By Tim Baffoe–
“We don’t own nothin’, we just borrow it. When you die, another man moves in and your daughter calls him daddy. Death is the tax a soul has to pay to have a name and a form.” — Muhammad Ali as told to Dave Kindred
(CBS) A Muhammad Ali piece often begins with the author’s connection to the icon, so here’s mine. My dad lived in the southeastern part of Chicago during his grade school days. Around age 9, he and his friends decided one day to go to the new heavyweight champ’s Chicago home because this is a totally rational plan 9-year-olds do. Upon arrival, a large man who wasn’t the champ sternly told my dad and and his friends to beat it. As the kids were pouting away from the house, Ali came out and called them all back. He was a telegenically 22-year-old Ali, putting on faux anger and toughness, talking smack to the kids, doing the playful whatnot immortalized in so many photos Ali posed in with celebs and commoners alike. Then Ali brought all the kids inside and made my dad and friends each a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
That’s my semi-personal story of Muhammad Ali, who passed away late Friday at 74. I’ve never been near the same building he was in otherwise.
Sure, I’d love to have met Ali, have a photo with him and a genuine anecdote of my own. At the same time, I don’t want to make Ali, even a piece of him, mine. Because he isn’t. He probably isn’t yours either, though in death there were so many this past weekend trying to fit him in various boxes for their own satisfaction. Some are obvious prominent idiots.
Take Martin Daniel, a state representative from Tennessee. On Saturday he got on the ol’ Twitter box and churned out some fine supremacist jibberish about Ali, even defying the initial critics of his remarks by pinning one of the tweets before heroically deleting them all Sunday.
This cracker congressman who doesn’t think kids in school should learn about racism and oppression makes public policy. It makes sense that he’s an elected official, because he represents a massive chunk of Americans who will always be in 1966. People who will claim someone like Muhammad Ali only under their accepted antiquated terms, people who even in his death won’t refer to him by his name, people who still need to assert that modicum of power over him that he refused to yield. Fifty years later as Ali is set to be laid to rest, the politics of name ownership still exist. Taxing the tax on what is his own.
Because people like Rep. Daniel — who himself never served in the military and must then be a fellow sub-American — surely subscribe to the same logic with another iconic American who supposedly tried to corrupt the First Amendment and opted not to serve in the war. I don’t care what he called himself. I will only call that person what his parents named him: Marion Morrison.
But Rep. Daniel and those he really represents don’t play that game fairly. You get to be a hypocrite and modify the boxes you place others in at will when you sit on privilege.
At least Daniel was out there with his garbage. Had Ali never existed until today, many more people in power who today are glorifying him — and that includes the blue-collar folk who champion a stasis of comfortable White America — would excoriate him today as they continue to do whenever a non-white or non-male or not-straight athlete dares claim greatness or beauty or individuality against the grain of falling in line. I know this because it repeats itself constantly. Take Cam Newton.
“In this context, black self-love is a political act,” wrote Ezekiel Kweku after America’s loudest of pearl-clutchers demanded the black man who lost in the Super Bowl fall in line politely under their living dissection tables and the black lady not make the halftime show a reckoning. “To be black and to love yourself, not in spite of your blackness but rather because of it — to revel in it, to draw strength and being from it — is an act of rebellion. Because to intentionally force people to remember that you are black when it is more comfortable for them to forget will always read as a provocation to those invested in a society that prefers to consume Black culture and discard the bodies that carry it like the rind of a fruit.”
Refusal to fight in an unjust war because “No Vietcong ever called me n*****” and deciding you want to be called a distinctly black Muslim name? That just wasn’t going to wash in the era of black and white TV. You don’t get to be yourself, son. We own your body, your ability to make money and your name.
Rep. Daniel and his ilk show that they still won’t let Muhammad Ali own himself. Piers Morgan is of that milky ilk.
I hope people don't make me sound too perfect when I die.
No coats of sugar please.
I hope people don't make me sound too perfect when I die.
I want to die.
Morgan wrote a column Saturday that I’ll spare the link to supposedly in praise of what Ali stood for. But then Piers Morgan went all Piers Morgan on Sunday, projecting his fragility for attention. For him and many like him, Ali is great and all but could have maybe not hurt white people’s feelings so much and would have then been the perfect black guy.
