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Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, Photographer and Activist

By Eric K. Washington

February 1, 2011

Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, Photographer and Activist

This is the first in a series marking the 30th anniversary of the U.S. HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Early one morning in 1987, photographer Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe awakened to somebody else's bad news: A high-profile congressman, Stewart McKinney of Connecticut, had died of AIDS -- most likely infected as a result of a blood transfusion.

Like Rep. McKinney, Moutoussamy-Ashe's husband -- the tennis star Arthur Ashe -- was a candidate for disaster. Ashe's career had ended in 1979, when a heart attack resulted in quadruple bypass surgery, followed by another heart surgery in 1983, both of which required blood transfusions. Moutussamy-Ashe remembers thinking, "Can you imagine if that had happened to us?" And within a year, in 1988, it had.


Serving Up Change On and Off the Court

Although he'd retired from playing in 1988, Arthur Ashe was still one of the most venerated figures in professional sports. His victory in 1968 at the very first U.S. Open tennis tournament had made him the first African American male winner of a grand-slam event, the game's highest level of competition. Two more grand-slam championships followed -- the Australian Open in 1970 and then tennis's most prestigious event, Wimbledon, in England in 1975 -- making Ashe one of the world's most salient examples of athletic prowess and consummate sportsmanship.

While breaking down barriers on the court, Ashe had also been leveraging his celebrity to advocate for political and humanitarian issues. His boyhood taste of Jim Crow segregation in Richmond, Va., primed his later distaste for apartheid in South Africa. When that country repeatedly denied the champion a visa to compete, Ashe campaigned for its expulsion from the International Lawn Tennis Federation.

Exalted in the eyes of many fellow African Americans, Arthur Ashe -- author, historian and principled civil rights activist -- became a golden boy whose stature transcended that of a mere sports idol. Andrew Young, former U.S. delegate to the United Nations, who also performed the Ashes' wedding ceremony, once said of him, "He took the burden of race and wore it as a cloak of dignity."


Waging a Personal Battle

By September of 1988, however, the Ashes were contending with a personal burden. Their role as fledgling parents of a 19-month-old daughter, Camera, was already reshaping their world when Ashe fell ill and needed a brain operation. That's when the couple learned that he had contracted HIV during one of his prior surgeries. The couple kept the shocking news close to the breast.

"Arthur knew he was going to step forward one day and help raise consciousness," Moutoussamy-Ashe says. "But he knew if it became public, his entire life in civil rights advocacy would take a backseat to his illness. And with the time he had left, there were certain things he wanted to get done." A reporter would later ask Ashe if living with AIDS was the hardest thing he had experienced. " 'No,' Arthur said. 'Being black in America was more difficult,' " Moutoussamy-Ashe recounts.

But whatever Ashe's convictions about keeping his health status private, he was becoming noticeably gaunt. USA Today began churning the story that he had AIDS. "A reporter confronted him about his condition," Moutoussamy-Ashe recalls. She adds, "Arthur had no choice" but to come forward.

Instead of being outed, on April 8, 1992, Ashe addressed the media first. "I have known since the time of my brain operation in September 1988 that I have AIDS," he said. But when the athlete mentioned his daughter, his characteristic poise dissolved into tears. Moutoussamy-Ashe stepped forward to finish her husband's announcement and stepped into her own public role as an AIDS activist.


Assuming a New Focus

At the forefront, there was always the issue of protecting Camera. On the one hand, she was just turning six. But on the other, she was approaching the same age Ashe had been when his mother had died. "Arthur wanted as many memories as possible for Camera of their relationship because he had so few of his mother," Moutoussamy-Ashe says. And so she began shooting.

"I did it for them," she says. "It wasn't meant to be a book project." But the hardbound result -- a book called Daddy and Me -- proved an unforeseen kind of activism against the social stigmatization surrounding AIDS.

"We decided to do the book because of the reaction of Camera's classmates and their parents," Moutoussamy-Ashe says. Published a few months after Ashe died on February 6, 1993, Daddy and Me is written in Camera's words. By adopting a child's perspective to demystify mortality, Moutoussamy-Ashe explains, the book provides "language to discuss with young children what happens when parents or others get ill from AIDS and other serious diseases."

"When Arthur and I first met, we were both activists and committed to continuing our work," says Moutoussamy-Ashe, whose 1982 book of photographs, Daufuskie Island, remains a vivid study of an American setting with distinctly African sociocultural roots.

Much of Moutoussamy-Ashe's work has shifted to maintaining her husband's legacy, which includes the U.S. Open's Arthur Ashe Stadium. In 2007 she launched ArthurAshe.org, a clearinghouse of biographical, documentary and programming information. But she is also continuing her own photography, which her late husband always encouraged her to do.

"Everything I shoot is personal and poignant to me," says Moutoussamy-Ashe. "I photograph what I care about." And while she does shoot digital, the darkroom holds emotional sway for her. "Metaphorically, it's going into the dark to see the light," she says.

As the discovery of AIDS in the United States approaches the 30-year mark this June, the dark does yield more light for Moutoussamy-Ashe than she had reason to detect two decades ago. "While it's too late for Arthur, there is a lot of promise," she says. She cites various drugs and research data that were not available during her family's crisis, and particularly "the incredible work of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI), the Arthur Ashe Endowment for the Defeat of AIDS (AAEDA) and other organizations."

"I would very much like to help IAVI, doing whatever I can, to help discover a vaccine," Moutoussamy-Ashe says. "That, and solving the problem of health care in this country, would be enormously satisfying."

Eric K. Washington, the author of Manhattanville: Old Heart of West Harlem, is the 1995 winner of the National Association of Black Journalists first prize for his Out magazine profile of AIDS activist Phill Wilson, who went on to found the Black AIDS Institute and is its current CEO.




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