artie Ashe,” he joked in his journal, “the skinny black kid from the capital of the old Confederacy, all set up in a mansion carrying on jes’ like the white folks, and gettin’ hisself called Master.”

Cliff Drysdale agreed with Ashe’s stance and welcomed his trip; another South African player, Bob Hewitt, said he thought Ashe should mind his own business because the blacks of South Africa were “happy.” Ashe would play and beat Drysdale and Hewitt on his way to the tournament’s final; both times the American was the crowd favorite. The black fans were so enthusiastic that Ashe had to remind them not to cheer for his opponents’ errors. He also demanded that the normally segregated seating at the tournament be integrated while he played, but that was beyond his star power. Whites watched from up close, blacks from afar.

Yet four decades later, many people, including Drysdale, now view the trip as a starting point in the eventual demise of apartheid. Ashe had used sports to crack open a door; over the next two decades, he would use his powers as an anti-apartheid activist—he was arrested during a protest in Washington, D.C., in 1985—to help push that door wide open.

* * *

The “Thrilla in Manila,” 1975. AP Photo

The “Thrilla in Manila,” 1975. AP Photo

Eleven months after Ashe departed Johannesburg, Muhammad Ali began his own journey to Africa. The boxer’s excursion, not surprisingly, wasn’t quite as sober-minded as the tennis player’s. Ali went to Zaire to fight George Foreman, the fear-inspiring Texas slugger, in what became known as the Rumble in the Jungle.

“From the Slave Ship to the Championship” was how the bout was originally billed, until the Zaireans took (understandable) offense. But nobody could dampen Ali’s spirits. He had been back in the ring for three years, and was still looking to reclaim his belt; now he had a chance to take it back from Foreman. Ali spent two months in Africa regaling the press with tales of how “I done wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale; handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail.”

Ali also injected political drama into the proceedings. He cast Foreman as a symbol of colonialism and U.S. hegemony to the Zaireans, and cast himself as the native African. “He’s in my country to start with!” Ali bellowed when asked about Foreman.

It worked; the Zaireans rallied around Ali. The global respect he had earned by refusing to fight in Vietnam preceded him even here. Ali had no trouble whipping 60,000 people into a deafening chant of “Ali, bomaye!”— “Ali, kill him!”

In truth, while Ali and Ashe had been successful as activists, by 1974 it had been some time since either had won anything significant as athletes. Ali had been stripped of his belt seven years earlier, and had yet to win it back. Ashe hadn’t won a major title since the U.S. Open in 1968. A new generation of pros, led by Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg, had leaped in while he wasn’t looking.

But in 1974 and ’75 Ali and Ashe were rewarded for their good works with three career-capping triumphs. Each man would, in the words of Ali, rope a dope.

Ali invented the tactic in the second round of his fight with Foreman. After spending two months telling the world that he was going to dance Foreman to death, Ali retreated to the ropes and made himself an easy target for his opponent’s roundhouse blows. By the sixth round, Foreman had done what Ali thought he would do: punched himself out.

Ali asked, “That’s all you got, George?” and then, when the eighth round started, told him, “Now it’s my turn.” In the closing seconds of that round, Ali climbed off the ropes, popped Foreman with a right hand to the face, and sent the giant tumbling. Ali was champion again.

* * *

In the 1975 Wimbledon final, Ashe would use his own version of the rope-a-dope to beat tennis’ version of George Foreman, Jimmy Connors.

As with Foreman, it was widely believed that the 22-year-old Connors was unbeatable. The Brash Basher from Belleville had won the tournament the previous year and was No. 1 in the world. In 1974 he had gone 99–4, and there was talk in the locker room about how he would “go on winning everything for years.”

But there was one person in that room at Wimbledon who had to believe he could beat Connors. After winning his semifinal in five sets, Ashe walked into the player lounge and watched Connors shred their countryman Roscoe Tanner. Tanner was the game’s hardest server, but every ball he hit came back even harder from Connors. Now Ashe knew that his usual hammer-and-tongs aggressiveness wasn’t going to work. Could he do something different, just once?

A year before, Ali’s friends had been frightened to see him walk into a ring with Foreman; now Ashe’s friends felt the same way. Bud Collins said he was “scared to death that Arthur was going to be terribly embarrassed” by Connors. Ashe would answer their fears the same way that Ali had.

Before the final, Ashe huddled with his agent, Donald Dell, and fellow player Dennis Ralston, and came up with a plan based on the rope-a-dope. Instead of feeding Connors, a born counterpuncher, the pace he craved, Ashe would slice and dice. Instead of cracking the flat serve he loved, and which Connors loved to crack back, Ashe would bend it away from him.

But not all of Ashe’s tactics were ripped from the Ali playbook. Where he cast Foreman as the American in their fight, Ashe claimed that status for himself at Wimbledon. He walked onto Centre Court wearing his red-and-blue Davis Cup team jacket, with “USA” emblazoned across the back. It was a not-so-subtle message to Connors, a self-styled maverick who had refused to play for his country that year.

Ashe’s strategy worked perfectly. He rolled the ball gently, swung Connors from side to side, and gave him no punches to counter. Ashe won the first two sets 6–1, 6–1. In the end, like Ali, he let rip two knockout backhands to break serve in the fourth set. When tennis historians speak of strategic masterpieces, this is the match they point to first.

