"You that nigga that can talk," a famous voice softly ribbed me in an airport terminal in 1993.
The whispering pipes belonged to Muhammad Ali, the towering, though visibly shaking, former heavyweight champion of the world. His mischievous eyes still glowed with the wonder of life.
Ali's compliment was far truer of his life than mine. In his golden days, he talked relentlessly, courageously, even dangerously, about black folk and racial injustice in America. And of course about how great and pretty he was.
Ali's boasting was a proxy for group assertion at a time when such a thing was wildly unpopular. His words echoed the desire for black folk to be confident in their self-worth. Black men were especially drawn to Ali and wanted to be just as unapologetic as the champ in voicing black pride. When he rhymed, we rhymed too, believing that we could spit homespun verse to proclaim our majesty. We too could "float like a butterfly and sting like a bee." We too could "rumble, young man, rumble." We too could say that we "shook up the world."
I met Muhammad Ali for the first time a year before our airport encounter. I'd been invited to participate in a 1992 symposium on his life at Miami University of Ohio that featured talks by eight thinkers and scribes, including renowned sportswriter and Ali biographer Robert Lipsyte. I was still a graduate student and just grateful to be in the room with the champ and a few other folks to parse Ali's complicated legacy in several no holds barred sessions. In my talk, "Athletes and Warriors," I reflected on Ali's verbal art as a way to fight racism and to define black manhood. I also imagined him as a poetic forerunner to hip-hop.
Ali twisted language to suit his pugilistic purposes and transformed the political grammar of black identity. The surface structure of Ali's brashness pointed to the deeper structure of his quest for black self-respect, and ours too.
Hip-hop great Jay Z captured this idea when he said that "Muhammad Ali is one of my heroes because when he was saying, 'I'm pretty,' he was saying that to all of us, he made all of us feel like we were pretty. 'I'm pretty, I'm a bad man, I'm pretty.' You gotta figure this was a time when we were considered ugly, so he wasn't saying that as a boast to walk inside the ring, he was saying that as a boast for all of us."
Jay Z is right. For most of our history, black folk were viewed as ugly creatures who lacked European charm and beauty. Black folk were considered biologically ugly, too—we were a race that drew from the genes and chromosomes of an impure species. Black folk were morally ugly, too—soulless savages seeking to satisfy appetites without higher purpose. And black folk were seen as mentally ugly, too—intellectually inferior beings incapable of divining life's deeper meanings. Ali, like the best rappers, was speaking against that as best he could.
The charm and magic of Ali's incantatory street doggerel is the way it permitted him to call down on Earth the gods of our self-making and our bold self-loving.
Ali blazed the path for hip-hop artists, placing vernacular speech in the service of truth, though such speech is always at first seen as a mockery of taste and pedigree. That's true whether the art in question is the sorrowful songs of the slave plantation, the blues of the urban enclave, or the rap of the concrete jungle. Such views didn't just come from black cultural outsiders; they sprang from native speakers as well. Because reading and writing for enslaved blacks was a matter of life and death, it has often compelled black elites and others to favor highbrow instead of gutbucket literacy. Ali, like the rappers who came behind him, fought racial denigration outside black culture and faced class disdain from within.
The truths he told were raw and blunt, for instance, that black folk hated our broad noses and big lips. But Ali knew those noses were made to whiff the sweet scent of self-love, and those lips, which contained a beauty large enough to swim in, were meant to proclaim our beauty and greatness. The charm and magic of Ali's incantatory street doggerel is the way it permitted him to call down on Earth the gods of our self-making and our bold self-loving.
Ali's speech could not be separated from his spirit, his tongue from his temple of worship. When Ali announced to the world that he would no longer answer to his slave name of Cassius Marcellus Clay, a name that rolled off the tongue in near alliterative euphony, but that he would instead adopt a name bestowed on him by the leader of a black religion, he certainly "shook up the world" as he had when he battered heavyweight champion Sonny Liston. Ali stood in for every black man who has had his sanity questioned for refusing to pray the way he was taught to pray by those whose gods and rituals that were meant to undo us by containing and deflating us.
Of course, Ali wasn't always perfect, especially when he sucker punched an opponent with the very ideas he meant to defeat. Like many black men who surrender to the temptation to become oppressor for a day, Ali occasionally did the white man's work for him, like when he viciously painted Joe Frazier as a racial sellout during the buildup to their third, most consequential battle in the Philippines in 1975.
