It is difficult to articulate the impact of Muhammad Ali. For decades, a plethora of essays, think pieces and media personalities have tried to capture the butterfly-bee contrast that bookend his genius. No doubt, many more will provide brilliant descriptors of the social justice juggernaut in reflecting on a life beautifully lived. Still, even knowing him as “The Greatest” seems to miss the significant nuance of his physicality, the tone and inflection of his boasts, the expressiveness of his face and the vulnerability implicit in role as fighter. Muhammad Ali’s self seems beyond great.
We are driven to discuss the genius of Ali because, though cliché, he represents the complexity and contradictions–the beautiful struggles–that are bound in all of us. Muhammad Ali’s embodiment of the success and struggle of a Black American man, one whose many parts played throughout various media and across a body politic that initially hated him, presents as even more heroic when considering the universal love we offer to him now. He orchestrated multiple identities, making a coherent whole self that can serve as textbook adaptation and defiance for Black folk in search of psychological and physical freedom across the Diaspora.
The obvious entry to Muhammad Ali is his animated, unapologetic Blackness. Though debatable considering geography, Ali was Kentucky-Southern Black. He was Fruit of Islam Black. He was, “…no Viet Cong ever called me n*gger” Black. He embodied Black Lives Matter so profoundly that even when compromised by a progressive nervous system disorder his image triggered an uncompromising demand to do right by those that hegemony called “other.” To stand in one’s self so boldly within spaces and among people that punctuate you as being less-than is heroic in its representation of self-worth and in the active definition of humanity.
Of course, getting to that humanity is rooted in love. It is by design and through investment. It comes from father Cassius Clay, Sr. and mother Odessa Grady Clay; it comes from his little brother, Rahaman; from a family who loves deeply and unconditionally; and from a community that provides a base from which any many can be a flawed self on the way to a full self. This is the context that informed Ali. He had a base love that understood him as a boxer, that grew with him, and that embraced him as an advocate no matter how overwhelming his opponent.
White supremacy, Islamophobia, Parkinson’s, the U.S. Government, these are protagonists in the requisite history of Ali. His narrative is that of a modern David with multiple Goliaths. And though not as readily discussed, inevitable doubt and uncertainty in self are components of Ali’s identity tableau that provided perhaps the most significant obstacles. But he dealt, quipped, bragged, rhymed and made it look incidental.
The hard truth is that too many of us fell in love with Muhammad Ali when we made him invisible. With Parkinson’s shaking him and largely muting that “I’m a baaad man” mouth, we dig on the archived defiance, not paying full tribute to the disciplined sacrifices that Ali made in learning to be a man on the world stage.
We do that with Black men, with Black people. We make them invisible, putting our own spin on who they are. It’s easier to not see the struggle, easier to not see the pain that Black folk endure because we have thick lips, wide noses, springy hair and dark color. It’s easier to jump to the twilight-Ali, the lovable and maybe even cuddly Ali. Indeed, that is also a real Muhammad Ali, an earned identity. But it is one part of an incredible whole self that worked to be understood beyond, but through unapologetic Blackness.
The beauty of Muhammad Ali is that he was perfect and flawed, and he showed it.
Certainly, Ali is the Greatest, but his self seemed more than great. He demonstrated a balance of humanity in the face of hate without losing himself.
That is great and heroic, and in many ways it is who we are.
David Wall Rice, PhD is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Psychology at Morehouse College