I often wonder if I would have had the same courage as Muhammad Ali.I am an ’80s baby, born when most of the hard work had already been done by men and women like Muhammad Ali. Any celebration of my blackness owes homage to his acts of courage in the face of perpetual adversity. So again I challenge myself, what would I have done?
Growing up Uptown, in NYC between Harlem and the Bronx, black and brown prevailed and pride oozed through our wardrobes and vernacular. Malcolm X taught throughout these streets and like Ali, was a champion of the people. Imagine during the ’60s changing your name to Muhammad Ali, once youve realized your surnames roots in the enslavement of Africans. Between the status quo, confusion and fear from relatives who don’t want your life to be any more difficult, this decision is hard even today. And Ali did this in 1964.
He was 22 years old then and a newly minted WBA, WBC and lineal heavyweight champion of the world. Ali realized that his power lied in his fearlessness, both in the ring and in the world. He gave the planet a target to poke, prod and debate as he stood tall to defend the rights of all oppressed people in America and beyond. Through sheer marketing wizardry, he announced through any and every microphone that he was “The Greatest, the prettiest and baddest man to ever lace up a pair of gloves. But more than that he was the most effective social activist the sports world has ever known.
When Ali decided to exclude himself from the draft in defiance of the Vietnam War, his stance eroded the very veneer America attempted to project upon the world. The great red, white and blue savior was nothing more than a rouse to hide colonialism and repression of the people of color who forged its bedrock. When state commissions decided to revoke his boxing license in retaliation, Ali delved further into speaking engagements at colleges and universities, and to the media where he denounced the hypocrisy of a nation that claims to seek democracy for the world while suppressing its own citizens.
When you look at Colin Kaepernicks decision to boycott the American national anthem for its racist iconography, it is a reminder how much nothing has changed in all sports. The fabric of this nation boasts defiance in the face of British rule, but rejects any storylines that don’t fit the bald eagle patriotic diatribe. Ali lost some of the prime years of his life fighting a war from within, and yet out of all the athletes who claim to revere him, only a handful like Kaepernick follow his blueprint.
In his later years, Ali became a corporate symbol of the beauty within the rebellious. Major companies like Apple used his likeness to push the fearless narrative to sell products. However, to truly understand what Ali meant, one must put themselves squarely in his train of thought; a man who was willing to die for his respect. Ali was willing to forgo potential riches and glories to make sure that America and the world knew he could not be bought with belts and titles.
Today when athletes like Floyd Mayweather flaunt financial stability as the only testament to success, and people refuse to boycott racist NFL teams with names like Redskin, we truly are in a deplorable state. Integration and assimilation has a collective comatose on society and I can honestly say that most people would never do what Ali did. For them, his words account to a catchy meme image for social media.
We are living in a time where the Donald Trump White House spews divisive language daily and attempts to change any positive societal progress previously achieved. We need to channel the power of Ali now more than ever.
Today and every day, let us celebrate the life and the reality of the man born Cassius Clay and reclaimed himself as Muhammad Ali. Let us look at his image and use it as a mirror reflecting the hero and leader inside us all. Today, ask yourself, “Would I have had the same courage as Muhammad Ali?” I hope that your soul screams a resounding and heartfelt, “Yes!”
When I ask myself, I too promise to join you, basking in the pained but glorious affirmation of that sacrifice.