In spring of 1960 I graduated from high school. Unknown to me, so did Cassius Clay, of whom I’d never heard, nor had most Americans or the world. A short few months later, Cassius had won the light-heavyweight crown at the 1960 Summer Olympics, and with a grand splash America and the world were introduced to the brash young man from Louisville, Kentucky. Cassius was anything but modest – he was the greatest, prettiest, fastest. He was, like America, the firstest with the mostest. He was the Louisville Lip.
Fame quickly gathered around Cassius, and he took to it like a fish to water. DJ Cassius, long before it became known as such, was perhaps the world’s first rapper. He spoke in staccato rhyme, and he spoke his mind. The world took note.
In America, as Olympic champion, he was adored and honored. At least in the manner we honor black athletes: he won for “us” but he could go to the back of the bus, not sit at the local fountain store, and stay in his “proper place.” He was a champ but he was, in the lingo of the times, especially down south, a “nigger.”
In short order Cassius Clay turned pro, put on a touch of weight and in 1964 he “whupped” Sony Liston, a fierce bigger black man, and became world heavyweight champion, and of course, vastly more famous, in America and the world. Promptly afterward he became a convert to an American form of Islamism and changed his “slave name” to Cassius X and then to Muhammed Ali.
America recoiled. This uppity black kid poked the USA in the eye, and just after he’d received one of the highest honors his country might bestow on him: fame and wealth. And just as the civil rights movement was roiling the nation. For much of America – the part that insisted on calling him Cassius – he turned into a traitor.
I wasn’t, along with the growing inchoate substrate of the “counter culture,” part of that America. As Cassius won the title, I was in bumming in Europe, a college drop-out, disaffected and alienated from my own culture. When I returned to the USA in 1964 it was knowingly to go to prison, for refusal to serve in the US military. I spent two years and a bit there, and while in, in March 1966, Ali himself refused service. In the midst of the Vietnam war this brought vicious attacks on him, and in illegal manners, he was stripped of his title and vilified. He was sentenced to 5 years in prison, (which he did not serve) and forbidden to box. And in turn he became another kind of champion – of the alternative current running through America.
I am not one for heroes or idols or stars, and Ali is no exception. I knew of him, respected his voice (and boxing skills), and over the years, as he changed in the eyes of America from loud-mouthed black boy hero to chump, to a mythic icon, I of course, like almost everyone else, followed his trajectory that arced into tragedy. Debilitated by Parkinsons and the horrendous damage of his sport, Ali appeared to mellow, and America’s view of him did likewise. No longer the brash arrogant man of his youth, the broad soft middle of America warmed to the almost silent mumbling man he became, such that today the media floods with ecominiums to this “ambassador of good will.” Such is the hypocrisy of my country.
Boxing is a violent and brutal sport. To see it live (not live TV), as I have a handful of times – small-time boxers – is to be drawn into a primal world in which the visceral taste of death dances, as does our innate animal instinct for aggression. Watching the faces of ring-side observers is to watch the face of our most elemental viciousness. Boxing is our colosseo, and those who dance within its ring are our gladiators, issuing and receiving violence to enthrall us with the hint of death – and once in a while the real thing.
This was Ali’s world, for which he paid a deep price as the punishment he took upon himself, for our “entertainment,” took its toll. Today my society – America – schizophrenically gathers not so much for boxing, now a politically incorrect sport, but for football, where vast crowds cheer on a carefully orchestrated violence, as at the same time we discuss the brain concussions implicit, and all the other bodily damage which sees athletes reduced to hobbling cripples, stuttering with battered brains in their forties. As in boxing, a disproportionate percentage – way over the 12% of the population they represent – of the players are black. It is, perhaps, as some would say, their “natural athletic abilities,” which is not far from “they got rhythm.” Or perhaps it is their place in American society, in which one of the few escapes (another is showbiz) from the poverty of our vast black ghettos is through the avenue of sports – and so young African-Americans are channeled “by the market” to concentrate on dribbling, hoops, passing, catching, hitting, and if they are very lucky, “making it” into some major league, making a fortune, and limping into their premature dotage. It is, bitterly, a sometimes well-paid version of “keeping in your place.
In the last 8 years, having entered a supposedly “post-racial” era in America, the presence of Barak Hussein Obama, a black man in the White House, has instead, through the agency of, among others, Donald Trump (and a long list of abettors in the Republican party), revealed the festering racism which remains an essential component of American society. It is something which is shown each day in the dark bodies which “play” ball for us in the avalanche of sports which serves to distract us from the disparities of our nation, the vast income chasms, the economic stratification, the vacant factories and towns, the growing legion of the homeless, not to mention the imminent violence which global warming begins to inflict upon us and the world.
Inadvertently Muhammed Ali, placed high on a pedestal as he aged, delivered vast homage in death, was in the end, “put in his place.” He boxed and danced for us, he taunted us, and named himself. And in doing so also named us. And, alas, he played his role – pugilist, gladiator. He fought in the ring and outside of it. He fought the culture he lived in. And at the end, he won, and he lost. America for now remains, beneath the veneer of multi-culturism and “post-racialism” much the same as it was back in 1967, when Ali said his provocative words, “no Vietcong ever called me a nigger.”
The “N” word is now most politically incorrect, and we do our drone kills as best we can in secret. But racism in America remains alive and vivid as it was in 1960, just as does America’s global imperialism.
And in dying, Muhammed Ali, sadly, has been put in his “proper place.” He’s been eulogized by the President (who would see Edward Snowden in prison), reams of words have graced his name, most seemingly highlighting his ambassadorial role and his honorific awards. He has been embraced and his assertions about America – it’s racist core, it’s militaristic impulses – have been discarded. He’s been turned into “a good boy.”
In any culture, each generation produces a handful of iconic public figures, people who somehow encapsulate an historical era, mirroring and reflecting the world in which they existed. Ali was one of those. For those of that era, the death of such a person coagulates a chain of memories and realizations – not just of that person, but of one’s time and society, and hence of one’s self.
Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.
Ali was saved by the bell a few times, and he came back to win. With the final bell, his Louisville Lip has been sutured, and history has molded him into an icon of its own desires. Present tense history is always a fraud.
A friend in India wrote and asked me to write something on Muhammed Ali, after I’d posted a short note on FaceBook. The above item is what I sent him, and post here. Below is the Bangladesh front page of the piece. (Thanks Nilanjan!)