Anyone who grew up when rap was the popular music of the day might find it hard to believe there was a time when blacks were expected to be humble, to graciously accept whatever scraps were tossed to them.
Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Clay 70 years ago, was not humble. In a time when calling a black man “uppity” could have lethal implications for him, Ali declared himself “the greatest of all time.” He seized “American exceptionalism” as his own and refused to accept that it was only the province of whites. He wasn’t just handsome. He was “pretty.”
People like to point out the apparent contradiction of a man who made his living beating other men senseless refusing to serve in Vietnam. However, Ali never claimed to be a pacifist. He would fight for his own interests and for the interests of those close to him. But fight for the interests of a nation that barely tolerated his existence, that refused to grant him the rights that should have been his as an American? No, Ali was pretty but he was no fool.
Vietnam, we’re told, was about more than a powerful nation killing poor people. The spread of communism had to be stopped, they said. These are the sorts of big picture, strategic issues that the wealthy and powerful understand far better than the poor and simple. That’s why, even today in Iraq and Afghanistan, I encourage the wealthy and powerful, who understand the reasons for war so well, to go and fight in them.
Of course, even in after World War II, which was as just a war as a war could ever be, black soldiers returned to a country where they were still denied service in restaurants and even beaten and lynched. That was their prize.
Ali was criticized — as was Malcolm X — for his harsh words about whites. Were all whites their enemies? No, but it was hard to dispute that the collective group at the time was either enemy or enabler. It amuses me because American leaders had harsher words to say about the Japanese during World War II, the Soviets during the Cold War, and Muslims today. Martin Luther King preached love, which is admirable, but sometimes true love requires confrontation. Sometimes, the American empire must be told it has no clothes.
Parkinson’s has ravaged Ali, but I won’t dwell on that. Everyone falls hard at the end, even if they never get off the ground. Only a few people ever soar.