I hate thieves.
My grandmother was a stern woman who leaned on Bible verses and old school aphorisms. Instead of dispensing wisdom in warm, cuddly quotes and handing out hugs like lollipops, she taught me about life with knife-edged lessons sharpened by time and life. I often think about one of her recurring maxims:
“There are two things I can’t stand: A liar and a thief.”
When Muhammad Ali transitioned from this plane of existence into the next, writers, analysts and historians immediately began elbowing their way to screens and pages to fill in the hole his enormous absence left by heaping praise on his memory—as if his nickname “The Greatest” was an insufficient reminder. One of the most frequent refrains that emerged was the notion that Ali “transcended race.”
Liars and thieves.
As a writer, I’ve seen this before. I once confronted someone who had taken a piece of poetry I wrote and was performing it as their own. They tried to convince me that they were “so inspired” by the original piece that they wanted to share it. I rebutted their notion by telling them that they hadn’t cried the tears. They didn’t sit up at night trying to find the right combination of words. They didn’t feel the kicking in their gut that went into creating it.
That’s why I hate cultural appropriation. It is not just finding inspiration from something that already exists—it is stealing.
When white people wear dreadlocks, and cornrows they may simply like the hairstyle, but they don’t understand that natural hair is a subtle rebellion against the European beauty aesthetic. When Blake Lively says she has an “Oakland Booty” and Kim Kardashian photoshops a champagne glass on her surgically-enhanced backside, they don’t know they are conjuring images of the Venus Hottentot and referencing body changes from the forced interbreeding of slaves.
Make no mistake about it—the notion that Muhammad Ali “transcended race” is appropriation.
When the young, swift Cassius Clay joined the Nation of Islam and became Muhammad Ali, he was ostracized by the same contingent who now lavish praise on his name. When he refused to fight in Vietnam, Ali was branded a traitor by his current embracers. However incredible a pugilist we think Ali was, we will never know the extent of his greatness because it was stolen from us by those who now applaud his “courage.”
Muhammad Ali transcended sports because during the prime of his life and career he took everything he had—millions of dollars, one of the most incredible abilities in sports history, worldwide celebrity and the heavyweight championship belt—sat it on a scale and told the world it didn’t weigh more than his beliefs. To extricate his objection to the Vietnam conflict from his joining the Nation of Islam and his racial pride is rewriting history. For this, he was rendered impotent during what should have been his glory days. The greatest warrior the universe had ever seen had his hands tied behind his back, and he literally said, “Take me to jail.”
And they did all of this for one reason:
He was Black.
Loudly. Boldy. Unapologetically. Ali was neither coy or subtle about his Blackness. He trumpeted it from Louisville to Zaire so proudly there are even some historians who attribute the widespread use of the term “Black” to Ali. When the Nation of Islam became the first organization to stop using the term “Negro” and switched exclusively to “Black,” he was their most well known member, and the most famous human being on the planet.
The only way to “transcend” race is if there is something greater than Blackness. To assume “American” or “white” is somehow bigger, or more inclusive, than all of the African cultures, nations and peoples that make up “Black” is illogical an inherently supremacist.
Ali was born to two Black parents. When he stood up to the greatest fighting force on the planet, in the richest country in the world, he was Black. When he rope-a-doped and showed the world he had transformed from a swift-footed wunderkind to a stone-jawed, unmovable legend in the the darkest, blackest place in the world—Zaire—he was Black. In Africa. At every moment he displayed greatness, Muhammad Ali made sure you knew he was Black.
To become a Black hero, one must first undergo a ceremony of whitewashing. It is the same process that made Martin Luther King a fighter for “justice and equality” instead of Black people. It is what made Jackie Robinson an “icon” instead of the Black man who forced the United States army to accept a class of Black officers, desegregate military transportation, and changed American sports forever. Only when they are rendered breathless and toothless are they celebrated. Only then can they “transcend.”
Such as it is with liars and thieves. They want the glory without the pain, so they steal it. They recite the poems they didn’t write. They benefit from the booty they didn’t grow. They take credit for the style they didn’t create. They embrace the culture they once oppressed. If they like the way it looks, sounds or feels, they will take it, and try to convince you it was theirs all along, because—after all—everything is theirs.
But we will not allow them to steal Muhammad Ali by underhandedly sliding him into the pile of great “Americans” after they swiped the best part of him from the world by explicitly charging him with being Un-American. Muhammad Ali is a legend because he was a great fighter, orator, personality and leader. But what made him “The Greatest” is that he did it all while making sure the world knew he was fearless, uncompromising, but most of all—BLACK.
And they can never steal that.
Michael Harriot has contributed to Deadspin, VerySmartBrothas, TheRoot as well as his own daily digital magazine NegusWhoRead. He also hosts The Black One podcast and tweets at @michaelharriot