I thought I had a cold this morning but I realized I was just sick of the fake tributes to Muhammad Ali. We hated his guts, just be honest. UNC professor Matthew Andrews points out that we hated him so much, we made the movie Rocky about a white underdog beating a faux Ali because no one could do it in real life. Ali had the audacity to say that whites were universally the enemy of suffering blacks. Ali delved further into race when he refused to fight in Vietnam because those “darker people” had never lynched him or called him nigger. As he is now being celebrated, our hypocrisy is on display and we must reckon with it–we still hate what he stood for and thus we should stop our insincere praises posthumously.
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?” This was Ali’s response when questioned about his refusal to serve in the military. That sentiment enraged America then and it still does today. As we continue military operations in Libya, Iraq and various other places in the name of defeating terrorism, could one escape public disdain if they suggested that most black men feel more at risk of terror from the police than ISIS? Would we take seriously the notion that mass incarceration and not a foreign enemy has done more harm to our communities? This is the idea Ali was trying to communicate in his time and its reception today is no different.
“I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over.” Ali pulled no punches and it cost him. His titles and boxing licenses were stripped, during what would have been the prime of his career (side note: in that we never saw what would have been Ali’s greatest years physically, there is no debate as to who was the greatest). Such candor about our foreign policy and the dynamics of white supremacy earned Ali the ire of America. That was also true in my lifetime, when Denver Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf refused to acknowledge the Star-Spangled Banner. Abdul-Rauf believed the American flag to be a symbol of oppression and tyranny. For his candor, Abdul-Rauf received the vitriol of fans nationwide, was quickly shown the door and his career never quite rebounded. We haven’t matured all that much.
As it was in Ali’s day, so it is now. As a nation we pretend to honor him and call him “the greatest” while never quite confronting his criticisms. Indeed, the same criticisms he expressed then are occasionally parroted by public figures today and the reactions are similar, although not identical. We were unwilling to examine our crimes as a nation when Ali made them plain to us. In his death, we still refuse to confront much of what he charged us with and indeed, those who speak out in the same spirit he did are still ostracized. Let’s just be honest: we hated the man in his lifetime and we still do now.