The first time I ever saw Ali was during a nightly news cast. I was a kid, maybe eight or nine-years-old. He created quite a commotion in my aunt’s household. My father’s side of the family was the assimilationist wing of our Puerto Rican clan. They were more conservative and desperately wanted to fit in — to take a slice of the American Dream. They didn’t like what this young man, who was called Cassius Clay at the time, was doing. He was yelling out that he was the greatest, that he was too pretty, and that no man on the face of the planet could whoop his ass. I had never heard anyone call out white people like that. I mean, my father was a radical and had already started teaching me about systemic oppression, but other than that, people mostly didn’t call out white racism. At least they didn’t in 1964.
But here was this young man, unabashedly black, powerful, charismatic, and contemptuous of white supremacy. Even at that tender age, I somehow knew this was a great man. My aunts and uncles, however, were mortified. One uncle said he was a charlatan and that he would eventually get knocked out. But even I knew he was the world heavyweight champion — a magical and powerful designation. For me, it meant that he could kick anyone’s ass. And here was a black man who wasn’t shy about it. He flaunted it.
That night, watching what everyone else thought was a nut, I would become an Ali fan for life. And he would have an influence on me that I would have never been able to predict.
Ali passed away last night, and I’m sure there will be tons of homages and they will take away his humanity by trying to whitewash his history in a rush to make him a saint. But Ali was a complicated man. He could be compassionate and cruel. His treatment of Joe Frazier — likening him to a gorilla and an Uncle Tom — after Frazier had helped Ali financially, was abhorrent. He could be spiritual and profane. He was a notorious womanizer, for example. In other words, Ali was a human being who stood by his convictions, but who, like the rest of us, also embodied contradictions.
I am grateful that I grew up during an era where Black and Latinx celebrities and sports stars who were also politically conscious people who used their fame and platform to advance the rights of their less fortunate brothers and sisters. I grew up with Roberto Clemente, Jim Brown, Kareem-Abdul Jabbar, John Carlos, Harry Belafonte, and so many others who were champions on and off the field. These were people who felt a sense of obligation to give back to their communities, to advance social justice for all and not just getting rich. Many paid a terrible price for being outspoken. Paul Robeson was blacklisted, for example, and many others suffered similar fates. Many others still descended into depression and died from self-medicating their pain. But these were men and women who were warriors. These were stars that seared the sky with their fire, however briefly.
Today we have Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. The former famously said that conservatives wear sneakers, and the latter didn’t even cop to his blackness. We have Sammy Sosa, who bleaches his skin, wears blue contact lenses, and denies racism in Latinx America. Today we have Snoop Dog, who is down with writing about pimps and ho’s but who just went off on the remake of Roots in a profanity-laden video. Don’t get me wrong, I ain’t hatin’, and I’m not going to tell anybody not to make money a priority, but still… I have little or no respect for these people.
It’s not that I’m looking for role models, or that celebrities have to be role models, but as a Latino, I am conscious that who I am and how I carry myself in public has an impact on my people. I am not a compliant motherfucker, but no one person could ever walk away from one my public speaking engagements and call me ignorant. I, as they say in the vernacular, represent.
I was coming of age when the Vietnam War raged and in 1973, as the war was winding down, I was issued a draft card, which I promptly burned. I could have very easily been conscripted into a war I had no business in, but having Ali as a power of example, paved the road for me to become a conscientious objector. Too many of my brothers were coming back home from ‘Nam addicted or maimed physically and spiritually. Ali paid a steep price for his convictions. His prime years were taken away from him. We will never see Ali at his prime because of that.
So, in a very real way, our lives were connected, Ali and I. And I rejoiced when the Supreme Court decided in his favor. And I cried the night he lost to Frazier that night at Madison Square Garden. I didn’t see the fight, but I followed it on a transistor radio where a station would give updates after every round. When Ali lost to Frazier, it was more than a boxing match, it was as if a whole movement was connected to that loss.
And then Ali resurrected himself and became a champion again and I rooted for him every time. I didn’t think he could beat Foreman — the monster with tree trunks for arms who lifted Joe Frazier off the ground with one of the most vicious punches in the history of boxing. But I rooted for him. And I was yelling as he leaned against the ropes. “Get off the ropes, Ali! Get off the fucking ropes Ali!” I yelled at the screen. Yeah, he roped-a-doped everybody that night. He totally destroyed the flag-waving, utterly clueless Foreman, who quit fighting and became a preacher after Ali tapped his ass.
And here’s the thing: yes, Muhammad Ali was very popular, but the mainstream despised him. He was unapologetically and brazenly black, he was a Muslim, and he spoke straightforwardly and intelligently about white supremacy. You might not get that this weekend as the same mainstream that tore through him when he stood up to the powerful, now gushes over him. Let’s be clear, part of the reason Ali was so popular was because paid good money to go see him get his ass kicked. Many, many people hated Ali and what he stood for and many still do. Fuck them. Ali showed the haters they were on the wrong side of history yet again.
This post was difficult to write because I am writing about a man who in a very real way, showed me the importance of standing for my convictions even when the world is laughing at me. What many don’t understand is that standing up to white racism or any other ism, can be a lonely and very dangerous endeavor. Many have lost themselves in that cause. Ali, was a beacon for me. He showed me the way. I guess the only way now is to take Ali’s example — his light — and carry on.
My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…
(Originally posted at [un]Common Sense)