After his final winner, Ashe turned to his player box and raised his fist, briefly, in celebration. He had become the first black man to win Wimbledon, and many believed he was making a black-power salute. Ashe said it was merely a gesture of triumph toward his friend Dell. But he also said he was happy, later, to hear that “Among blacks, I’ve had quite a few say [the win] was up there with Joe Louis in his prime and Jackie Robinson breaking in with the Dodgers in 1947.”

Ashe, hewing as always to the middle path, began the afternoon wearing his USA Davis Cup jacket, and finished it by holding up a clenched fist.

* * *

Ashe and Ali were born at the same time, became politically aware at the same time, and reached the summits of their sports at the same time. They would also suffer physical decline at the same time.

In 1975, Ali beat Joe Frazier in 14 rounds in the Thrilla in Manila. The fight took place in an estimated 120-degree heat, and both men felt like they had been lucky to live through it. “We went to Manila as champions, Joe and me,” Ali said, “and we came back as old men.

Ali, as usual, was prescient. Three years later, he lost his belt to an unknown named Leon Spinks. In 1980, at age 38, he was knocked out by Larry Holmes. By then, Ali had begun to show the symptoms—slurred speech, slowed reactions—that would be diagnosed as Parkinson’s disease in 1984.

Four years after winning Wimbledon, in July 1979, Ashe suffered a heart attack while teaching a tennis clinic in New York. After two rounds of heart surgery, it was discovered in 1988 that he had contracted HIV from a blood transfusion. He died of pneumonia, a complication of AIDS, on February 6, 1993.

Ashe and Ali ended their lives as they had lived them, with courage and a flair for the dramatic. In 1992, Ashe stood bravely before TV cameras to confirm that the stories circulating that he had AIDS were true. Four years later in Atlanta, Ali delighted the world when he appeared, seemingly from nowhere, to light the Olympic torch.

On June 3, 2016, Ali died of Parkinson’s disease at age 74, but not before he could register one last protest, against the wave of anti-Islamic feeling that was being stirred up in the U.S. “Islam is a religion of peace,” Ali said after the 9/11 attacks. In many ways, it had been his message all along.

Ashe and Ali often expressed a desire to meet each other, but it happened just once during their athletic careers. After his trip to South Africa in 1973, the tennis player made a pilgrimage to the boxer’s training camp in rural Pennsylvania. Here was the man who had helped Ashe gain the courage to be more than an athlete, to live for more than himself.

“Ali spoke in his usual folksy way, with the bad grammar and the colorful idioms,” Ashe said—he had his standards, even with the immortals. “But there certainly is no doubt in my mind that a very natively clever man lurks behind this façade. We had a most forthright and intelligent conversation.”

Their long-distance dialogue—about what athletes owe to the world, and what Americans owe to their country—is over now. But Ali’s passion and fearlessness have been inherited by a new generation of African-American activists and athletes, while Ashe’s cerebral moderation can be seen in the governing style of Barack Obama.

That conversation also lives on in their words, which are quoted ceaselessly on the internet by people too young to have seen them in their primes. Here the two legends will talk to each other, and to future generations, forever:

“I know where I’m going, and I know the truth, and I don’t have to be what you want me to be.” — Muhammad Ali

“From what we get, we can make a living; what we give, however, makes a life.” — Arthur Ashe

* * *

Stephen Tignor is a senior writer at Tennis Magazine and, and author of High Strung: Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, and the Last Days of Tennis’ Golden Age.

* * *

This story was co-published and funded by Racquet magazine and Longreads Members.

from Longreads Blog


‘Exposure Is Bullshit’: Who Should Get Paid for Live Storytelling Events?

Rick Paulas | Longreads | August 2016 | 12 minutes (2,986 words)

The storytelling show Mortified was created in 2002 by Dave Nadelberg, and the show has a clever angle: Performers share “their most mortifying childhood artifacts,” along with a running behind-the-scenes commentary from their younger selves. It’s show-and-tell meets #tbt, and the results are hilarious. The show’s so beloved by performers and audiences that there are now nearly a dozen Mortified shows performed each month throughout various “chapters” around the world: eight in the U.S., eight abroad. Tickets range between $10 and $20-plus.

They also don’t pay performers, at least not in money. Mortified, like The Moth, Upright Citizens Brigade, and even TED Talks, is one of the hundreds of live events around the world that have sprouted up during an era in which experiential entertainment, or the IRL economy, were supposed to grow more cherished (and more lucrative) as entertainment products became digitized and commoditized. There’s just one problem: Live events exist in the same way many independent publishers exist—on a shoestring budget in which the performer is usually the last to be paid.

At Mortified, “everyone who participates is compensated on some level, and that depends on the circumstance,” said Nadelberg. “We’re making sure we’re giving participants things that are enough value, usually at least $30, maybe $60 or $70. It’s hard to value that. There are so many different factors.”

The show will give performers comped tickets, drink tickets for the bar, free entry for life, gift bags, food in the green room. (If an ancillary project has money built into the budget—like their movie, TV show, book, or if they’re doing a corporate-sponsored show—they’ll pay performers from that chunk.) They’ll occasionally pay for a hotel if someone’s coming in from out of town, at the very least give them a couch to crash on. They also spend time directly working with storytellers, a not insignificant expense. “One of the main things [performers] are getting is a producer who’s sitting down and workshopping their piece with them,” said Nadelberg. “Sometimes ten hours with each participant, maybe even longer.”