Ali taunted Frazier with his most derisive rhymes ever, proclaiming on national television, as he playfully pummeled a toy primate, "It's going to be a thrilla in Manila when I kill that gorilla." Ali was a 6'3" light-skinned black man in a world that agreed with his self-proclaimed handsomeness. Frazier was a 5'11" dark-skinned black man who was widely viewed as anything but pretty. Ali's heartless attack on Frazier couldn't be merely seen as his usual attempt to get inside his opponent's head. The racial enemy that Ali had so brilliantly resisted, even truculently disputed, remained inside his mind; and in his psychic bloodstream flowed color specific stereotypes that temporarily suppressed his immunity to black self-hate. Ali projected onto Frazier's chocolate body the nation's sacramental disdain for darkness that is religiously transmitted in its catechism of colorism. That so many black men remain color-struck in who we love and dislike suggests that Ali's bitter ignorance 40 years ago still burns in our brains and bodies.
Although we didn't speak of his ugly offense to Frazier at the symposium, Ali did admit error in dealing with Malcolm X, about whom I would publish a book two years later. "I was wrong about him," Ali gently confessed to me about the man largely responsible for inspiring his conversion to Islam. After Malcolm fell out of favor with Nation of Islam head, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, a chorus of voices within the religious group dubbed Malcolm a traitor and left him vulnerable to some members' murderous rage. Ali turned his back on Malcolm too, a decision he later regretted. It is sad that black men can't sometimes disagree without fatal consequences, whether in the streets where we often meet our ends at one another's hands or in more polite circles where we thrash one another with unkind words that separate us from former friends, a bitterness I have unfortunately tasted. Malcolm died before Ali could seek his forgiveness, a reminder that our egos may out outlast our impulse to acknowledge wrong and embrace reconciliation.
If Ali didn't reconcile with Malcolm, white society managed to reconcile with the former champ. Ali had exulted in unpardonable blackness by embracing a black God and displaying unquenchable loyalty to black folk by loving his people unceasingly and without apology. He developed a grassroots calculus of white offense against blackness and produced a patchwork framework of demonology that drew from the Nation and the black power struggles that he both inspired and absorbed. Ali reveled in valiant blackness, a courageous moral and philosophical argument that black life be treated with dignity and respect. He presaged our contemporary Black Lives Matter practice of both naming and resisting black animus while linking such gestures to practical politics. It's not that Ali was versed in Sun-Tzu, or Von Clausewitz, or Frantz Fanon in warring against the strictures and structures of white supremacy. His was surely an intuitional rebellion, a matter of saying what he in his gut knew to be wrong, but his actions were also connected to broader freedom struggles in black America and throughout the black diaspora where he was madly loved.
When Ali made war on war, and held out as a conscientious objector against the bloodbath in Vietnam, he offered black folk and other allies a lesson on how to link local and global forms of oppression, saying that his conscience "won't let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn't put no dogs on me, they didn't rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father... Shoot them for what? Just take me to jail."
Ali was even more forceful about the link between domestic and international racial terror and colonialism and oppression, when he declared that "I'm not gonna help nobody get something my Negroes don't have. If I'm gonna die, I'll die now right here fighting you, if I'm gonna die. You my enemy. My enemies are white people, not Viet Congs or Chinese or Japanese. You my opposer when I want freedom. You my opposer when I want justice. You my opposer when I want equality. You won't even stand up for me in America for my religious beliefs, and you want me to go somewhere and fight, but you won't even stand up for me here at home."
Shedding tears over Ali's death while ignoring the tears of those who suffer today soils Ali's heroic legacy; extolling Ali's courage as a spokesman for truth while pillorying those who dare tell the truth now is a rejection of Ali, too.
It is not that Ali matured and gave up his ferocious social conscience as much as America caught up to his progressive ideas—at least on the question and costs of the Vietnam War, and to a lesser degree, on the racial crises at home. But the country has yet to acknowledge the link Ali drew between racial injustice at home and war abroad, in which people of color are, as Malcolm X put it, "the victims of democracy." Ali boldly built his views about what was happening in any number of "over there's" with a strict attention to what was happening "over here." "Here" and "there" mattered because their different geographies didn't exhaust the common ideologies that underlay their misfortunes. Ali challenged America to face up to its political hypocrisy and to acknowledge its moral shortcomings as the common point of reference in any serious discussion of war and race on both shores.
