Ali: hero to a young black boy
‘He will never be dead to me.’
I lost a piece of my youth when Muhammad Ali died. I don’t remember when I first heard his name, but I do know that there are certain things connected to Ali that I shall never forget from my early years:
Those D-Con Roach Spray commercials in which the fast-talking Ali burst through our rundown black-and-white television set and made me feel as if he would single-handedly rid our Jersey City neighborhood of those pesky creatures … The many times we sang, in grade school, the song The Greatest Love of All — the theme, we were told, for the biopic of Muhammad Ali, a film I did not see until years later … The frigid winter night in February 1978 when my mother and I gathered ourselves in front of that TV and stressfully watched, through a constantly moving thick black line, an aging and out-of-shape Ali succumb to a much younger Leon Spinks … And the seven months later when my ma and I, anxious about every jab, hold, and counterpunch, were overjoyed to see Ali regain his heavyweight championship a record third time, from Spinks. His victory was our victory; his comeback was our comeback.
It was the late 1970s, an eternity since Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement had died, and unbeknownst to me at the time, Ali was one of the last shining symbols of a historic era of immense black pride and achievement. I worshiped the way the man spoke — confident, bold, highly intelligent, funny, and southern fried chicken poetic, just like my momma and them.
I was a black boy with my self-esteem already ruthlessly damaged by poverty, violence, and a complicated relationship with my mother. And my community was besieged by heroin, neglect, hustling preachers and crooked politicians. Except for the few examples of positive blackness I gleaned from television programs such as Soul Train and the blockbuster miniseries Roots, Ali was teaching me, with his words, mannerisms, swagger, to believe in myself. Perhaps this is one reason that The Greatest Love of All became the one tune I whisper-sang nonstop during my dark and troubled adolescence. Somehow, I felt those lyrics from that movie in which he played himself might one day also free me.
The other reality was I had no father and no male role model the first 18 years of my life. My mother and father never married, and she was forced to raise me alone on welfare, food stamps, and government cheese. I saw my father a few times until I was 8 years old, then he was gone forever. I cried mightily inside for a male presence as a boy, and the only place I could get some semblance of that was from sports or entertainment figures.
That is why Ali was a giant to me — my own Crayola-brown superman — and why he became one of the only black male heroes I had. His name and face were everywhere, and I would stare in awe at his photos. Yeah, this dude really was as “pretty” as he said he was. Over time I would watch and study each of his boxing matches, 61 in total. When I was 13, I took up boxing at a local police athletic league gym. I pursued it aggressively for maybe a year or so, thinking-hoping-praying that boxing would bring me the fame, fortune and love it had brought Ali. When you are born in one of America’s ghettoes, and you have very few life options readily in front of you, there are basically three choices: become an entertainer, become an athlete, or become a criminal. In Ali’s journey, I saw a glimmer of possibility for my own. If he could do it, why couldn’t I? I studied boxing and its history with the same shameless enthusiasm that led Ali to say he was the greatest.
I eventually abandoned the idea when it became clear what boxing had done to Ali by the time of his next-to-last fight, against his former sparring partner Larry Holmes. Again, my mother and I watched in utter horror as Holmes brutalized Ali. I wished he would quit and move on with his life. He had proven what he could, I thought, and he had been an encyclopedia of lessons to me about never giving up, of always trying your best, of never making excuses. I could not view, at the time, Ali’s last fight ever against Trevor Berbick, as I was terrified it would be similar to watching a blood relative taking a vicious beating.
When I got to Rutgers University in the mid-1980s, I learned black history in a way I had never been taught it before. This, despite attending the so-called best public schools in Jersey City. I read what remains the most important book of my life, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I was stunned to hear that Ali, who was born Cassius Clay, had been mentored by Malcolm X, that they had been very close, until Malcolm X was kicked out of the Nation of Islam. No matter, I joined the NOI myself during my college years and became a Muslim (I am not any longer). I was completely outspoken about freedom, justice and equality, just like Malcolm X and Ali. In discovering Malcolm X and discovering Ali the humanitarian, I was also planting the seeds for my future self.
