I know that it may seem like I’m a little behind the 8-Ball on this blog. After all, Muhammad Ali has been dead now since June 3rd. I have been meaning to write about him since he died, but the events of the past couple of weeks have never made it seem like the right time…until now.
I have been watching and reading about the life of The Greatest for the past couple of weeks. Story after story have recounted the extraordinary life of this man from Louisville, especially touting the impact his life had on African Americans. Inspiring, extraordinary. But as a `13-year old white boy, growing up in a middle-class home in the Washington DC area, Muhammad Ali changed my life. I remember the first time I saw him like it was yesterday. I was sitting on the couch in my living room, and my Dad said, “You have to see this. This big mouth is going to get it shut!” It was February 25, 1964, the night of the first Sonny Liston fight. The fight he could never win…until he did.
I was curiously drawn to him. Most fighters in those days were known for their fighting, not for their personality. I was surprised by my Dad’s reaction because he was generally fairly moderate for his time. But there was clearly something about this guy that rubbed him the wrong way, and I knew instinctively that it was racial. My experience with African Americans was fairly limited, but it was clear to me that he was different. Yes, he was cocky, and I remember even now, some 55 years later, feeling drawn to his confidence, his deep sense of self, his pride.
He of course, went on to make history but at every turn he seemed to pull me out of my apathy about the way things were. When he declared himself a Muslim and changed his name, I began to read about Islam. When it was clear that he was rebelling against the racism in society, he became another lamppost, different from others that I had seen, that shined the light on truth. And when he refused to submit to the draft in 1966, his courage inspired me, and fueled my own resistance to the war.
And yet, all of those specifics still don’t capture what he did to me. He taught me to appreciate the bold Black voice. He taught me to recognize the flow of history in our everyday life. He taught me to see how much more comfortable our culture…my culture…white culture, felt when African Americans were quieter, less threatening and “safer.” In doing that he opened me up to James Baldwin, Malcom X, and Eldridge Cleaver, Maya Angelou, and Franz Fanon and heaven knows how many other voices I may never have been interested in listening to.
His influence still impacts my choices today. When I am reading Ta Nehisi Coates, Cornell West or Michael Eric Dyson, or having dinner with my friends Julianne Malveaux and Johnnetta Cole, or listening to Black Lives Matter activists, The Greatest is still in me, reminding me of that power and that Truth.
And yet, there was always his kindness, his playfulness, his humanity. And perhaps that was what struck me the most about him. His complete humanity.
I wept when we lost him, even though I hadn’t heard much about him over the last few years. I guess there was something reassuring about knowing that his feet were always on the same planet. But he will always be part of my consciousness, and a signed boxing glove of his hangs over the door of my office, reminding me every day that we can be strong. We can be bold. We can speak truth to power. We can stand for something bigger than ourselves, and do it with love.
Rest in peace Champ. You may be gone, but you will never be forgotten.