On Serve: Althea Gibson and Basquiat’s Boxers

A sharecropper’s shack, daddy working the fields. He wanted a boy, but got Althea. Is that why they boxed on the rooftops of Harlem throughout her teenage years? Ward off hard blows, give some of your own, learn to get up when you’re hurt. Basquiat’s boxers as black culture heroes: Joe Louis, Sugar Ray, Muhammad Ali. A young black man might crown himself. Althea Gibson? The Wimbledon crown? Tennis was not where it’s at. Seeming to experience life as a kind of electric shock treatment, Basquiat’s Boxer is both skeleton and flesh, skull and brain, warning and prophecy. Basquiat’s Boxer represents the sound and feel of the white world’s bell that tolls its cost. How does anyone answer that bell? One answer is Charlie Parker’s skittering sax solos played so fast that no one could catch them. Another answer is Ali’s protest and bravado, his swinging, not singing, as Malcom X said, that would win him the heavyweight crown. To survive and earn her shot, Althea had allies in the American Tennis Association, the first sports organization formed by blacks in 1917. In Althea they saw a future champion, but they had to implant her into the foreign world of the white monied classes. Dr. Eaton and Dr. Johnson taught her the ropes. Half the time with Dr. Eaton getting a high-class education, half the time with Dr. Johnson traveling and playing tennis. The result included two Wimbledon Championships in 1957 and 1958, Althea becoming the first black player to win a major championship. Tennis, of course, could not remain a genteel white sport. When Althea described her game as “aggressive, dynamic, and mean,” she may be describing her internal feelings as an outsider, but she is also describing one of the best approaches to winning a tennis match. As Connors put it, tennis is “boxing at 90 feet. Throwing blows at each other until there’s only one man left standing.” Boxing with her father on the rooftops of Harlem, a young black woman might crown herself.


by David Linebarger


This is part of an ekphrastic, non-fiction series from author David Linebarger. Follow the series through Sunday September 9.


Linebarger author photo.jpgAfter leaving a career in music (classical guitar) because of a hand injury, David Linebarger earned a Ph.D. in English at the University of California, Davis. Currently a Professor of Humanities at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, his publications include scholarly articles on Wallace Stevens and Modern Music, poetry in over 25 journals, and two chapbooks: War Stories (Pudding House) and Bed of Light (Finishing Line Press). A national tournament tennis player in his age group, his current project includes a series of nonfiction prose poems on famous tennis players.


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