I want to die.— Piers Morgan (@piersmorgan) September 2, 2012
Ali was imperfect but on matters not so important to a Piers Morgan. He was unfairly degrading to multiple opponents like Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier and George Foreman and was a vocal homophobe for a time. He was certainly no feminist. He opposed interracial marriage with flawed logic toward multiple issues while a member of the Nation of Islam. Ali also attempted to atone for those sins as he aged rather than rest on hubris. He regretted turning his back on another vilified-but-historically-righteous black man, Malcolm X. Ali was no messiah, and he explicitly said he never wanted to be considered such. Proclaiming himself The Greatest wasn’t demigoddery.
“But to embrace Ali in full is to embrace Ali the revolutionary,” writes T.J. Quinn, “not merely the Ali who was safe enough to accept a medal from a conservative president.”
Then there was the Medal of Freedom he got from George W. Bush.
“The American people are proud to call Muhammad Ali one of our own,” Bush said at the ceremony.
That word again: “own.” Ali wasn’t buying it. He later told Louis Farrakhan of the award, “Still a n*****.” Ali knew to the day he died there would always be those who wouldn’t let the perceived abomination of the 1960s go. Daniel and Morgan only prove that.
Ali was keenly aware of such hypocrisy even as he aged into a comfortable-as-humanitarian ambassador more than verbal bombardier. Decades ago, he advocated separatism at a time when other prominent black leaders called for integration as an ongoing solution to the country’s racial issues. Separation, after all, has been America’s both official and unofficial policy since before it was even officially its own country and up to Ali’s time was never African-Americans’ own country. But Ali was in favor of separation on his own terms, not someone else’s.
He refused to let white separatists own him via separatism, with the gall of a black man seeing the privileged telling him “You can’t come in here to eat or use the bathroom” and returning the favor.
Kindred writes of a particularly tense press conference in 1964 in which sportswriters tried to pick apart a young Ali who had recently gone public with a conversion to Islam:
“Not only had the new champion aligned himself with separatists when integration was the moral high ground, he came with none of the humility and gratitude that America expected of its athletes, especially those who were black.
Finally, exasperated by the reporters’ insistence that something was wrong, Clay said, ‘I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be who I want.’”
This self-proclaimed freedom stretched into Ali’s call by supposed superiors to kill foreigners and communists and civilians and a combination thereof. Speaking against war and unchecked American aggression against or indifference to people of color is something revolutionary in 2016, let alone 50 years prior and let alone doing so in the face of losing the ability to do what physically makes you great and famous and wealthy.
Had Ali enlisted, strings would’ve been pulled to see to it that he’d have never seen combat anyway, which makes the “letting down his country” argument even more hollow and dumb and what he sacrificed even more impressive and courageous.
“Try to think in your mind right now of any athlete, male or female in any sport on the planet, who you think would give up three years of their life, three years at the height of their competitive and money-making power, for a sociopolitical principle. How many other athletes would do that? None. There was one. There was only one.”
Ali deferred any messianic comparisons, but there has been nothing since in sports that has been more Christ-like, more definitional of the prophet that Bundini Brown claimed Ali was. Such purity is terrifying to worshippers of white statues.
The recently late anti-war activist and Catholic priest Daniel Berrigan, who was jailed for his protests, called Ali’s refusal to acquiesce to war or conscription “a major boost to the anti-war movement,” adding, He was not bohemian or clergy and couldn’t be dismissed as cowardly.”
But it’s not just the obvious ones taking their shots at Ali now that he’s dead who are trying to take an unfair piece of the man. Too many come to bury the real Ali when they try to praise him. He got the mass shooting treatment this weekend of “don’t politicize his death” along with the MLK-ing of pleasant rah-rah USA red, white and bullcrap whitewashing that happens with all of America’s controversial minority heroes.
Ali was a political figure his entire adult life. His death is political. His life as juxtaposed with American politics now is relevant. You can’t tell someone not to connect his death and retrospective to Trump or xenophobia or Islamophobia or racism in 2016. Pay attention to who glorifies Ali with quotes that could appear on a calendar on a CEO’s desk vs. quotes that were meant to piss of CEOs (which admittedly smacks of a canned line itself).
