Muhammad Ali, shot by Gordon Parks, 1966.

My meditations of a post-Muhammad Ali America hit on a sad reality that we still have too many White folks — and  let’s be sure to include an excessive number of the Black ones as well — who view the words and actions of confident Black folks as “Cocky.”

“Too aggressive.”


Or much worse.

As if to say “How dare these niggas not know their place and walk off these plantations to chase their potential brilliance … ”

This view toward “Arrogant darkies” created a fly-in-the-milk picture frame effect in the face of America’s Jim Crow laws — racist policies which were alive and well when Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay,” took boxing lessons in 1954.

The racial separation schema established by White society back then didn’t merely shout a message of hatred — it also perpetuated the meme of an inferior race and attempted to affix this social marker to the backs of all African descendants affected by it.

And then arrives this brave, beautiful, gifted, outspoken, woke, Black, bumptious, smartass boxing nigga from Lexington Kentucky who had the damn nerve to call himself “The Greatest … ”

Could the picture appear any more polarizing? Hell yeah. Clay became a Muslim, deemed his birth name the nominal legacy of America’s slave-owning past, and then changed that name to Muhammad Ali.

My Father was a Muslim during the 1960s. He told me the story of a self-described Christian woman back then who angrily told him how she wished for all Muslims to be boiled in a pot of oil because “they preach hate.”

(Laughing) As if the only outcome from burning someone in oil is a series of passion marks …

Ali’s spiritual convictions, particularly given his relationship with the Nation of Islam, were neither widely popular, nor accepted at the time.

All that brashness and blackness — PLUS he didn’t eat pork and called his god Allah — in Jim Crow America …

It’s difficult for most consumers of mass media to appreciate the significance of Ali’s Plantation Exodus, especially since much of the mainstream media has constructed a modern-day narrative that would make you think Ali earned his sainthood status a half-century ago.

Two-time opponent Floyd Patterson called Ali a disgrace to “himself and the negro race.”

Mega star Frank Sinatra disliked Ali and encouraged Patterson to win the title for America.

Ali’s stance against the Vietnam War, a conflict which received popular support among Americans at the time, prompted baseball great Jackie Robinson to question Ali’s patriotism.

Boxer Ernie Terrell insisted on calling Ali “Cassius Clay.” Terrell then doubled-down on that position. In retrospect, watching the 15-round “What’s my name” leveling-by-leather (digest version here) he suffered by Ali’s punches reminds me of that scene from Roots. Terrell addressed Ali properly later.

The media outlets were no source of support for Ali either.

Plus, America’s National Security Agency tapped Ali’s phone conversations.

Sure, Ali understood how his so-called arrogance sold fight tickets — for his fans as well as audience members who wanted to see their financial wager at work or look forward to seeing Ali’s head get knocked off his body for the first time.

But Ali knew he was fighting for another audience back then as well: the wretched of the earth who couldn’t  vote, couldn’t work or couldn’t fight injustice in the institutions which gave inequality its oxygen. And this audience can view every jab, knockout and TKO by an irrepressible, arrogant nigga from Louisville as a victory they can virtually claim as their own …

song currently stuck in my head: “ali” – miles davis

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s