The greatest of all time has passed, and it would be easy to just join the hundreds of celebrities, politicians and public figures eulogising about Muhammad Ali, but I won’t. I want to give you my own personal take on what this man did, and meant to US and by us I mean Black Men and Women, but more so the Black Man. We always had a strong sense of who we were and how cool we were, but we were never able to truly display it to the world until Muhammad Ali gave us the ticket, the strength and the know how to do so. Until he came along our black ‘coolness and swagger’ was seen by most whites as arrogance above our station, threatening and dangerous. Something to be kept in check and kept down. “I mean we can’t have these sons of slaves and monkeys thinking they are all that!” Deeper than that was the fear held inside many whites that us seeing and understanding what we truly were, and how great we could truly be would lead to them losing all they had stolen over the years. Yes it all sounds a bit harsh and perhaps bitter, but it is not. It is just the simple truth.
Listening to so many people who are not black speak about Muhammad Ali and how great he was and how he changed the world etc, is like a son listening to people speak about a deceased father they never really knew, wanted or understood, but later came to like or perhaps love because he proved them all wrong and succeeded. We already know what most are saying, We knew it almost from day one, way before anyone was saying it or seeing it. The words as proud as they make us feel are tinged with a little bit of anger that a black man has to be this great to get noticed (SIR Henry Cooper pretty much became even bigger for losing to Ali, You see the British love a good loser if he is white for sure, but if you are black here, you have to win and win big to get the same pats on the back). That our brother had to suffer so much and come through so much to become the poem on so many lips still sticks in the craw of many of us. For us a family member has just died, a beloved family member and as great as he was to you (those that just see a flamboyant black sportsman, or a great athlete), for us it is just that simple. We lost our brother.
Let me try to put this all into context right now. As a father of several kids. I can tell you there is little that happens in this world that would drag them away from their computer screens and have them enthralled. I have seen my kids give a cursory glance at what I felt were world shaking stories or events unfolding in the news. We live in different times and I do not think even I can explain to them how things were when Muhammad Ali (Then Cassias Clay) came onto the scene. They would rather watch a dancing cat, a karaoke singer in spandex or someone falling over in the street. It is sad, but that is the way it is for many young kids these days. Their minds are mush.
I cannot explain to them how when he fought our whole community came to a standstill. There was not a black man or woman who would not be watching it often at the lucky neighbour who happened to have a TV in their house. There we would be. Men, Women, Children, Grannies, Grandpa, and all the neighbours throwing every punch, feeling every blow, listening to every word. We were ONE. Our Champion was fighting for us. For our freedom, for our right to be here, for our right to even ask for change, for our right to say I am black and I’m proud, I’m good, I’m the best!. What people do not quite understand is: he was taking those blows for us (When he did take them) We knew that. We knew he could just take the money and play the ‘white mans’ game, and perhaps even make more money. But he never did. He took so much punishment for us. Sound Familiar? I will leave you to make the connections.
At a time when we were sent to bed without fail no matter what at around 8pm (if we were lucky). Ali fighting was the one excuse to break the rules. Ali fighting was the one thing that brought every single member of our family and community together as one. Even Michael Jackson could not accomplish that. He came the closest to doing what Muhammad Ali did for the black community in terms of bringing us all together around a TV screen. In truth though no one else even came close!
We live in an age when kids all over the world are doing the ‘Usain Bolt spear’ to look cool, or to position themselves with a winner, but it does not compare to what Ali winning made us do. It made us walk into school proud, with Big steps and broad smiles. It made us saunter into our mostly menial jobs with an air of grace and defiance and happiness. It made us start to openly stand up for ourselves and say NO! It made us realise our potential and GO FOR IT without fear. Muhammad Ali changed the world, but more importantly he changed our world, our perspective. As a young boy fighting in the school playground there were only two signature moves guaranteed to come out when any two protagonist got into a melee. The Ali Shuffle and trade mark dance or the Bruce Lee stance, nose rub and swagger. As black boys we only copied the two greatest fighters ever to walk in modern times. They were both the greatest at their craft and they both transcended their sport.
Usain Bolt as great as he is and as much as he has done, did not stand for anything compared to what Ali Stood for. I am a great Usain Bolt fan and this is not taking anything away from the great man but he is no Tommie Smith or John Carlos much less an Ali. He is no Jessie Owens (and if you do not know who these guys are I suggest you google them) When he beat Cooper in London, there was worry about the backlash from some in the white community my father told me. ‘We were proud and happy but we were also cautious and careful’ My father later told me. He pissed off a lot of white folk! But at the same time as he pissed them off he was winning their hearts and minds.
I find it amazing that the two people who could have got many young black males to bear arms, Nelson Mandela and Muhammad Ali, never did.
What did Muhammad Ali mean to me and why is his passing so personal to so many black people around the world?:
For me he is the closest thing to a Superhero we shall ever see or know. To me he was like the Greek Mythological heroes, Hercules, Achilles, brought to life. To me he was not just the ultimate black man, but the ultimate man, he had the looks, he had the wit, and intelligence, he had the charisma, he had the heart, he had the world in his hands. He was the greatest at everything to me as a young man, and to this day remains so.
My mother who is the same age as Muhammad Ali and also suffers with Parkinson Disease. She is a Stoic woman, hard working to the core and came here with a suitcase and a dream to make a better life for herself from Jamaica on the second ship to land on these shores over 50 years ago. She met Muhammad Ali when he came over here. In fact he made a point of lifting her off her feet saying this is my black sister. My mother has never been a worshipper of celebrity or fame. She has never glorified any artists or sportsperson. Right now she has a little place in her heart for Lewis Hamilton, but in all the years I have known her only two people made her raise an eyebrow. JFK (after whom I was named) and Muhammad Ali. When I asked her if she knew he had died she said. Yes, She felt his time had come when he went to hospital this time, and then she said. ‘He was a fighter.’
Coming from a woman that has known nothing but the fight her whole life, who to this day is still fighting and holding her own with Parkinson Disease. A woman who is not afraid of anyone and who would not back down from anyone herself, those words said it all. Muhammad Ali was ‘A fighter’ Perhaps the greatest fighter of all time both in and out of the ring. And he won not just for himself. He won for US.
Gone but never ever will this man be forgotten.
Stevie Eagle E
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