I especially became fixated on Ali’s stand against American racism, and his defiance of the Vietnam War draft. It hand-smacked goose bumps on my flesh the first time I saw footage of Ali saying the Vietnamese people had never called him a “n—–.” What kind of black man, what kind of black athlete, says and does things like this? I wondered. If Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, had represented unforgivable blackness, then Ali was fearless blackness. Indeed, Ali was a one-man sports revolution, mind-spraying the golden era of television. Ali took sportscaster Howard Cosell’s career to the stratosphere in a way that foreshadowed ESPN. Ali controlled his own image and provided his own self-commentary long before the inventors of Twitter and Facebook were even born. Ali befriended Malcolm X and singer Sam Cooke and in the process united sports, entertainment and political leadership. Ali was Nat Turner’s slave rebellion remixed with the agitprop comedy of Dick Gregory and Richard Pryor. Ali was Marcus Garvey’s Back-to-Africa movement. Ali was Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign every single time he visited an impoverished community anywhere. Ali was Black Lives Matter before it got downloaded for the 21st century. Ali was hip-hop before we called it hip-hop, his hoarse-voiced wordplay the boom-bap and verbal tricks of a dope emcee. Better yet, Ali was Kanye West before Kanye West was Kanye West. Yup, Ali was Cam Newton’s dab dance move, Steph Curry’s unconscious 3-point bombs, and LeBron James’ obliteration of physical logic. And Ali did with his sports platform what Malcolm X had done with his splintered wooden platforms on those Harlem street corners: Ali stripped and sanded away centuries of black fear and black self-hatred with the very simple but powerful use of his tongue.
This blew my mind because I knew, as I digested one black history book after another, and watched documentaries that included Ali, that the price for a black man speaking as Ali did could have been death — from a noose hung from a tree, from your home being bombed, from someone pulling out a gun and shooting you, point-blank, for being “uppity.” I did not care, cuz Ali had loosened my fears in a way no amount of church and sanctified preachin’ ever had. I saw in Ali my freedom song, and a sense of purpose that was undeniable: Be all of who you are and never apologize for any part of yourself ever again.
This is the Ali I followed as he did fewer and fewer interviews and fewer and fewer public appearances once the Parkinson’s disease slurred his speech and made parts of his body shake. This is the Ali I watched as he slowly lit that 1996 Olympic torch, even as I sat in an Atlanta hotel room battling a debilitating depression that would consume years of my life. Through decades of his illness, Ali still gave me hope, courage and a deeper awareness of myself. If Ali did not feel sorry for himself, in the sunset of his life, who am I to feel sorry for myself? This man had sacrificed his life, his body, his brain, his money, his championship title, his freedom and, yes, his voice so that people like me could speak our truths in our times.
Yes, I think of Ali daily as I think of my own crossing, my own life work in service to others. He will never be dead to me. On my living room wall there is the young and brash Ali in the famous photo standing above a fallen Sonny Liston in their second and final bout. I hear that photo speaking to me right now. Conquer your fears. Conquer your fears. This is why I love Ali, every chapter of his being. I love both the pro-black Ali and the we-are-all-part-of-the-human-family Ali. I love both the Ali who was about peace and love, and I love the Ali who was clear he was a man of color who had an obligation to challenge oppression and injustice. It was never an either-or for Ali, and it is not an either-or for me. What Ali taught me between those ropes with all eyes on him, in his interviews, with his poems, with the winks and smiles in the years that Parkinson’s had silenced his tongue, is that freedom ain’t free, and that you cannot separate your freedom from mine, because we are all truly in this boxing ring of life together.
Kevin Powell is a writer, public speaker and activist. He is the author of 12 books, including his critically acclaimed new autobiography, The Education of Kevin Powell: A Boy’s Journey into Manhood (Atria Books/Simon & Schuster). Email him, firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him on twitter: @kevin_powell