Serving herself The life and times of Althea Gibson

Ashley Brown

Book - 2023

"Coming Up the Hard Way "Sometimes, in a tough neighborhood, where there is no way for a kid to prove himself except by playing games and fighting, you've got to establish a record for being able to look out for yourself before they will leave you alone. If they think you're an easy mark, they will all look to build up their own reputations by beating up on you. I learned always to get in the first punch." Althea Gibson, 1958 Four days after her historic victory at Wimbledon in July 1957, Althea Gibson sat at the head table between her parents during a luncheon held in her honor at New York City's famed Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Wearing a dress of red and blue silk with a corsage pinned to her lapel, she listened local officials sang her praises. Gibson was "an American girl," "a real lady," and "a wonderful ambassador ... [and] saleswoman" for the country, they said. Speaker after speaker reached for superlatives and generalities to pay tribute to Gibson for rising improbably from "the sidewalks of New York," in the words of Mayor Robert F. Wagner, to winning the most prestigious tennis tournament in the world. The commissioner of the department of commerce and public events cut closest to the truth with six words: "She came up the hard way""--

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Location Call Number   Status
2nd Floor 796.342092/Gibson Checked In
New York, NY : Oxford University Press 2023.
Main Author
Ashley Brown (author)
Physical Description
xiii, 595 pages, 40 unnumbered leaves of unnumbered plates : illustrations (black and white) ; 24 cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1. Coming Up the Hard Way
  • 2. A Queer Cosmopolitan
  • 3. The Making of a Strong Black (Woman) Contender in the South
  • 4. From Florida A&M to Forest Hills
  • 5. Dis/Integration
  • 6. Resurfacing
  • 7. Press(ing) Matters
  • 8. Changeover
  • 9. Finding Fault with a Winner
  • 10. Game Over
  • 11. New Frontiers
  • 12. A Winner Who Hasn't Won Yet
  • 13. The Harvest
  • 14. Two Deaths
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index
Review by Choice Review

Brown (Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison) has revised her 2017 dissertation on Althea Gibson into a highly readable book. Gibson was a natural athlete who excelled in multiple sports and became the first African American (man or woman) tennis winner at the Wimbledon, French Open, and Forest Hills tournaments during the 1950s. In addition to facing racism, she also encountered sexism and questions about her sexuality before she was married. She was scrutinized at a preposterous level and was subjected to criticism in the press and elsewhere for every imagined breach of convention. Brown provides excellent documentation. Her method of interweaving Gibson's life story with contemporary events that were occurring in the fight for civil rights is especially enlightening. Only amateur players could play in the major tournaments during Gibson's time, so she never received the level of remuneration for her tennis prowess that professional women players could obtain once the so-called Open Era began a decade later (c. 1968). Gibson's later career endeavors included performing as a singer, public speaker, professional golfer, and instructor. This stellar biography stands as a tribute to the bravery and perseverance of a pioneer. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All readers. --Joe Arky Badics, Eastern Michigan University

Copyright American Library Association, used with permission.
Review by Booklist Review

In 2019, a statue of Althea Gibson was unveiled at the U.S. Open, honoring the trailblazing athlete who dominated tennis in the 1950s. Often compared to Jackie Robinson, Gibson won 11 major titles and was the first African American to win both the U.S. Open and Wimbledon. The statue was a long-overdue tribute for a woman who was a household name before Arthur Ashe or Venus and Serena Williams. Gibson also broke barriers beyond tennis by becoming the first African American golfer to play on the LPGA tour. Brown, a historian specializing in African American studies and sports, began this book as her PhD dissertation, and it shows its academic origins in terms of scholarship while remaining accessible for general readers. This is a monumental, comprehensive biography that blends Gibson's remarkable athletic accomplishments with the inspirational story of how she lived through the Jim Crow era and navigated segregation, racism, and gender discrimination, all the while fighting for the integration of sports. After triumphing at Wimbledon, Gibson pledged to "wear the title with dignity and humility"; this fine tribute makes clear that she did just that. Highly recommend for sports and history collections.

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Library Journal Review

Brown (history of sport and society, Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison) focuses on the first Black woman sports superstar, Althea Gibson (1927--2003). Gibson, winning 11 Grand Slams, was the first Black American to win titles at the French Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open. With interviews, personal correspondence, newspaper articles, archives, records, and recordings, Brown gives readers a full portrait of Gibson, the daughter of sharecroppers from South Carolina. When they moved to Harlem, her interest in sports surfaced. She won the American Tennis Association's girls' division tournaments in 1944 and 1945, and, starting in 1947, she earned 10 more consecutive, titles. She was named Female Athlete of the Year in 1957 and 1958. She didn't turn pro until 1958. Brown also reveals other interesting tidbits about Gibson, such as her pursuit of a career in singing and that she played golf professionally at one point as well. After retiring from sports, Gibson set up mobile tennis units and tennis outreach programs for underprivileged neighborhoods. When she suffered a stroke and a heart attack in her later years, the tennis community raised money to pay for her medical expenses. VERDICT A highly recommended, inspirational title.--Lucy Heckman

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Review by Kirkus Book Review

An in-depth look at how racism and homophobia challenged the life of a sports superstar. Brown, a scholar of African American, women's, and sports history, makes her book debut with a thoroughly researched, insightful biography of Althea Gibson (1927-2003), the first African American inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, whose prowess extended to golf as well. Drawing on Gibson's prolific media coverage, autobiographies, and archival sources, Brown creates a palpable portrait of an aggressive, ambitious woman whose race made her an outsider in the White-dominated sports world and whose gender nonconformity--refusal to meet expectations about how a Black woman should look and behave--made her a social misfit. She preferred jeans, T-shirts, and shorts to tennis skirts; she kept her personal life private, inciting gossip about lesbianism. Born on a South Carolina farm, Gibson grew up in Harlem, where she played "any kind of ball" she could find. She was tall, strong, and ruthlessly competitive. Her innate talent was honed by coaches and mentors, and her career was supported by influential benefactors and patrons. They pushed her to finish high school, take a scholarship to college, and work on her demeanor. Brown recounts all of Gibson's games, from her first tournament win in 1946; her 1950 debut at Forest Hills, "a shrine to tennis"; and her debut at the storied courts of Wimbledon in 1951. By 1958, Gibson was an undisputed star on the amateur circuit, winning Wimbledon, the U.S. Nationals, the French Championship, and five Grand Slam Singles. Supremely confident, she made forays into singing (including on The Ed Sullivan Show), acting, exhibition matches on tour with the Harlem Globetrotters, and golf, "the last American sport to admit Blacks on the elite level." Though the narrative is overwhelmed by details of every game, Brown sensitively examines Gibson's refusal to be seen as "a representative" of her race, offering context for her views on social justice, women's rights, and African American causes. A perceptive look at a driven woman. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.