America has a conflicted relationship with committed Black leaders or social icons. She typically views them as threatening, arranges her money and law enforcement agencies to neutralize or kill them, and then portrays them as “patriotic Americans” long after their demise. This occurs because these conservative forces view Black liberators as “safe” and unable to stir up trouble upon their death. Therefore it is not uncommon to find the very people this country once defined as enemies of the state with their likenesses on U.S. postage stamps after their death. This distinguished list includes Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Robeson, Ella Baker, James Baldwin, Medgar Evers, Fannie Lou Hamer, Malcolm X, and Dr. King.
Some will say this results from grassroots pressure to recognize Black historical figures. There is obvious truth to this. Yet this delayed recognition of Black path-makers speaks to America’s pronounced Black leadership/icon fetish. It’s as if American power elites are turned on by charismatic and effective Black leadership, turned off by the threat it represents and contradictions it exposes, and turned on again by the prospect of destroying such leadership and defining and attempting to control the meaning of our heroes and sheroes (and therefore our liberation struggle). Typically they accomplish this by absorbing our iconic figures into the conventional American narrative taking once unashamedly Black, anti-establishment people and portraying them now as culturally and politically ambiguous “American heroes.” In the language of physics, a force is either a push or pull. America attempts to push such people out of existence or recognition while they’re alive, then pull them in once they die or at at the brink of death.
Perhaps no one person better personifies this dynamic than Muhammad Ali who just turned 71 on January 17th. In honor of Ali, this article explores his significance as a Black liberation figure. This does not in any way negate his meaning or relevance for all human beings, but given the dynamic I just described, it is important to rescue “The Greatest” from one of the greatest cultural and historical distortions “of all times….”
Writing about Muhammad Ali in this article seems to contradict my point about our leaders and icons being portrayed as American heroes after their death, right? But here is an important variation on the theme. Historical revisions also occur when one of our own is perceived to be in the twilight of their lives as well. For when such people are sickly or somehow incapacitated, they are also deemed non-threatening. Such is the case with our legendary brother Muhammad Ali.
Beginning in the late 80s until the present, white America began to see and portray Ali as an American hero. In 1988, Elliot Gold wrote Muhammad Ali: The People’s Champ; Thomas Conklin followed in 1991 with Muhammad Ali: The Fight for Respect; David Remnick wrote his highly acclaimed Ali biography, King of the World; A string of Ali-based documentaries followed, most notably When We Were Kings in 1996 followed by the major motion picture Ali in 2001; The Fox television network aired a movie entitled “Ali: An American Hero” in 2000. And lest we forget, Ali – now suffering with Parkinson’s Disease and visibly shaking – lit the Olympic torch at the 1996 summer games in Atlanta; ESPN awarded him its Arthur Ashe Award for Courage in 1997; Computer giant Apple Inc. as part of its “Think Different” commercial campaign featured a clip of Ali shadowboxing and mouthing off;Most telling is that the National Constitution Center presented Ali with the prestigious Liberty Medal in 2012. In presenting the medal the organization’s president remarked, “Muhammad Ali symbolizes all that makes America great, while pushing us as a people and as a nation to be better.”
Interesting commentary and accomplishments for a man who large segments of white America generally hated in the 60s and 70s. In truth, Ali was NEVER an American hero, try as authors, sports commentators, and the like would have us believe. In fact, his thinking and actions ran counter to all America represented during his reign as “The Greatest” heavyweight champion of all times. So aside from America’s narrative, and attempts to remember or define him, what was Muhammad Ali’s significance for US? What can WE learn from his example? When we answer this, we will also learn why white America so reviled him during the peak of his athleticism and social commentary.
1. Ali went against the traditional meek and submissive style of Black athletes in the presence of whites. Prior to Ali, Black athletes typically “stayed in their place.” Some barely looked white reporters in the eyes; others spoke in restrained and hushed manners, as if their managers, reporters and “owners” did them a favor by allowing them to compete. Ali understood himself to be the talent, labor and wealth-producing component of the equation, and he spoke with confidence. He did not look at whites in wonder, amazement or submissiveness, but as human beings like himself. He said what he wanted in the manner he wanted and without proclaiming himself to be a fellow human being worthy of respect – He demonstrated it. His boasting, predicting fights, lecturing on Black pride, were unprecedented for a Black athlete. Many of us learned from his example, drew pride from him and walked a little taller and straighter because of it.
2. He joined the Nation of Islam and professed Black pride and political consciousness parallel to the inception of the Black Power Movement. By disowning his “slave name,” not perming or “conking” his hair, and identifying with Africa he inspired us to become politically conscious as well.
3. Unlike many famous people who hid, lied, or moved to other countries, Ali refused to fight in the Vietnam War based on his religious beliefs and personal convictions. He faced serious punishment for this stance including a five-year prison sentence and enormous fines. The boxing authorities took his title and boxing licenses forcing Ali away from his sport for almost 4 years. His finances suffered tremendously as did his prestige. But he never relented. His courageous stance electrified Black people and galvanized the anti-war movement at the time. What high-profile athlete or celebrity would exhibit such integrity and risk their fame and fortune today? Look at the video below:
4. In response to his conviction for refusal to join the army, Ali appealed the decision to the United States in Supreme Court….and won! In doing this, Ali demonstrated agency and resistance. While many praise his legendary defeat of George Foreman in 1975, perhaps his most politically relevant fight took place in the legal arena. When in June 1971 the United States Supreme Court voted unanimously in Ali’s favor, the champ transcended the status of an athlete to become a powerful social commentator, anti-war activist, and symbol of Black Power throughout the world.
5. Muhammad Ali was at various points in his career, the most photographed and most recognized person on the planet. His beliefs, style, and opinions affected people, especially people of color across the globe. Ali’s stance against America’s unethical occupation of Vietnam put U.S. imperialism in African, Latino and Asian nations under a powerful microscope for the world to examine. His highly publicized title fights in Manila and Zaire for example, (although in fairness both nations were U.S. sponsored dictatorships) brought our attention to “developing nations” and the U.S. role in their destabilization.
Ali is now a septuagenarian. Old, barely audible, and visibly affected by Parkinson’s disease. Some may pity the man, saying he is but a shell of his former self. But it’s not Ali we should pity. He has lived a full and purposeful life, used and multiplied his God-given talents, and impacted the lives of others. Perhaps we should reserve the pity for ourselves – for not producing an Ali in THIS generation, but rather a Black celebrity culture of conspicuous consumption, vanity, and “giving back” rather than “building up.”
Agyei Tyehimba is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Mr. Tyehimba is a professional consultant and public speaker providing political advice and direction for Black college student organizations, community activist groups, and nonprofit organizations. If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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