But, here’s the rub. The show is at a point in terms of scope and popularity where some performers aren’t happy about their lack of compensation. While Nadelberg said he “checks in” regularly with performers about compensation, as I was investigating this piece, more than one performer countered with some queasy feelings about leaving shows with bare pockets. (These same performers  wished to remain anonymous, for fear of pissing off the gatekeepers and not being invited back.)

Drink tickets? Great, but they don’t drink. Swag? Who needs more crap in the closet. Most of the venues where most of the Mortified plays have a bar, so they should be dealing with larger pools of cash. And while producers do refine the story with a performer before they get onstage, shows often reuse the same performers over and over without further workshopping; so, whatever “value” from that initial editing session quickly diminishes with each performance. It doesn’t help that performers tend to be in multiple shows over the same weekend. “They get 300 people every weekend, at $15 a pop, we perform two shows, and they can’t give us any of it?” asked one performer. “I get it, they’re not making tons of money. But at the end of the day, people are paying at the door. Should the producer get all of the money?” asked another.

Does the producer even make any money? Laurenne Sala is one of the creators of Taboo Tales, which hosts a Los Angeles-based storytelling show four times a year that specializes in particularly harrowing stories (the show has also expanded to New York City). “The more we talk about how fucked up we are,” reads the show’s motto, “the more normal we all feel.” Each show is different, but on average, they have seven storytellers and a host. Tickets cost $15 and shows sell out a venue of about 100 seats. They don’t pay.

“We would love to pay our performers,” said Sala. “They work hard. It actually pains me not to give them money.”

Sala, who’s a friend of mine, walks me through the money. Let’s say the venue has 100 seats, after comps for industry and friends of performers, the paying customer total goes down to 80 or so. Money coming in from an average show is close to $1,000. And where does that money go? The venue is the biggest chunk, which costs $500 to rent. Taboo Tales also utilizes the service of a videographer, a photographer, and a tech person, each costing around $100 a piece. Their programs cost $50, another $50 goes to prizes they give to audience members.

Carry the one, and you’re left with roughly zero in “profit.”

Sometimes they make a little dough, though. They’ll get extra donations, walk away with an extra few hundred. And where does that go? There’s the website, the podcast, advertising, graphic design cost, the use of software for collaborating on story notes. And, oh yeah, the legwork that goes into contacting performers, wrangling venue logistics, editing/workshopping stories, spreading the word through social media. “We start working on it a month and a half before the show, and don’t get paid anything,” said Sala. “Not a drop.” Whatever money’s left after goes back into the kitty for future endeavors.

(One big hindrance for Taboo Tales is that their venue doesn’t have a bar on the premises. Venues that sell alcohol can—at least, should—make enough from those sales to cover their own expenses without forcing a hefty rental fee. Good venues—that is, those interested in helping cultivate a “scene” or “night”—will also provide the show with what they deem a fair split of door ticket sales; 70 percent is great. Not only does that give producers the ability to pay performers, but it feels more like a partnership. “If a venue will go in on [ticket sales] with me, we both have the incentive to advertise,” said one artist.)

Taboo Tales, then, is a show that doesn’t pay because it doesn’t have the money, as indie as it comes. It’s how most storytelling shows, or comedy festivals, or stand-up nights, or indie publishers begin: a few friends trying to do something fun for the sake of doing it. But every now and then, a show gets lucky and becomes a great enough success to justify expansion. And then, it’s time to deal with the slippery awkwardness of introducing compensation into the equation.

Live events exist in the same way many independent publishers exist—on a shoestring budget in which the performer is usually the last to be paid.


The Moth, the national nonprofit storytelling organization, is the behemoth of the enterprise. They have monthly shows throughout every major American city, a regular-scheduled “traveling” Mainstage show, a weekly radio show on PRX, and a weekly podcast that is downloaded 30 million times a year. When it comes to pay for the live shows, they have a unique formula: They don’t pay for participation in their regular StorySLAM shows. In fact, because of how they choose their lineup—20 names drawn from a hat before the show—performers actually have to pay $10 to get in. After ten StorySLAMs are held, the ten ‘winners’ then graduate to GrandSLAM shows . On the surface, this seems sketchy. One alternative would be for just the winners to pay if they’re chosen, but that’s a lot less money, and it doesn’t feel right either.

“People in the community have told us they don’t think [pay at StorySLAM events] is a good idea, that there’s a spirit of fun that would be taken away,” said Catherine Burns, artistic director of The Moth. “Instead, what we try to do if someone’s coming to the SLAMs a lot is try to get them on the Mainstage.”

When they book a Mainstage performance—a best-of curated event with “booked” storytellers, often with hours of editing and workshopping, tickets costing between $25 to $50 depending on the venue—performers will get $200 if they’re local, $500 if they have to travel. “We don’t pay much, but we pay promptly,” said Burns. “That was always the case, even when we didn’t have a pot to piss in.” They also work with someone at the show to help edit and refine their story, the process taking anywhere between “five, 10, 17 hours” to get everything just right.

There’s extra value in that. Performers have been “discovered” through The Moth, some receiving book deals, others getting invites to be on television. At the very least, it’s a calling card that will get a performer booked onto any other storytelling show in their town. There is, certainly, a chance that  a performer taking The Moth stage will be seen by the right person at the right time, and quickly find their way into the slipstream of performance economy. It’s not the sole reason to perform shows for free, but it’s one of them.