If Ali didn't come over to America's side as much as the nation warmed up to his view of things, Ali's image changed, too. He went from troublemaker to peacemaker, from rebel to saint. That change had as much to do with political and social amnesia—America often forgets what it seeks, or fails, to defeat—as it did with the admission that Ali's vision of America was more compelling, freer, truer, more capacious than the cramped vision of white racial nationalism. Like the great thinkers and leaders who preceded him, from Du Bois to Paul Robeson to King to Malcolm, Ali's embrace of the world's beleaguered and downtrodden masses forced the nation to come to grips with its foul treatment of its own citizens of color. Thus, like those figures, Ali's insistence that America do the right thing was far more loyal to the nation's ideals than those figures who savaged the once deposed champ in the name of American patriotism.
For many of his admirers, Ali's transition from pariah to prophet, from scourge to icon, stands as a sharp contrast to his previous radical political activism. For them, Ali's criticism of the nation seems to have given way to his embrace of America. That is far too simplistic a conclusion. The progress the nation made toward the ideals Ali fought for opened up space for him to fight injustice in a far less volatile environment. As America caught up to Ali's political vision, it pushed closer to a redemptive core: Humanitarianism is not the not a substitute for justice, but may be one measure of its fulfillment.
This should be kept in mind as contemporary expressions of black radicalism and social resistance are often unfavorably compared to Ali's post-60s humanitarian efforts. Such a vexing pivot depends on denying the value of Ali's earlier radicalism, and ignoring how his embrace of black love and black politics forged a path toward progressive humanitarianism. A humanitarian emphasis should be tied to black struggle, and when the two are opposed, it distorts, or even erases, the very politics that make humanitarianism possible. Those who profess to love Ali but despise current black protest—against police brutality, against voter suppression, against environmental racism—fundamentally misunderstand his political vision and moral sophistication.
A few prominent examples suggest how those distortions work. As long as LeBron James played basketball with a smile on his face, he was celebrated, and his charitable efforts in the community were lauded. Yet when he argued that racism played a role in the fevered responses to his leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat a few years back, he was sternly taken to task, just as he was criticized in some quarters for tweeting out a photo of his Miami Heat team donning hoodies in solidarity with the fallen black teen Trayvon Martin. When all pro cornerback Richard Sherman quietly played his position, he was hailed, but when he said that calling him "thug" because of his demonstrative on-field behavior was a euphemism for the N-word, he was lambasted. Beyoncé is embraced as a global icon of black genius when she performs, but when she spoke up about police brutality and defended the Black Lives Matter movement, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani pounced on her and some police departments swore not to protect her as she toured. Shedding tears over Ali's death while ignoring the tears of those who suffer today soils Ali's heroic legacy; extolling Ali's courage as a spokesman for truth while pillorying those who dare tell the truth now is a rejection of Ali, too.
The price Ali paid for his moral courage was steep, including the sacrifice of riches and reputation, and the loss of time to be able to perfect his craft at the height of his transcendent and luminous powers. But the price to his body for his stubborn persistence in the fight game was incalculably grave. Ali's physical courage in the face of debilitating disease goes far beyond his athletic valor—as great as that was. His management of disease was a metaphor for black men trapped inside stifling bodies of belief as they seek to negotiate their existence with a measure of grace and dignity.
As much as he meant to the world, what he meant to black men can never be measured in merely physical acts alone, but in the imperishable realm where his style of fight and speech were gifts that linger far beyond his mortal disappearance.
In encounters I had with him, Ali performed magic tricks, nearly in defiance of the unmagical, thudding literalism of the decline he suffered in his physical and motor skills. Despite the withering diminishment of the physical gifts for which he was known, and the silencing of the tongue that once flamed with timeless truths, Ali soldiered on and held fast to his beliefs—that Islam brings peace, that blackness brings greater humanity, that protest and resistance bring greater justice.
But then America has always been in love with change in reverse, in the safely settled past, not the dangerously changeable present. We prefer our heroes dead or quiet. Ali's silenced tongue surely hurried him into an iconic space that may have been impossible for him to occupy should he have been able to continue to raise his voice against the injustices he spotted. Because the physical idioms of his expression were severely limited, because his fiery declamation was laid waste to by the siege of decline, Ali was forced, instead, to inhabit relative muteness and transform it into an eloquent expression of his humanity—one where suggestion and inference form a grammar of moral communication.
Ali's magic feats were a delightful distraction for us both, but his far greater magic was the relentless pursuit of good in the midst of unimaginable suffering. In that sense, he represented the greatest achievements that black men have conjured when facing odds that most might not survive. As much as he meant to the world, as much as he belonged to that world, what he meant to black people, and to black men most of all, can never be measured in merely physical acts alone, but in the imperishable realm where his style of fight and speech were gifts that linger far beyond his mortal disappearance. That may be Ali's greatest magic act of all.
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