Above is the Audio and Video version of this blog; it includes clips of Ali fighting and his statements.
“I am America. I am the part you won’t recognise, but get used to me. Black, confident, cocky. My name, not yours. My religion, not yours. My goals, my own. Get used to me.” Muhammad Ali.
If Muhammad Ali was a sportsperson in the modern era, few people would be cheering his name, few people would listen to him speak and even fewer would be calling him the greatest. I even doubt he would be receiving the admiration, respect and global mourning his death has rightly received today.
Why? Because everything Ali stood for in his time is now considered controversial or extreme:
Ali was confident in his own ability; today considered arrogant.
Ali was Black and proud; today considered supremacist.
Ali was Muslim and proud; today considered extremist.
In short, there is no doubt in my mind that a young Ali would be walking arm in arm with #BlackLivesMatter, would be vocal about the current injustices faced by people of colour and would be fighting against Islamaphobia.
So when people who support #AllLivesMatter and anti-Muslim rhetoric, also decide to tweet and write about how Ali was their hero, I wonder if they actually mean Cassius Clay. They aren’t talking about Muhhammad Ali the proud and vocal Black Muslim man.
Although, even in his own time Ali wasn’t universally loved. However, even more so than then, people now expect their sports stars and celebrities to be seen and not heard; especially, the Black ones.
Some people only want to cheer for a handful of Black people without having to acknowledge the issues that their fellow Black people face or the society that would be treating them starkly different if they were not famous.
Ali said “Boxing is a lot of white men watching two black men beat each other up.” Whereas “todays society is a lot of white people watching and cheering Black people whom entertain them. But, remain noticeably silent or confrontational when Black people are beaten by the police or bring up racism and inequality’. Ali’s quote would now include the NFL, NBA, and Athletics. All with majority Black sports stars. However, the difference is today’s athletes also remain silent on issues outside of their sport.
Whereas, Muhammad Ali did not and would not stay silent. He was outspoken, unapologetic, confident, eloquent and confrontational. Ali had an opinion and he wasn’t afraid to share it. No matter the topic, whether it be war, racism, slavery or Islam.
Although, some of Ali’s statements are a child of their time. Some of them he probably looked back at and wished he had said them differently. As he said
“A man who views the world the same at 50 as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.”
However, in our time when many stay silent, Ali would have been proud to know that in his 20s he showed more courage in speaking out about inequality than most people will do in their lifetime.
Ali was more than just a great boxer and more than just one of the first global sports superstars. Ali was an unapologetic Black Muslim man whom wasn’t afraid to challenge authority, racism and societies perception of those ‘labels’.
The greatness that Muhammad Ali represented transcended sport. His memorable performances were matched with equally memorable quotes, beliefs and statements. However, the hypocrisy in the mourning of his death is glaringly obvious if we look at the times we live in.
An era of Islamaphobia, All lives matters vs Black lives matter and the rise of Donald Trump and his supporters vs everyone else whom wants to live in a world of equality, free from ignorance and racism.
An era where racism still exists, but because it doesn’t manifest itself on a “No coloureds allowed” sign people rarely openly discuss or support those whom confront it.
An era where people are increasingly apprehensive to talk about inequality, race and religion. Namely, because Black people don’t want to be labeled ‘playing the race card’, white people don’t want to be called racist and Muslims don’t want to be labeled as extremist. So the discussion and sharing of opinions and knowledge only happens in heated moments on news feeds, Facebook pages and Youtube comment sections.
It seems like a lot of the same people whom mourn Muhammad Ali today wouldn’t stand by his statements on race and inequality if they were said tomorrow. Nor would they embrace his confidence and self-belief outside of the ring.
People should mourn all that Ali stood for and spoke out against. Ali did more than just “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee’. He spoke like a proud Black Muslim activist. However, most of the obituaries about Ali skip past his fight against racism and define him simply by his boxing and views on the Vietnam war.
Ali was confident, eloquent and strong willed. He believed he was the greatest and wasn’t shy about telling people. Ali was able to win over many of his doubters by simply being charming and funny. But as Freud said ‘Behind every joke, there is some truth’
“I’m not the greatest, I’m the double greatest. Not only do I knock ’em out, I pick the round. I’m the boldest, the prettiest, the most superior, most scientific, most skilfullest fighter in the ring today.”
In the modern era, the press and social media are quick to criticize the actions and statements of stars like Cam Newton, Lebron James and Floyd Mayweather. All of which barely hold a flame to Ali’s level of confidence.
Yet, Ali was by no means the first Black sporting celebrity. There had been Joe Lewis, Jesse Owens and even in boxing Jack Johnson, to name but a few.
However, Jesse Owens wasn’t as vocal about how he felt he was treated better in Nazi Germany, than he was when he returned back to America with his 4 Olympic gold medals. Whereas, Muhammad Ali threw his Olympic gold medal in a river, after being refused service in a ‘whites only’ restaurant.
This story whether true or false symbolize what kind of a man Ali was. He didn’t put personal wealth or fame before standing up for what he believed to be right and for the people he believed he represented.
“I’m gonna fight for the prestige, not for me, but to uplift my little brothers who are sleeping on concrete floors today in America. Black people who are living on welfare, black people who can’t eat, black people who don’t know no knowledge of themselves, black people who don’t have no future.”
Ali didn’t let personal fame make him forget where he came from. Nor the struggles of the people he came. Ali was the leader of a group of Black celebrities whom all took on inequality in their own way. From Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye, James Brown, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the iconic Black power salute by Tommy Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics.
As a man Muhammed Ali had conviction, self-belief and accepted the moral and vocal responsibility he held as a leader in his community and for his people.