“There’s a little triangle we like to use,” said Adam Kurtz, a pedal steel musician in Nashville who spent years in L.A. “Money, the hang, the music. You need two of those to take the gig. If there’s no money, but the music’s really cool, and the hang is really good, you do it. If the money’s really good, and the music’s really good, but the dudes suck, well…”

Marian Call is a folk singer/songwriter based in Juneau, Alaska. When I ask her for her personal mental calculus, she makes a point to highlight that the only rule is there are no clear rules. “It’s tempting to put down hard and fast rules of when to and when not to,” said Call. “But it really limits you and makes it difficult.” When playing for cheap/free, Call promotes transparency about finances throughout her set. “Training my audience to voluntarily pitch in when there’s no ticket price has made it sustainable for me,” she said. “If you can pay, the jar’s over there. If you can’t pay, tell people you love the show. Every dollar you can’t pay, do a Facebook post.”

This tactic isn’t always viable for certain live performers; the third act in a four-person comedy show can’t take a few minutes to pass around a personal donation hat if they ever want to be invited back. More importantly, certain venues or scenes need free or cheap labor to exist. Without it, they’d disappear entirely. In those cases, Call advocates playing for free, but still being extremely mindful when doing so.

Unfortunately, less noble enterprises are allowed to exploit these murky rules and those aforementioned success stories of “being discovered” by selling performers on the false concept of “exposure.”

‘There’s a little triangle we like to use,’ said Adam Kurtz, a pedal steel musician in Nashville who spent years in L.A. ‘Money, the hang, the music. You need two of those to take the gig.’


The world of showbiz is full of detestable human beings, but the most parasitic among them run something called a “bringer” show. In the music world, it’s often called “pay to play.” They allow performers on their stage, as long as they bring (x) audience members with them. Sometimes this tactic manifests itself by having patrons give the performer’s name at the box office, where the official tally sheet lives. Other times, they sell performers advance tickets, turning them into a middleman hawker of sorts; whatever they don’t sell is on them. Once (x) is met, the performer gets a small percentage of sales, but, usually, that never happens. Kegs will be changed, bottles will clink into the recycle bin, and the “bringer” show runners will take home all that sweet, sweet money.

Now and then, a performer may ask why they’d ever agree to this deal. The response might return to this promise of “exposure” by appearing onstage. Maybe they don’t say that dirty word anymore, and maybe it’s that  “the industry is going to be there.”

“If you hear ‘pay-to-play,’ you are being scammed by the venue,” said Kurtz. “You’re not getting what you think you’re getting. They are trying to take money from you, you will not get exposure.”

It’s worth pointing out the inherent contradiction in “bringer” or “pay-to-play” shows: The performers are bringing their own audience. (Sure, they can tell their grandkids they played The Viper Room on a famed Sunset Strip stage, but maybe leave out the playing-in-front-of-20-friends part.) More to the point: Someone is trying to get a performer to accept lower than they’re worth by claiming to know how “exposure” works.

They don’t. No one does.

It’s not that “exposure” doesn’t exist. It does, sort of, but it’s more along the lines of “networking.” Performers get exposed to other performers, friendships form out of common likes and dislikes. Later, when these people are in positions of power, they’ll call the numbers they have, the same relationships that drive any industry. When those people are in the positions to make decisions, they’ll do the same thing, the web will expand, the cycle will continue. So, the only true exposure worth touting is one that cultivates relationships with other performers.

The Upright Citizens Brigade—two theaters in N.Y., another two in L.A.—is a venue that trades on this exposure/networking currency. Despite constant sellouts—tickets are free, $5, or $10—they also do not pay performers. While there was a noted kerfuffle about this back in 2013, most performers don’t feel taken advantage of. Rather, they feel the combination of (a) lessons learned onstage; (b) the ability to perform with top-quality improvisers; © performing in front of adoring, forgiving, hip, and “industry”-filled audiences far surpasses whatever small chunk of their show’s near-menial earnings they’d get.

(Another aspect helping the value of “UCB exposure” is that it operates in two cities where this mythical “exposure” might actually exist. Playing in front of an audience in New York or Los Angeles is a whole lot different than performing in Salt Lake City, Seattle, even San Francisco. “You’re more likely to have a literary agent in New York, or some sort of film agent in L.A,” said Burns. “It’s just inevitable that that’s true.”)

But while the UCB may be “doing it right,” their success created copycats. “When the [comedy] boom started again, the scene in L.A. was mostly non-pay venues,” said Sam Varela, producer and founder of Naked Comedy, an independent comedy production company. “Maybe [producers] went to the UCB, or one of the many other venues that charged for tickets and didn’t pay performers, saw how it works, and was like, I can do this. It gives everybody else an out saying, well, we’re also not going to pay you. It’s just a bad precedent to set.” This is a problem. While the UCB has become a bonafide factory—you can’t turn on a new comedy show without seeing someone that worked at one of their theaters—they’re the exception. “My experience with exposure is just being at the right place at the right time and knowing the right people,” said Varela. “There’s not a specific way to ‘win,’ or complete the level. It’s a marathon thing.”

The idea that some magical tastemaker is in the audience waiting to “discover” any performer is a myth, proliferated by those profiting from exploiting free labor. (This also occurs when it comes to writing for certain publications, say The Huffington Post, which try to get some folks to write for zero dollars and “the unique platform and reach our site provides”. That’s code for “exposure,” a shameful act by a company rumored to be valued at nearly $1 billion.) There will be those willing to exploit free labor as long as there’s labor that is exploitable. And live performance has an ever-refreshing pool of talent from which to draw from.

