In the name of Ali’s Radical Blackness
Written by Isidore Noel
On Friday afternoon I had a conversation with a sister who is awakening from her white supremacy induced slumber. I spoke of race, segregation, dysfunctional integration and ancestral veneration. Of course I spoke about Muhammad Ali, the man I sometimes liked to call my last living icon. For how can one talk about those that waged the war against white supremacy without mentioning Ali? Hours later I learned that The Greatest was in his final hours of transitioning to become an ancestor. I had just finished crying for Afeni Shakur, another freedom fighter in the war for equality. I thought I had no more tears to cry, thinking that at some point death becomes a normal part of life. But logging onto Twitter and seeing the outpouring of messages for Ali, I cried as if a close family member had died.
I cried because the Ali I fell in love with years ago was not just a boxer. I care too little about boxing to could have been interested in a boxer no matter how well he danced in the ring. I fell in love with a man who was loud but soft-hearted, a clown who was dead serious about the liberation of his people. Ali had said himself that he would love to box for as long as possible as that is a platform for him to reach his people.
Shortly before Ali won the heavyweight championship from Sonny Liston, he was rumored to be associated with the Nation of Islam. His affiliation to the NOI did not exactly make him popular, his big mouth made him appear arrogant & cocky. White America was not thrilled. Malcolm X described Ali as threat to white supremacy because he was a confident black who would have Negroes claiming they are the greatest. Ali’s threat was not so much in his title as World Heavyweight Champion but more importantly in his title as the people’s champion. His association with Malcolm X made the promoters of the Ali-Liston fight nervous and they tried to convince him to dissociate from the NOI. He refused to denounce the NOI but his friend Malcolm was persuaded to leave Miami until the day of the fight. After the fight Ali told reporters he will no longer go by his slave name Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr, but be temporarily known as Cassius X. White America became even less impressed with Ali after the name change and seeing that the notorious Malcolm X was his political mentor. As a follower of Elijah Muhammad, Ali started believing and preaching about black pride, segregation and white unrighteousness. His courage and fame helped to spread the message of NOI and get recruits who had heard him speak on Islam and black righteousness.
Ali advocated for religious freedom but said that as beautiful as Christianity is in theory most people do not actively practice it. For him, it was Islam that showed him brotherly love. He felt that Muslims reflected what they preached.
As a Muslim he had sat with Colonel Gaddafi and President Nasser who welcomed him as a brother while a Christian leader had yet to do that. He was also not comfortable with our everyday language which had such underlying racist implications, whether it was preaching about White Jesus or labelling troublemakers in the family as the ‘black sheep’. Islam he said gave him an identity he could be proud of as a black man. He spoke against integration saying that he recognized that whites believe in separation and can thus not blame the black man for it. He believed that separation was necessary for black people to sort themselves out because of the damage white supremacy causes. He firmly believed in black unity as the goal, stating: “We (blacks) are not one and once we get to be one and IF there is any love left we can say let’s go over and unite (with whites).”
When the Vietnam War started, Ali was according to his mental aptitude test ineligible for drafting. However as the war waged and more men were needed, Ali was reclassified and now eligible for drafting. He refused stating that he would only fight for Allah and that he was not about to go die for America, which cared nothing for black and brown people. He made it clear that he will not be used as a tool for American hegemony and kill people thousands of miles away for white dominance. His conscience did not allow him to go fight darker or poorer people for white America, which denies him his rights at home. He gave his now infamous quote: “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. My enemy is the white people, not the Viet Cong…. No Viet Cong ever called me Nigger.” Now white America branded him not only as a member of race-hate cult but also as an unpatriotic draft-dodger.
His integrity on the Vietnam War showed his courage to stand by his principles even in the face of personal loss. The personal loss he suffered was gigantic. Ali’s stance made him so unpopular in the US that he had to schedule most fights outside the country. He was sentenced to 5 years in jail with a fine. Staying out of jail, he fought the draft on religious reasons and on grounds of financial hardships his parents would endure if he left his career for war.
At the time Ali was going by the name Elijah Muhammad had bestowed upon him. He was now known as Muhammad Ali. During a match against Ernie Terrell, Ali gave him a serious beating for calling him Cassius and taunted him throughout the fight asking: “What’s my name???” The fight went down as being one of his ugliest fights and questioned how he claimed he could not fight in Vietnam while he can beat a man mercilessly in ring.
The day came when Ali had to go and report for induction. He went but remained seated as he was called out by what he deemed to be his slave name. Later he was formally charged with a felony for refusal and released on bail. His passport was taken away damaging his career further. New York State Athletic Commission suspended Ali’s boxing license and others followed suit and withdrew his World Heavyweight Champion title. Stripped off his livelihood during the prime years of his career and age, he was also placed under FBI surveillance.
He submerged himself deeper into the NOI and started appearing at colleges as a speaker against the war in Vietnam and for black pride. Elijah Muhammad was happy that Ali was available for the Nation, which did not believe in fighting for money anyhow. When Ali mentioned in an interview that he would go back to boxing if he could, Elijah Muhammad suspended him from NOI for a year. Other members were forbidden to associate with him, but he was too popular and liked for that to happen and he quietly returned into NOI. After more than 3 years Ali was eventually allowed to fight again and some of his most memorable fights like Thrilla in Manilla” and Rumble in the Jungle” took place then.
Although it was Malcolm X who encouraged Ali to go and fight in Afrika, their friendship soon got ruined through NOI influence. Malcolm wanted to leave NOI with Ali and Louis X (now Farrakhan and current leader of NOI) but Elijah turned them against him. At the time of Malcolm’s assassination, him and Ali had sadly not made up yet. Eventually Ali left NOI for Sunni Islam and put on record that one of his biggest regrets in life is when and how he pushed Malcolm away.
I have not even scratched the surface of The GOAT. This black man was intelligent, hilarious, articulate, caring, a poet and a prophet. But in the name of Muhammad Ali’s radical blackness, may we note that he never transcended race, as people who want to erase his blackness are now stating in his death. May we celebrate him as one who transcended sports and fused it with politics, principles, religion and spirituality in the form of black consciousness. This is what made him our champ. May you now rest in peace and power, pretty soldier. You have fought the good fight and I salute you.