A Man Of His Time
June 16, 2016
The Great Muhammad Ali passed away on Friday evening, and the world respectively mourned. There were many who correctly pointed out his legacy as a sports icon and the ultimate humanist. There were also some spoke about his ability to transcend color and religious lines, for them they are only partly correct. Let us get this out of the way; Muhammed Ali was unapologetically BLACK AND PROUD, he was also spiritual, outspoken, thoughtful and poetic (but not in the obvious rhyming way, but in the soft subtle way he connected people to one another). So it is with that, in which I understand why someone would want characterize him as someone who transcended race, because the other attributes I just mentioned do in fact cover across racial lines. However, here is the thing every attribute that I mentioned was rooted in his blackness and experience from his southern upbringing. It is for that very reason why we will never see an athlete/public figure like Muhammed Ali ever again. Sure we will see global iconic celebrities, who by way of personality and talent crossed over racial lines with their appeal, but that only touches the surface of what made ‘The Champ’ so appealing.
Muhammed tells the story of when he came home from the Olympics, representing the nation admirably; he won a gold medal in boxing and was praised overseas for his performance, but when he tried to get a meal in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky he was denied access and food. That experience and others like it (look up the video in which he explains his thoughts on a ‘White Jesus’) help formulate the thinking of a young man who always looked at the world and ask “why”. It was his race that gave him perspective, and his religious ideology that allowed him to frame world social issues into one long spiritual discussion. The society Muhammed Ali lived in was painted with social and racial strife, he grew up in era that not only saw African Americans fervently questioning their treatment in society, unafraid of the consequences, but he saw athletic contemporaries like Jim Brown, Kareem Abdul Jabbar (formerly Lou Alcindor), Bill Russell and many others challenging the status quo and using their position within their respective sports to speak about issues concerning black Americans. They were not afraid of their financial bottom line, because their social bank account according to them came up with insufficient funds. Ali was as much a product of his time, as the afro and soul music. He saw how in a generation before him, athletes like Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson who were celebrated for breaking barriers and dominating their respective sports, all while doing this with a quiet dignity, were still never truly accepted. So it was with all of these experiences that truthfully colored in the lines of his personality, to him it was better to be honest, than accepted.
Fast forward to the modern athlete/celebrity, in a way it is appropriate that the finals are being played in the same weekend as we mourn the greatest athlete of all time. Performing on the NBA stage is at this point the biggest sports star of the modern generation. He too is a product of his time, schooled in the design of Michael Jordan consumer based icon status. Just like MJ, LeBron is as much a business brand as he is a world class athlete. Michael Jordan while supremely talented and ultra-successful on the court became a global icon also because of the marketing push by companies like NIKE and McDonalds, the NBA openly courted this push (because their superstars of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were aging out of the league). It was Michael Jordan who truly helped athletes understand their marketing potential. They didn’t need to take a controversial stance in order to monetize their global appeal, they just had to stay controversy free “Republicans buy sneakers too….”; LeBron learned from this and became a better version of Michael Jordan on the marketing front, so as much as Muhammed Ali learned (albeit what he did not want to represent) from his previous generation, so too did King James. Yes he has protested on the Trayvon Martin tragedy, but do you doubt a 25 year old Ali would remain silent during Trumps presidential insensitivity tour-especially when it pertained to Muslims, I think not. I do not blame LeBron, he is a product of his time, where celebrities are created for simply having a lot of followers (ponder on that statement for a second). Muhammed became a global icon the hard way, by sticking to his convictions and truth.
I once read that the hallmark of a great individual is the way they can force the world around them to bend to their will, not the other way around. You see that is what made Muhammed such a dynamic spirit he spoke (his) truth. And while it may have been hard to digest for many and rough to listen too for certain segments in society, the people who gave him the most pushback, ultimately acquiesced to his view. Real truth has a funny way of piercing the veil of bigotry and ignorance it has a way of timelessness that a foundation based on a lie cannot stand. Truth is patient and more importantly stubborn, it will not bend to your position just because it makes you uncomfortable, rather it will force you to grow up and look in the mirror and change. Most importantly truth-real truth- is understood by any language and relatable to any racial group. So yes he transcended race, but not in the way that people are stating, his truth, his unabashed blackness, bold words, beautiful mind and incredible charm forced the world to accept him and bow to his reality, not the other way around. So no we will never see another Ali, because honestly there is no person who could bare the weight of truth, and as move swiftly and easily from criticism as Muhammed Ali. So while his appeal floated like a butterfly, his truth stung like a bee.