The irony is a lot of the former will be athletes, which shows the very separation of greatness between Ali and those we demand be thoughtless gladiators in the field of play. People in power today would rather celebrate the butterfly than the bee while ignoring the greater importance of the bee’s pollination and domino effect has had decades later.
Ali invented modern trash talk and the art of intentionally using words and media and even the audience as part of winning in sport and winning for others. He was the opposite of the polite stoicism we collectively still today bang a drum for, to hand the ball to the ref, to get in the handshake line after the game, to submit to someone else’s superficial rules of decorum.
The calls to not politicize Ali’s death or to allow a totality of safe positivity or just a grace period of only flowery remembrance are in fact calls for the world to continue to grant you the privilege of ignorance, of hiding from acknowledging a reality that shakes you to your very core.
As does the mentioning of Ali “transcending race,” like so many other famous people of color who have been deemed acceptable by the status quo. This may be the greatest insult to him because it’s not the blatant attempt at ownership over him like those previously mentioned. This strips him of what defined him in the socially established negative, what molded him more into a champion of the real world than the ring.
When Ali returned from the 1960 Olympics in Rome with a gold medal, supposedly a champion for “his” country a la Jesse Owens, he was refused service at a “whites only” restaurant. Talk shows had him as a guest and media obsessed over him specifically to try to make him trip over his own crime of claiming his race and faith weren’t inferior. But he “transcended race,” right?
White people, you can't define us through our race & religion, oppress us because of them & then when you decide you like us take them away.
White people, you can't define us through our race & religion, oppress us because of them & then when you decide you like us take them away.— W. Kamau Bell (@wkamaubell) June 5, 2016
Ali was unabashedly black, unabashedly a man of his God. You don’t get to negotiate that. He committed himself to those things and a love of his people and brazen self-respect. That he did so while not treating poorly a (white) person who had done him no wrong is not “transcendent of race.”
You can have broad appeal without transcending race. Prince and Ali, for example, reveled in their blackness. You can't erase that.
You can have broad appeal without transcending race. Prince and Ali, for example, reveled in their blackness. You can't erase that.— roxane gay (@rgay) June 4, 2016
It’s a human decency foreign to paternalistic schmucks who want to whitewash for their own handwashing. And it endures.
During Katrina: Black woman with sign "No Iraqi Left Me To Die On A Roof." That's Ali's "No Vietnamese ever called me n***er". He endures.
During Katrina: Black woman with sign "No Iraqi Left Me To Die On A Roof." That's Ali's "No Vietnamese ever called me n***er". He endures.— Dave Zirin (@EdgeofSports) June 4, 2016
Ali’s last fight came not long before I was born, but it’s not just because I wasn’t alive for his boxing career that I experience all that is Ali more as social justice warrior more than athlete. It’s that for as much importance sports and its participants have on us individually and in the collective American fabric, sports’ intersection with sociology and politics — a constant one, regardless of what any ignorant stick-to-sportsian tells you — travels farther, ripples in more prodigious diameter than statistics do. Awareness of that and a subsequent rare embracing of that is heroic because it involves sacrificing of an athlete’s potential earnings and certainly a bit of his or her sanity due to the blowback for the sake of one’s own dignity and maybe, too, the betterment of others.
Ali gave of himself — his own version of his own self — for something more than boxing or a subjective notion of country. That might not be your meme-worthy starched brand of heroic, but it’s heroic nonetheless. It’s Ali’s own heroic that he was damned proud of and rightly so.
“I am America,” he once proclaimed. “I am the part you won’t recognize, but get used to me. Black, confident, cocky. My name, not yours. My religion, not yours. My goals, my own. Get used to me.”
But we never got used to the real Ali, because we to this day have never grown used to that way of thinking. In fact, it continues to be condemned, attempted to be owned by those who assert perceived power.
Which is why for a black Muslim man to declare it decades ago and live it — really live it — for all his days after in the face of a fascist shade of democracy in which we barter the freedoms of others for our own comfortabilities? In the face of the almighty dollar? In the face of every which way others still want to own him?
For that he is The Greatest. Because he is his own.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.