ONTD Political

AT HOME WITH: Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe; Focusing on AIDS, and Life

By WILL JOYNER
Originally Published: January 27, 1994



FIRST of all, simply say the word "AIDS."

"The best thing you can do for your kid who is 5, 6 or 7 is to introduce them to the term," Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe said. "It doesn't have to be associated with sex; it doesn't have to be associated with drugs. It only has to be that you are introducing your child to this illness, and that you become comfortable talking about it."

On a recent weekday morning at her Upper East Side apartment, Ms. Moutoussamy-Ashe, 42, spoke of the life and death of her husband, Arthur Ashe, and the life she has now as a professional photographer, a fledgling AIDS educator and the single parent of their 7-year-old daughter, Camera.

"The overwhelming social ramifications that go along with AIDS are not pertinent to a 5- or 6-year-old," she said, leaning forward from the edge of an easy chair. "But when they do become pertinent, the child will have this base already developed. And that's what the adolescent population today doesn't have."

Ms. Moutoussamy-Ashe was there with him, and at one point she stepped forward to read the tennis champion's statement when he could not continue. An indelible image was broadcast -- of a strong, dignified woman supporting a strong, dignified man; of the private player in an equal partnership suddenly and gracefully standing in for the public one.

The Ashes had learned he had AIDS in September 1988, when he was found to be suffering from a related brain infection, toxoplasmosis; his doctors traced the H.I.V. to a blood transfusion he had received in 1983 after heart surgery. But it was not until a newspaper forced their hand that the Ashes made the announcement, and had to adjust how they spoke of Arthur's illness to their daughter, then 5. "She had heard us discussing AIDS, but we had never sat down and consciously explained what AIDS was, and that this was Daddy's disease," Ms. Moutoussamy-Ashe recalled. "She understood Daddy was sick. It wasn't so much telling her that he had AIDS; she had to understand that people may say to her, 'Hey, your dad has AIDS,' and be able to say back, 'I already knew that.'" Ashe died less than a year later, on Feb. 6, 1993, at age 49. A year has passed since his death, and the image of Ms. Moutoussamy-Ashe has gained in detail: she is acting chairwoman of the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS and has returned to her work in the studio. She has also overseen the publishing of "Days of Grace," (Alfred A. Knopf), her husband's memoir written with Arnold Rampersad, and "Daddy and Me" (Knopf), her own pictorial chronicle of the relationship between Arthur and Camera, and the child's understanding of the father's illness.

"I'm sort of pointed in one direction even though I seem to be pulled in a lot of different directions," she said, gently shooing away a small white Maltese dog named Crystal. "The most important things for me are being a mommy -- that's my most precious job -- and I love my work, taking pictures and finding avenues for them, ways they can best serve a purpose.

"I want to carry on Arthur's work. I was always involved in it, but he was running the show. I'm feeling more confident I can juggle these things."


The Ashes moved to this 14th-floor apartment from a house in Mount Kisco, N.Y., in 1990, so that Arthur could be closer to New York Hospital. The living room and the dining room flow into each other in a loftlike way, with a common bank of windows facing east. It is an elegant setting, decorated in soft tones of gray and purple. A shiny baby grand piano sits beside the windows, and on one wall is a large abstract painting with a tennis-racquet motif. But dominating the space are a variety of photographic portraits, almost all by Ms. Moutoussamy-Ashe, almost all in black and white.

Many of the pictures are of her husband, her daughter and other relatives. Some of the pictures are from Ms. Moutoussamy-Ashe's first book, "Daufuskie Island," a study of the Gullah-speaking residents of a South Carolina island that in the late 1970's was about to be overrun by development. Picture by picture, private blends with public, just as it did in her husband's life as he won Grand Slam titles, fought discrimination, then fought illness and its stigma. But the themes here are clear: pride in black American heritage and in family.

Pride in family and its sustaining strength fill the pages of "Daddy and Me," whose publication has taken up much of Ms. Moutoussamy-Ashe's energy in recent months.

The book was conceived at the dining-room table one day in 1992 by the Ashes, who had not been able to find a volume on AIDS appropriate for young children. After he announced that he had AIDS, Ashe continued to believe his privacy had been invaded, but he quickly made the disease one of the issues he acted upon in his controlled but aggressive way. And the family decided to make public the pictures that had originally been intended as family documents.