In 1967, Ali refused to go the Vietnam War and spoke out against it. This led to Ali being stripped of his titles, along with losing three and a half years of the best period of his boxing life. As opposition to the war grew, so did Ali’s popularity. By the 1970s he was a global sports superstar. He was eventually allowed to fight again.
Today, America no longer has the draft. But Ali could have quite easily gone the way of The Dixie Chicks if he had opposed the 2003 Iraq War. The Dixie Chicks simply said they were against the Iraq War and former President George Bush, which led to them being blacklisted in America’s country music world. I wonder how many of those ‘patriotic’ country music fans are hypocritically sharing Ali tributes right now?
On Racism and Islamaphobia
Ali wasn’t simply anti-war. Ali was anti-war specifically when Black people at home were fighting their own war against inequality, oppression and racism.
In only the way that Ali could, he managed to explain why as a Black man it made no sense for him to go and fight the people whom had done nothing to him. But, hypocritically, fight for the people whom had and continued to oppress his brothers and sisters in his own country.
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?”
“Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. No Vietcong ever called me nigger.”
Even in Ali’s later years, he still spoke out about terrorism and extremism. A young Ali would have been far more vocal on the way society stereotypes and profiles his fellow Muslims.
In 2001 he still managed to say this;
“I am angry that the world sees a certain group of Islam followers who caused this destruction, but they are not real Muslims.
How would Trump supporter react to a young proud and vocal African American Muslim heavyweight boxing champion of the world?
Obama said in his speech that Muslims are our sports heroes. What sport is he talking about, and who? Is Obama profiling?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 7, 2015
Ali didn’t just speak about his own experiences of racism. Ali didn’t just confront the status quo of racism. Ali vocally and eloquently attacked the whole concept of ‘white supremacy’.
“Why are all the angels white? Why ain’t there no black angels?” – Ali at a church in 1983.
When someone speaks of ‘white supremacy’ they aren’t merely speaking about some guys with hoods covering their faces burning crosses. They are speaking about the whole ubiquitousness of whiteness in politics, the media and society. Whereby ‘Black’ is used to describe bad events and bad people. They are speaking about the inequality in employment, education, justice and the media. It is not a person or people but a concept and system that perpetuates inequality. Much like how the patriarchal system creates inequality for women. White supremacy continues inequality for people of colour. Just as both feminism and black empowerment call for equality for all not one ruling over the other.
However, where a woman can say girl power and still be cheered. As soon as a black person says black power or promotes black empowerment they will be criticized and ostracised.
The fundamental difference between ‘white power’ and ‘black empowerment’ is where those whom say white power are fighting to hold on to the power founded upon inequality. Black empowerment seeks to gain power to reach equality. It is like a boxer a head on points seeking to keep ‘winning’ and another boxer seeking to gain the power to level the points to simply draw.
With that said, it would be obtuse to not admit the world has changed and society has improved. However, the bell hasn’t rung on the fight against racism and inequality. As a society we are still in the last few rounds. The problem is too many people think the fight was won with the election of President Barack Obama. That historic moment represented more of a split decision than a KO for equality. A person needs only to look at all the racism, negativity and obstacles he has faced during his two-term as President. Or, more poignatly acknowledge the backlash Barack Obama and Michelle Obama receive when talking about racism and inequality.
This is why now more so than ever we need our public figures to speak out and highlight the problems in society. Not just because they come from the communities that bare the brunt of inequality. But also to educate their followers on issues affect their fellow supporters and the people that entertain them.
Yet, for many Black Sports stars and celebrities becoming famous is the “get out of Black free card’ to a life of potentially circumventing racism and pitfalls of being a minority.
An interaction with a police officer may simply result in having to pose for an awkward selfie. They have no need to worry about being refused entry to a nightclub, being followed in shopping centres by security guards or worrying about the impact of stereotypes or a lack of diversity on TV has on society.
There only worry maybe trying not to upset their fanbase or potential corporate sponsors with talk of the issues their fellow Black people face or even mentioning their own blackness.
Beyonce is a prime example of what happens when a celebrity briefly mentions they are proud of their Black heritage. After Beyonce’s performance at the Superbowl it felt like some people were like “wait, how long as Beyonce secretly been Black? I prefer the ‘old’ Beyonce”
People like Piers Morgan wanted her to go back to ignoring the issues her people faced.
Much like how people like Piers Morgan have jumped on the mourn for Ali bandwagon, whilst giving fleeting references to his fight against racism or worse comparing him to Donald Trump.
Sadly, too many people before and after sharing a tweet or Facebook status about Muhammad Ali, would have or will go back to holding ignorant views or being apathetic on the issues affecting Muslims, #Blacklivesmatter, racism and inequality.
So, I say if we are to celebrate Muhammad Ali, we must acknowledge his legacy, the man he was, the people who he fought for and the beliefs he held. We must carry on that legacy by honoring him by carrying on the conversation about racism, Islamaphobia and inequality. Especially, if society is going to cheer for Black athletes they should also support Black people in their fight for equality. Just as a young Muhammad Ali in our era would have.
Much like how the world should look back and learn from the teachings found in Nelson Mandela’s life; we must carry on both of their legacies and understand what they fought and stood for.
“When I met Ali for the first time in 1990, I was extremely apprehensive. I wanted to say so many things to him… He was an inspiration to me, even in prison, because I thought of his courage and his commitment to his sport. I was overwhelmed by his gentleness and his expressive eyes.” Nelson Mandela
So too truly mourn and honour Muhammad Ali a person must speak out against Islamaphobia, racism, inequality and be empathetic of the deaths of people around the globe.
RIP Muhammad Ali; legends never die; they live on in the memory of those whom remember all that they stood for.
Let us know your thoughts
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How will you remember Ali?
Do you think celebrities should speak about topical issues?
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