“The sad reality is that there are so many performers, they don’t have to pay us,” said Dave Ross, an L.A.-based comedian who produces the weekly show Good Heroin; they pay performers by splitting up a donation bucket after the show. “It’s a supply and demand issue. A performer says ‘no’ to a show, and they say, ‘okay, wish we would’ve had you, but this guy will do it for free.’” As long as there are success stories, and those trying to be the next, there will be claims that the code can be cracked.

Ross tells a story about the time he agreed to do a television show for a small amount of money because he knew that it’d reach a large audience. It was a decision he was comfortable with, until the producer told him how much “exposure” he’d be getting. “I was like, I know that, that’s why I’m doing it for this little money,” said Ross. “But don’t say it. And don’t think it. Let me make up my mind about what it’s worth for me.”

There’s the disconnect. Even if exposure does exist—again, it sort of does—it’s not something that can be calculated.

“Exposure is bullshit,” said Ross. “It’s unfair, abusive, and takes advantage of the fact that it’s really, really hard to make it.”

So, what’s the solution? The venue, show, festival isn’t going to change until their hands are forced. Things have been working fine for them, so why would they? And while a boycott/strike by performers may have worked in the past—and could potentially work in a tight-knit community in a small town—any big city has too great of a refresh rate for one to be truly effective. Potential scabs are on every bus into town, supply completely crushes demand in this industry.

The only real solution, maybe, is for change to come from the remaining party in the live performance transaction: Those paying at the door.


Rick Paulas has written plenty of things, some of them serious, many of them not. He lives in Berkeley, is a White Sox fan, and is working on his second novel. He can be found at


Editor: Mark Armstrong; Fact-checker: Matthew Giles

from Longreads Blog

The Spectacle of Crime: On Detectives, Mysteries, and Dead Girls

When I was little, mystery books were my favorite. I read the Boxcar Childrenthe Bobbsey Twins and the Happy Hollisters. In school, there was Cam Jansen, Sammy Keyes and Harriet the Spy. When I visited my grandparents, I read my mom’s childhood books: Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys and Trixie Belden. My mom gives my grandfather the latest Mary Higgins Clark release every Christmas.

In high school and college I abandoned mystery novels and turned to spooky TV shows instead. My family was “Monk”-obsessed; when “Monk”ended, we watched “Psych.” I threw myself into “Lost” during finals and “Criminal Minds” on school breaks. Post-college, I binged “Fringe,” “The X-Files,” “The Killing,” “The Fall,” “Miss Fisher’s Mysteries”—the list goes on. Now that I work in a bookstore, I’ve started to read mystery novels again. To celebrate, here’s a reading list about fictional detectives and the authors who mastermind their literary crime-solving, as well as real-life detectives searching for the truth.

1. “My Cancelled Detectives.” (Patti Smith, The New Yorker, August 2016)

Patti Smith’s memoir M Train debuted last year. It’s one of my favorite books. The paperback edition dropped last week, and it contains—gasp—new material, which means I’m going to put it on my Christmas list. One of my favorite parts of M Train is Smith’s unabashed admiration for detective shows, like “Luther”and especially “The Killing.” In the postscript for the paperback, she describes how her brief cameo in the fourth and final season of “The Killing” came to be.

2. “Women are Writing the Best Crime Novels.” (Terrence Rafferty, The Atlantic, August 2016)

Who runs the world? Gone Girl. This essay isn’t without its flaws, but it does an excellent job tracking the evolution of the genre, focusing especially on today’s popular psychological dramas:

In the golden age, they’d achieve it by furnishing their cozy murder scenes with too many suspects and too many physical clues—the bickering relatives, the shady servants, the cigar ashes, the restaurant matchbooks, the stopped clocks. Now the effect is managed with language alone. In the dizzying verbal performances of the new-style thrillers, every sentence can be a clue or a red herring.

3. “The Murder House.” (Jeff Maysh, Medium, December 2015)

Dana Scully and Jillian Holtzmann flank my desk; I do enjoy a good paranormal mystery. Eschewing mere Internet speculation, reporter Jeff Maysh delves into the Los Angeles Archives and Records Center and does some real detective work. What triggered the grisly violence at 2475 Glendower Place that fateful night in December?

4. “Campus Security vs. The Million-Dollar Map Thief.” (Michael Blanding, Narratively, November 2014)

When a jolly socialite loses his wealth, he turns to larceny to make ends meet. Yale University librarians and local police team up to take down E. Forbes Smiley III and his X-ACTO knife.

5. “Our Incorruptible Dead Girls.” (Stassa Edwards, The Awl, August 2015)

On Friday, graphic novelist Molly Ostertag blasted the lazy trope of murdered woman as a plot device. Her timely comments reminded me of Stassa Edwards’ piece from a year ago. It is telling that many of the nonfiction stories I included in this list begin with a woman murdered, and I’m grateful to Ostertag, Edwards and other voices for calling out this fetishization.

from Longreads Blog

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Below, our favorite stories of the week.

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1. A Family Matter

Jessica Weinberg | The Atavist | Aug. 18, 2016 | 40 minutes (10,110 words)

The story of a Californian family torn apart by a child protective services agency, and the law firm helping them fight back.