"We were not ambivalent," said Ms. Moutoussamy-Ashe, who speaks with a tone of warm but formal urgency. "All three of us were bent on having some control over what had happened to us, particularly in Camera's world. We thought that by showing the relationship between Camera and Arthur, we could best illustrate how important the role of the child as care-giver could be."


The words that accompany the photographs in "Daddy and Me" are in Camera's voice, in present tense. She speaks of her father's good days and bad ones, of playing and reading with him, but also of helping to keep track of his many pills and accompanying him to the hospital.

Camera, named in honor of Ms. Moutoussamy-Ashe's profession, is positive and determined these days, just as she appears to be in almost all of the book's photographs, her mother said. She loves school and especially enjoys reading, art and gymnastics. Her recent New Year's resolutions? To stop eating potato chips and to start piano lessons. She recently celebrated a birthday, her first without her father.

"There are lots of firsts to get through; a first Christmas without him, a first birthday," Ms. Moutoussamy-Ashe said. The main event of the birthday party was a festive gingerbread-house-building project.

In October, Camera and her mother talked to the child's first-grade class about the making of the book and read parts of it. The November issue of Life magazine would be running excerpts, with Camera on the cover; Ms. Moutoussamy-Ashe and Camera's teacher wanted to defuse problems that might arise.

"I wanted them to be comfortable and familiar with Camera's situation and with the issue of AIDS," she explained. "Last year, the issue surrounding Camera wasn't so much AIDS as it was death and dying. Her kindergarten class went through that with her."

The first-grade children -- whose parents had been advised of the session beforehand in a letter, the result of consultation with the school's psychologist and principal -- had no trouble discussing "Daddy and Me." But again concern about death seemed to predominate, even though dying isn't mentioned in the book. And the one parent who telephoned Ms. Moutoussamy-Ashe was concerned not about the topic of AIDS but that of death.

"Some parents aren't really comfortable with talking to their kids about what will happen if Mommy or Daddy dies," she said. "That's understandable, but hey . . . reality."

Ms. Moutoussamy-Ashe is H.I.V.-negative but, nevertheless, lives with AIDS every day. Although she is still grieving, she is able to help others. She has given only a few interviews about "Daddy and Me," choosing instead public book signings, where she sometimes ends up in tears, holding a stranger's hand.

"People give me letters and say, 'Read this later,' " she said. "There was one letter from a woman in her early 20's whose father had died of AIDS about seven years ago. Her father was so ashamed of his illness that he didn't want to share what was happening. She said that through this book, she realized such a relationship could have evolved. It made her sad, but also happy that people could celebrate how someone lived his life, rather than the facts of disease."

On a glass coffee table is another indication of Ms. Moutoussamy-Ashe's strong belief in the celebration of lives that have gone before: a copy of her second book, recently republished, "Viewfinders: Black Women Photographers" (Writers & Readers). Her own ancestors include a black slave, a Cherokee and a grandfather from Guadeloupe whose forebears were from India. The name Moutoussamy (pronounced moo-TOO-sa-mee) is an alteration of Moutou-swami.

"I'd like to do more portraits now," said Ms. Moutoussamy-Ashe, a Chicago native who graduated from Cooper Union and worked as a graphic artist for NBC before her marriage in 1977. "I have a new Hasselblad camera, which I'm having a lot of fun with."

In November, she completed a portrait project for the Sara Lee Corporation, documenting its 1993 Front runner awards.

"I asked Maya Angelou if she would sing for me," she recalled. "I wanted to provoke something that showed her strength. She exudes that anyway, but she started to sing and it was so moving. When she stopped, there was a calm that showed her strength. Boom! That's where the shot was."

The doorbell rang, and a photographer arrived to make a portrait of the portrait maker. She and the photographer, an old friend, were immediately engaged in laughter and shop talk as she admired an old Leica camera he was carrying. Ms. Moutoussamy-Ashe was dressed simply but was as elegant as her surroundings. Only her jewelry told of her loss: on the lapel of her blazer she wore a silver version of the Ashe foundation's AIDS pin, with a small tennis ball added to the traditional ribbon.

Source

I was very young when Arthur Ashe died, but my dad was very involved in golf then, and it was the example that they used to explain AIDS to me when my cousin was first diagnosed (particularly the transfusion aspect, as my cousin got it the same way).

I've seen Ms. Moutoussamy-Ashe's work and it is incredibly touching, and I recommend everyone view it.
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