I was 12 years old when my father took me to see ‘Ali’ in theaters. A 12-year-old black boy, staring at who I wanted to become. what black boy wouldn’t want to be the champ?
I got chills with his speech on why he wouldn’t go fight in Vietnam:
“I ain’t going no 10,000 miles to help murder and kill other poor people. If I want to die, I’ll die right here, right now, fightin’ you, if I want to die. You my enemy, not no Chinese, no Vietcong, no Japanese. You my opposer when I want freedom. You my opposer when I want justice. You my opposer when I want equality. Want me to go somewhere and fight for you? You won’t even stand up for me right here in America, for my rights and my religious beliefs. You won’t even stand up for my right here at home.”
At 12 years old, I had never felt so proud to be black.
In Ali, I saw greatness in the ring, and unapologetic blackness outside of it. His blackness was in his loyalty towards the Nation of Islam, and how it became what defined him and his politics. His blackness was in the way he walked, talked, and lived–black, and unapologetic. He wasn’t just an athlete, he was a black messiah (speaking up for his people), as well as a soon-to-be black martyr–crucified for being brutally honest and politically aware about the contradictions of American racism. When he was drafted to fight in the war, his response:
“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. … Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”
He called things how he saw them. He didn’t care what the backlash could–or inevitably would–be. He was convinced in what he believed in, and he never was afraid to say so.
By today’s standards, Ali doesn’t exist. We have yet to have another black athlete that has carried the same voice and with the same platform Ali had. In a day when most athletes lose their integrity in order to be the best, Ali’s greatness was in his unwavering integrity.
Through all his public antics, the world was witnessing the emancipation of the black athlete in real-time. The world saw a black man take control over what he wanted to say, and how he would say it. Even when his title was stripped from him over his anti-war statements, Ali remained in control.
In a way most athletes have trouble doing, Ali took control of his own destiny through choice. He chose to join the Nation of Islam. He chose to be an outspoken critique on American racism. He chose to speak out against the U.S. involvement in Vietnam as contradictory to the unresolved racial tensions in America. He chose to avoid the draft because he was so committed to his beliefs. And because of such decisions, one could make the case that being stripped of the title was his own choice.
Ali was freer than most black athletes have ever been, and the freedom was in his courage to not back down, and to be the black man he always was, and that the world needed to see. Racism had defined his life, like it did for so many other black athletes and celebrities of that time. Ali just chose to embrace it.
Muhammad Ali came at a time when black people needed a voice to validate their concerns and anger, but also to be unapologetically black. He was that voice that told you to be as bold and black as you could be in every possible situation–never back down.
So, to Ali: Thank you for everything you did. For inspiring me to also be unapologetically black, and to never be afraid to speak truth to power.