2. This Is Meant to Hurt You

leah Sottile | Moss | Aug. 5, 2016 | 15 minutes (3,774 words)

A beautiful essay by Leah Sottile on love and illness.

3. Gender Studies

Curtis Sittenfeld | The New Yorker | August 22, 2016 | 18 minutes (4,705 words)

[Fiction] While traveling to a conference, a recently dumped gender studies professor views herself in the reflection of her airport shuttle driver.

4. An MIT Scientist Claims That This Pill Is the Fountain of Youth

Benjamin Wallace | New York Magazine | August 23, 2016 | 21 minutes (5,458 words)

Seemingly everyone wants to extend their lifespan, but it takes a bold, entrepreneurial scientist to sell you a pill that supposedly can do that for you. He’s staked his career on it.

5. Best Sisters

Lauren McKeon | Hazlitt | August 23, 2016 | 14 minutes (3,592 words)

“The way we describe ability and care has changed over the centuries, but my relationship with Kiddo doesn’t need to be defined.”

from Longreads Blog

On Being Fat

Sara Benincasa’s essay “Why Am I So Fat?” was one of our top five reads last week, and with good reason — it was honest and cutting in all the right ways. It was brash and unapologetic and funny as hell (and also suggests that perhaps Fader was slightly premature in declaring, earlier this year, that “fat shaming is dead”).

It was also problematic, and many fat women applauded the piece while also wishing it had pushed harder and skirted some problematic tropes. Luckily, many other writers, scholars, and activists have also been publishing wonderful pieces on fatphobia: their experiences, the cultural and institutional ways it is entrenched, and more. They might not have gone viral, but their voices are important — and just as honest, cutting, brash, and funny.

First, Sara Benincasa is conventionally pretty. She has an hourglass figure, which is the “acceptable” way for a woman to be fat. She may not be stick-thin, but she certainly isn’t what a medical professional might call “morbidly obese;” this gives her a kind of social capital that most fatter women, who are simultaneously invisible (read: unattractive by conventional standards) and profoundly visible (read: physically large) do not. In “Fat Shaming Is Not an Individual Problem, It’s a Cultural One” longtime fat activist and author Lesley Kinzel uses Benincasa’s piece as a springboard for discussing why, precisely, the essay was both important and also not enough:

All of this is to say that when an indubitably average-sized woman is praised for writing about the terrible injustice of being called fat by a stranger, I have a very complicated suite of feelings to go with that. I agree wholeheartedly that it is bullshit that she should have to suffer such nonsense. I validate her ferocious refusal to apologize for her body. And I also feel angry, because I know the same perspective written by an obviously, visibly fat woman, a woman who is not sorry for being fat and who is not attempting to become smaller — in short, a woman who looks like me — would not get anywhere near as much praise and support.

Because I am the woman who should be sorry about my body. I am the woman who doesn’t get to rail against the injustice of being called fat, because that is what I am. I’m actually fat, the kind of fat that makes some people not want to look me in the eye; the kind of fat that makes some people assume I am dying of obesologizing disease, like, right now, dying; the kind of fat that makes me embarrassing, or weird, or gross. Meanwhile, in that other oft-repeated situation, where a woman in a size 10 dress is castigating the establishment that finds her body unacceptable, many of those people who wouldn’t make eye contact with me? They’re cheering for her.

How fat is Kinzel? Three hundred pounds and not afraid to state it publicly, squashing the stigma by owning the reality. She not just plus-sized, or curvy, or “fluffy,” she’s fat — as is Meg Elison, whose friends would rather cut themselves open than look like her:

More than once I inherited someone’s favorite outfit in its entirety, replete with the story of how it made her feel. I would wear that outfit later and remember that she wanted to stop being this so badly that she let someone cut out a large section of her intestines. She had an anchor-shaped scar across her entire abdomen. She vomited every day and shit herself at least once a week, but at least, thank god, it was all worth it because she wasn’t fat anymore.

Extending support to a chubby but attractive, not-obese woman who seems not to have dealt with major fat discrimination in her life? Doable. To a fat woman, the kind whose headless photo might grace a CNN article about the “obesity epidemic”? Harder.

Second, Sara Benincasa’s essay makes it too easy to continue conflating “fatness” and “poor health.” Near the end of her piece she mentions losing weight to stave off the Type 2 Diabetes to which she’s genetically inclined, and some of her weight-gain story is related to mental health — both truths for her but troubling for fat activists, who work hard to separate out the ways thinness and health are often unnecessarily conflated, to see in such a bandied-about piece of writing.

For those interested in the research, Marilyn Wann, in a section from her book Fat!So? offers a point-by-point takedown, backed with copious citations, of the popular myths around fat and poor health markers. The larger (ha!) point: you can’t tell someone’s health status from their size. This is the crux of an excellent piece on Medium, “On Your Concern for Your Fat Friend:”

It hurts me as a fat person because of the message it sends. Well-intentioned advice, day after day, week after week, year after year, shows me that I am seen first — and sometimes only — as a fat person. It is a tidal wave of reminders that I am, despite everything else, failing the one measure that matters. No matter how hard I try, how much money I spend or how many calories I ration, no matter how strong my mettle, it doesn’t matter. It can’t be seen. I don’t have the luxury of an uninterrupted day. Every day someone finds a way to show judgment, disdain or concern for the maligned vessel that carries me through the world.

Fat people learn quickly and deeply that our bodies are not our own. They are public property, to be commented on, judged, prodded, rejected. Others are always entitled to our bodies, and they are never our own.

