Okay, I’m lying. I’m not reviewing the whole thing in one post. It’s so meaty, I’m going to take it chapter by chapter. This post will take you through what you can expect in the introduction and no farther, because James Blake has a lot to say, and we owe it to him to take it in slowly.
Introduction: Mistaken Identity
You think you already know the story of how James Blake, racially profiled by New York police, was tackled to the ground outside his hotel room in broad daylight. You don’t know. There are significant details that James reveals here that, frankly, blew my mind. It’s ten times worse than I knew, and I thought I’d looked into the incident carefully.
First, the police lied about what happened. They lied a lot. In their first statement, they said they only held James for less than a minute, that he was never handcuffed, and certainly wasn’t manhandled. James was so astounded to hear this account, so at odds with what he recalled. So he, himself, personally went back to talk to hotel security and got access to the tape. Indeed, there he was, detained for twelve minutes, not for less than one minute, and put in handcuffs for ten of those minutes. They paraded him in this ad hoc perp walk on a crowded street until an older cop checked Blake’s USTA badge against his profile on the internet, and they let him go. Nobody except this man–who wasn’t even the one tackling him–apologized. No one showed a badge.
Taking his account with the video to the press, Blake secured a spot on Good Morning, America. In response, police commissioner William Bratton issued a second statement suggesting this was a case of mistaken identity. Bratton released a photo of the man they were seeking who turned out to look nearly exactly like James Blake. But that was an Australian national who wasn’t even in the country at the time.
Blake could have written the whole book about this incident and how it changed him. And I would have eagerly read that book. But Blake casts a much wider net. He doesn’t direct the attention at himself, but rather the history of activism by athletes, and what they have gained and sacrificed choosing to use their public platform in unsanctioned ways.
Working from the inside out, he first credits his personal hero, Arthur Ashe, in guiding his thought of how to take what happened to him and use it for the greater good. He reminds us that Ashe, weakened by HIV/AIDS contracted from a bad blood transfusion in 1983, nevertheless marched in DC in support of better treatment of Haitian refugees. And of course, Blake’s title, Ways of Grace, is an homage to Ashe’s autobiography, Days of Grace.
He goes next to the WTA, recalling Billy Jean King’s 1973 win in “Battle of the Sexes,” but more broadly, her tireless advocacy on the part of equal pay in sports. As the third chapter of Ways of Grace is subtitled “Gender Biases in Sport,” we’re certain to return to that theme.
Moving further back in the chronology and away from tennis, Blake mentions Tommy Smith and John Carlos’ protest at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics during the playing of the anthem. That is a deliberately reference point, because he’s going to get to Kaepernick shortly.
But before he does he takes a paragraph to laud the white Australian Peter Norman who won the silver that year, and thus shared the podium with Smith and Carlos. Blake notes that Norman’s quiet sympathy with Smith and Carlos inspired possibly even more backlash than Smith and Carlos faced, and cast a long shadow over his life.
I’m going to say that Blake’s shift to focus on the role of whites in protesting abuse is strategic and damned smart. It’s not just tennis that got him into Harvard. He’s aiming this book in part, if not in whole, at the white audience who at the moment is wondering why his/her sports program is disrupted, why his/her favorite athlete or team can’t just stick to sports, why politics has to get into everything. When he gets to Kaepernick in the next paragraph, he spends just as much text highlighting the risks that 49ers safety Eric Reid takes in kneeling with Kaepernick as he did on Norman. Athletes, whether black or white, face fines, sponsor pushback, public scorn, and loss of friends and fans in the choice to take a public stance. It is no small thing, Blake wants us to know.
So in this book, Blake is going to look at it all, from protests against racism, sexism, and homophobia, from tennis to basketball to football, from pro sports to the NCAA. He ends the introduction by circling back to Arthur Ashe who, he says, taught him to help others, and try to find a way to make the world a better place. Blake is not the same man, he tells us, as the one several officers so callously tackled outside his hotel room. He sees the world differently, and he wants us to as well.
As a tennis fan, one can’t get to the end of this introduction without having a bad case of “ubi sent.” Ubi sunt references a style of mourning ballad in the medieval period. It’s Latin for, basically, where my peeps at? It lionizes those who were great who passed away before us, and who we miss dreadfully. When we look at the Trumpsters who make up the current roster of top American ATP players, we can look at James Blake and Arthur Ashe, and the tradition of activism and commitment to equality they represent, and we have every right to wonder what the hell happened to our sport.