Here are some excerpts from the introduction of the 1997 anthology The Muhammad Ali Reader by Gerald Early, an insightful professor of black studies at Washington U. in St. Louis.
THE MUHAMMAD ALI READER
By GERALD EARLY
THE ECCO PRESS
… Ali, as a result of his touching, or poignant, or pathetic, or tragic (take your pick) appearance at the torch-lighting ceremony at 1996 Olympics Games in Atlanta has become, for new generations that did not grow up with him and for the older generations that did, the Great American Martyr, our new Lincoln, our new Martin Luther King … And no one embodied American popular culture, its excesses, its barbarities, and its disarming densities, more than Muhammad Ali.
The public rarely responds to this sort of demise of a great popular performer with anything approaching good sense or objectivity, and almost certainly with nothing approaching a kind of gracious humor, something that, in this case, the subject himself may very much embrace and seems to be trying to instruct us in how to achieve. This is even less likely to happen when the figure in question is a black man, a cunning archetype who is already so burdened by a baggage of both sentimentality and taboo as to be likely a virtual walking expression of the culture’s irrationality even if his old age had been a bit less marked by illness. And Ali had been a lightning rod for the culture’s irrationality all of his life, sometimes provoking it purposely, sometimes a veritable representation of it himself. This was, after all, the man who not only brilliantly playacted a combination panic attack/nervous breakdown at the weigh-in of his first championship fight with the dreaded Sonny Liston in 1964; served as the redoubtable, tricksterlike black comic to Howard Cosell’s liberal Jewish straight man; had a highly publicized religious conversion to a strange, if influential, cult that disliked whites but wanted to be a perfect imitation of them, aggrandizing their importance while humanizing their stark doctrine; … but who also believed for some several years that a mad scientist named Yacub invented white people by grafting them from blacks, that satellites from Allah circled the earth and would imminently destroy the United States, and that blacks who dated or married whites should be killed.
Now the public, because of Ali’s illness, wants to drown him in a bathos of sainthood and atone for its guilt. … This guilt arises largely from Ali’s stance against the Vietnam War, a war we have come to see as at best misguided and as at worst evil, and his subsequent three-and-one-half year exile from boxing; and from a feeling that somehow, we, the American public, or the white American public (since blacks were in no position to abuse him through a rather capricious application of the Selective Service Act), are the cause of his current affliction.
Missing several years from his boxing career in his late 20s prime deprived fans of seeing Ali at his best, but it probably helped Ali live into his 70s. It not like he would have saved the money he made from fights in 1968 and 1969 so he could retire young and live the quiet life. Ali loved being the champ.
And we did this to him because he became a Black Muslim and spoke out frankly against racism and white double-dealing, something no black athletic hero had ever done before (or since, really). He was severely maimed by and for our racial sins, our racist use of the system against him.
… Muhammad Ali, in truth, does not make a very good martyr, as Wilfrid Sheed once observed, or cannot quite be taken seriously as one. Doubtless, as Sheed points out, Ali had a martyr’s complex, which is why he became a member of the Nation of Islam, not because he felt the slings and arrows of outrageous racism (Ali had a very indulged life, from boyhood on) but because he wanted “to [take] on the scars of his brothers.” For a man with a great sense of public mission and public consciousness, as Ali had, an act of such solidarity with the most bitter blacks on the bottom was a theatrical and vividly condensed bit of risk-taking. What Ali had, in this regard, is exactly what Malcolm X claimed to have near the end of his life: not truth, not vision, not wisdom, but sincerity. This counts for a great deal in an age of relativism and cynicism, in an age when we have given ourselves over to the adolescent’s version of reality, instead of the Heminway-esque version: One’s measure of authenticity was not how one lived one’s life in the face of what made it impossible, but how deeply one felt about something. Intensity of feeling equaled real experience. …
Ali, despite all the talk of his brilliance, was not a thoughtful man. He was not conversant with ideas. Indeed, he hadn’t a single idea in his head, really. What he had was the faith of the true believer, like a Jehovah’s Witness or a Mormon or a Hasidic Jew or a communist, a grand public stage, an extraordinary historical moment, amazing athletic gifts, and good looks. But Ali cannot be taken seriously as a martyr because: first, other athletes, such as Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis, Ted Williams, Bob Feller, Hank Greenberg, Christy Mathewson, and many others lost several years of their athletic prime, serving in the Armed Forces during World War I, World War II, or the Korean War. No one seems to think this was tragic. Granted, we have a different view of those wars, but Ali did not pay anything more for his dissent, in relation to his career as an athlete, than other star athletes in the past have paid for not dissenting. Plus, he had the luxury of not being in danger in combat, although he was always open to the crazed assassin’s bullet. And Ali never went to prison for his pacifist beliefs, like his leader, Elijah Muhammad, or like Bayard Rustin. He wasn’t killed for his beliefs like his onetime mentor, Malcolm X, or his admirer, Martin Luther King.