You asked if you should care about my health. Of course you should. I would want you to care if I fell ill, or if I were struggling with a health condition. But I’m not. And looking at me won’t tell you how strong I’ve become, the contents of my doctor’s files, the oceans of blood that my sturdy heart pumps through me. My dress size isn’t my medical chart. My body — all of our bodies — are too complex and wonderful to be reduced to that.

(For those truly concerned about the health of fat people, consider the risks of the drastic measures some people attempt in pursuit of thinness: earlier this year, the New York Times devoted considerable (virtual) column inches to the latest research on America’s favorite fat-shaming entertainment, The Biggest Loser. Most contestants have not only regained the lost weight, but are coping with permanently compromised metabolisms.)

For the few, the proud, the special snowflakes — for that is what they are — who manage to maintain a weight loss, it’s a lifetime commitment. This Autumn Whitefield-Madrano piece in The New Inquiry is over two years old, but no less painful in the reading for its age. Behold the work of thinness and the risks of revealing just how much work it is, unmasked:

As relationships advance, romantic partners become visibly disappointed and even annoyed that maintaining thinness is not a matter of a quick jog and 100 crunches. When he goes to find a refrigerator staple like butter, I can claim I simply ran out the first time but I must eventually admit that I don’t keep it in my home. My getting up to run eight miles the morning after sleeping together is admirable in the beginning but becomes frustrating when it means he almost always wakes up alone. I fool no one when I claim that really, this salad made of translucent iceberg lettuce is my favorite menu option at the diner. Meals are never skipped but they are rarely thoroughly enjoyed either. Despite taking care never to mention the cycle of calculating, scheduling, and calibrating, there is a mountain of damning physical evidence.

The revelations are slow but they come. A calorie tracking mobile app has better real estate on my smartphone than my calendar. The sudden realization that I’ve never been “that hungry” when we go out. The suspicious number of claims I make about simply not liking universally popular foods. I’ll let the cable bill wait but my gym membership is on time, every time. But these symptoms do not aggregate into the appearance of a disease but rather, into a certain temperament. It makes them exclaim, “Relax!” rather than, “Get help.” The level of control the symptoms reveal hovers close to illness but doesn’t cross far enough over the line so as to become sad, merely unattractive. And it is easier to walk away from someone who is unattractive than someone who is sad.

Amy Stephenson takes a longer view in “What Does My Body Actually Look Like?,” sharing 31 years’ worth of vignettes from a life largely organized around avoiding fat and finding and hanging on to thin. “I’m 18, I’m 21, I’m 25, I’m 27, and I have dreams about being thin. I’ll catch a glimpse of a body I know to be mine, and dream-me is lithe, strong. The yearning for thin-me is as sharp as my dream hipbones, as the cheekbones framing hollows carved by X-Acto knives. These dreams are aspirational.”

Rather than reading all this, I could have just commended you to Roxane Gay’s 2011 analysis of the novel Skinny on Bookslut; although a review, it does a masterful job of unpacking so many of these ideas: the in/visibility of fatness, the amount of mental and physical energy devoted to disliking and trying to change the body, the challenges of reading about the experience of fatness as written by a non-fat woman. (Sorry about that!) And to expand the conversation further (and shrink the whiteness just a little), Ashleigh Shackelford’s “Bittersweet Like Me: When the Lemonade Ain’t Made for Fat Women and Femmes” is worth the reading; representation of fatness is important among and across many identities.

(I should also say at the risk of speaking for her: I don’t know that Benincasa would actually disagree with any of this — we can welcome her piece while we also ask for more — and she’s been sharing Kinzel’s response piece on Twitter.)

One wonderful thing Benincasa does show us, and that we need to see more often, is that it’s possible to be fat and happy — for the merely chubby, yes, but also for the fat-fat. From “I Choose to Be Fat,” by Laura Bogart:

Some argue that classifying obesity as a disease — as the American Medical Association has recently done — destigmatizes it, but the language of disease is unremittingly aggressive: We say “Fuck Cancer” and “Beat Diabetes.” We speak of people in treatment as “fighting a battle.”

I have fought against myself for so very long, against everything I’d internalized: everything my father told me I was, everything my mother told me I couldn’t do; everything the kids at school told me I looked like, everything my (supposed) care providers swore I should be. I’ve laid down my arms. I will simply be.

I am not a pathology. I am breasts and belly that bounce softly with my every step, thighs that sweep each other, and a rear end that rolls along behind me like that final note after a song has ended.

When I need reminding of this — for I too am fat-fat! — I return often to the writing of Lindy West. I recommend her book, Shrill, with the greatest gusto, and love the celebratory Guardian column she published after her nuptials, “My wedding was perfect — and I was fat as hell the whole time:”

Choose your rituals, but make them yours. If you want to look like a flower market ate fat Betty Draper and then barfed her up in the middle of a haunted forest (YEEEESSS!), great choice. If you want to get married to a burrito while wearing a barrel with suspenders, I’m cool with it. If you think the very concept of marriage is hot garbage, that’s legit. But regardless, remember that you absolutely do not have to “fix” your body, chase after “flattering,” be somebody’s dark secret, or beg for permission to be happy.

Hear, hear.

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‘Equally Victimized by this System as By the Guy Who Raped Me’

At Cosmopolitan, Jillian Keenan reports on Dinisha Ball’s nightmare experience of being denied rape kits in more than one ER, for both legally invalid and “valid” reasons, after being drugged and sexually assaulted in Houston. By the time she was given one, it was shoddy, and too many hours had passed for evidence of the drugging to remain in her blood. Unfortunately, Ball is hardly alone. Not all hospitals are legally compelled to perform them, and very few have trained Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANEs).

It’s hard enough for sexual assault survivors to report a rape at all: Only 15.8 to 35 percent of survivors do, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice. (Rape is so woefully underreported that exact statistics are impossible to come by.) And while the rape kit backlog has been well reported — the hundreds of thousands of untested kits sitting in police departments nationwide — what’s lesser-known is that getting a rape kit is not as simple as heading to the nearest emergency room. Once there, survivors are often faced with compounding obstacles to care, from the lack of emergency personnel trained to accurately perform rape kits, to buck-passing between insurers and hospitals around who is billed for that care, to loophole-filled state and federal laws that are often murky and unclear even to legal experts.

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The Summer Break Where Charlotte Brontë Started ‘Jane Eyre’

Black Cardigan is a great newsletter by writer-editor Carrie Frye, who shares dispatches from her reading life. We’re thrilled to share some of them on Longreads. Go here to sign up for her latest updates.

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In the summer of 1843, Charlotte Brontë was staying at the school in Brussels where she was both a student and a teacher—at this time, more the latter. Over her time at the Pensionnat, she had developed an unrequited passion for the directrice’s husband, Constantin Héger, and she’d been present as he departed for the seaside with his handsome wife and their young children. The other teachers and the school’s boarders had already left for their own holidays, and Brontë was the only person left remaining except for the cook. Her friends outside the school had left the city too. Summer in the city: everyone who can, leaves. Her relationship with the cook, one suspects, was cordial but necessarily distant, and the cook would have had her sleep quarters in another part of the house. Brontë was alone at nights in the dormitory.

If you’ve read Villette, the contours of this summer term are already familiar. The empty dark echoing hot rooms of the school, the tiny plain Englishwoman fluttering through them like the world’s most anguished moth:

How long were the September days! How silent, how lifeless! How vast and void seemed the desolate premises. …  A sorrowful indifference to existence often pressed on me – a despairing resignation to reach betimes the end of all things earthly. Alas! When I had full leisure to look on life as life must be looked on by such as me, I found it but a hopeless desert: tawny sands, with no green field, no palm-tree, no well in view.

CoverIf you’ve ever been lonely and heartsick abroad, feeling yourself connected to no one for days on end, it’s an easy scene to identify with. Claire Harman’s biography, Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart, starts with a description of how, as happens to Lucy Snowe in Villette, Brontë, a Protestant, was eventually drawn to a Catholic church and, entering the confessional, poured out some of her “long accumulating, long pent-up pain” (Villette‘s phrase) to the priest there.

Harman’s biography is excellent, by the way; elegant and keenly perceptive, while retaining a nice generosity in its descriptions of people’s actions and motives. Later in it, she returns to that summer and describes how Brontë found herself in that jittery, restless, depressed state where you’re unable to read or focus on anything. Harman notes: “Walking the busy city streets was just as distressing: ‘I know you, living in the country can hardly believe that it is possible life can be monotonous in the centre of a brilliant capital like Brussels,’ she wrote to [her friend Ellen Nussey]; ‘but so it is.‘”

For a Brontë, writing would normally have been a comfort and a refuge, but that, too, required a focus that Charlotte didn’t have that summer. She did manage to write a little, however—or at least planned to. Harman shares an outline for a story Brontë started inside a German exercise book. The story was to be a “magazine tale” set 30 to 50 years before in England, have a rural setting, be in the first person, and deal with characters of “Rank—middle.” After the heading for “Subject,” Brontë had written, “Certain remarkable occurrences,” which is a pretty wonderful instance of literary plot TK-ing. Feel free to use it yourself next time you’re stuck in a draft: [Certain remarkable occurrences TK.]

At the back of that same exercise book was this fragment, unrelated to the “magazine story” outline. It reads:

There was once a large house called Gateshead stood not far from a [illeg.] high-road in the North of England—it is gone now every vestige of it, and the site is [replaced?] by a Railway Station. No great loss was the demolition of that said house for it was never a tasteful or picturesque building.

Harman writes, “Charlotte Brontë later said that she always made two or three starts on her novels before settling down, and here we see a very early glimpse of her second novel, Jane Eyre… It’s odd to think Charlotte may have been hatching the story in the long lonely summer at the Pensionnat.”

Here’s the first page of Brontë’s later fair copy of Jane Eyre with the first sentence, “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day,” she’d arrived at after those two or three (or however many) false starts.


When I was reading Harman’s biography the other night, that first beginning fragment—”There was once a large house called Gatehead”—gave me goosebumps. I don’t know why. Ninety percent of the reaction was attributable to pure Jane Eyre– Brontë love, of course. One percent probably to the fragment’s echo to “Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within,” and to the Gateshead of the fragment being a house that, like Manderley, can’t be returned to. (As Thornfield Hall ends up being in the completed Jane Eyre.) The rest of it, though, had something to do with the way the note had been scribbled in the back of the exercise book, with a couple words illegible to even the most diligent of biographers. About how it was off to the side of the main thing that Brontë was working on. One of those stumbling starts on something you make during a long, terrible summer that may come to nothing. Or may not.

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