For instance, when Ali appeared at Randolph-Macon College for Men in Virginia on April 17, 1969 to give a speech, one of 168 campuses he was planning to visit that year in order to raise legal funds for his defense against the draft, although there was some considerable outcry from the alumni and the locals about his visit, there was virtually no protest when he arrived on campus. He gave his speech, largely a kind of rote Nation-of-Islam homage to Elijah Muhammad, answered questions at some length, rather tactlessly asked the dean of men for his check when he was through, and, despite being worn out, was talked into appearing at a inner city school in the vicinity. According to the account given in The Catholic World, “The content of the speech itself was standard Black Muslim rhetoric, but the presentation was pure Cassius Clay entertainment…. Perhaps one might, in fact, criticize Ali for making his address so entertaining and amusing that the seriousness of his subject was somewhat obscured.” It was this quality of Ali’s, his ability to put a certain humor and, thus, a profoundly human face as well as a kind of pop culture sheen on black anger and indignation that, I think, saved his life. Like the Marxist or the deconstructionist, he made ideology self-evident where it had once been invisible, but he seemed more amused by his discovery than belligerent, more deeply struck by its wondrous expression of a benighted humanity than outraged by its expressions of unjustified power and dominance. This is the full dimension of the shallow, simplistic sincerity that protected him rather like amulet or a juju. So, in fact, after his exile, he went to make an incredible amount of money, to star in a movie of his life, and to become one of the most famous people, and surely the most famous Muslim, in the world. By the mid-1970s, after redeeming himself and regaining the title by defeating the fearsome, sullen George Foreman, Ali had become such an accepted figure in the American mainstream that DC Comics put out a special edition Superman where “that draft dodger,” as he had been called in the 1960s, beat the Man of the Steel, the Great White American Hero, in a prizefight to save humanity from an alien invasion. Martyrdom, where is thy sting?
Second, there is no indication that had Ali left boxing sooner, he would have avoided suffering the brain damage he did suffer, if he had not been exiled, very unfairly, from boxing between the ages of 27 and 30. It is a rare boxer, especially one as good as Ali was and who so wanted and needed public attention, who quits before he is literally beaten into retirement. What Ali had was an irresistible combination of talent, showmanship, and a genius conceit of himself that bordered on both the heroically self-possessed and the insufferably megalomanic. He not only believed in God, to paraphrase the lyric from the musical, Hair, but he believed that God believed in him.
Though Ali makes a poor saint, he makes a very good fallen prince, the daring, flamboyantly ignorant cavalier, which is exactly what he is: the weary, enigmatic sovereign of our time, of our realm, of our racialized imagination. What unnerves us now about Ali and brings out the insipidness of victimology is that he wound up like an old, broken-down prizefighter. The guilt we feel is that we used him as a commodity and that he used us to create great dramas of his fights, dragon-slaying heroics, extraordinary crises of our social order. It mattered greatly whether he won or lost and we are guilty about having been conned into believing a prizefight means much of anything in this world, about what our being conned did to the confidence man.
But Ali, far from being a victim, is perhaps the one of the most remarkable examples of triumph over racism in our century. It is not surprising that so many white people hated him but that before his career ended a good many had come to love him.
Ali was a public figure mostly shaped by two decisions: in 1964, he chose to stay with Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam and not defect with Malcolm X and become, in effect, a leftist Pan-Africanist, a decision that made it possible for him to weather his exile years of 1967-1970 by being surrounded by a tight community of disciplined believers; in 1977, he chose to stay with Wallace D. Muhammad who de-racialized the Black Muslims instead of defecting with Louis Farrakhan’s revitalized Nation of Islam with Elijah Muhammad’s old racist tenets. Had he joined Farrakhan, Ali would not be nearly as revered today as he is.
Ali has been compared to a number of famous people, from Oscar Wilde to Jack Johnson, from Elvis Presley to Jay Gatsby. I think he bears no small resemblance to our two finest jazz musicians, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, and perhaps his genius might be best understood in relation to theirs. Like both of them, Ali was a southerner. Like Ellington, he came from the border South and so did not experience the most brutal sort of racism, but like Armstrong, who came from New Orleans, he came from a mythic southern place, Kentucky, with its Thoroughbreds, its bluegrass, its mint juleps, its colonels, so he experienced a deeply self-conscious white South, which may explain why he felt the oppression of racism so deeply without having to endure a great deal of it. Being a southerner, I think, explains his showmanship.
… Like Armstrong, Ali was essentially a comic. This explains why, although he was deeply hated by many whites at one point in his career, he was able to come back. He rarely said anything without a certain kind of mocking quality, and his rage, like his incessant bragging and egoism, was often that of the adolescent. Ali offered the public the contradictory pleasure of having to take him seriously while not having to take him seriously. He was deeply aware of this himself and played a game of public relations deceit as cleverly as anyone. …
Muhammad Ali could barely read. He certainly never read books. Yet his was the religion of the book–not only the Koran but Elijah Muhammad’s Message to the Blackman in America. … What fascinated Ali, like many of the poorly educated, was the authority of books or their failure as authority. When I met Ali a few years ago, he went on at some length about the contradictions in the Bible. As a devout Muslim, this seemed to please him greatly, as he must have felt he was deflating the power of that text. I told him that as a Christian I hardly expected the Bible to be anything more than a messy and messed-up book. “Now you see how tough it is to be a Christian,” I said. He smiled at that. There was probably something both miraculous and absurd about having a theological discussion with an ex-prizefighter who couldn’t talk and had actually read very little of the Bible, a rich illustration of the uses and disadvantages of having athletes serve as all-purpose black icons.
Ali scored a 16 on the Army intelligence tests, indicating that he had a low IQ. A man of his wit and quickness could not be that dumb, we protest. Yet I think the score was an honest reflection of Ali’s mental abilities. Ali was not literate, nor was he analytical. When he was younger he could successfully debate those who were much smarter, or at least had read more books, because he had the zealot’s set of answers to life’s questions. His mind worked through formulas and cliches. His personality gave them a life and vibrancy that they would otherwise have lacked. He was intuitive, glib, richly gregarious, and intensely creative, like an artist. He would have scored better on the test had he been better educated, but still he would never have had a score that reflected the range of his curiosity or his humanity. But it is perhaps no surprise for a man so taken by the authority of the book that he would be so attractive to people who wrote books for a living …