Friday night I sat at the foot of my bed, cellphone in hand, staring at Twitter, crying like a child over the death of one of my heroes. My wife repeatedly checked in with me, but I couldn’t explain why I was so upset. I get it now: the death of Muhammad Ali represents the end of an era for much of black America.
To black men of certain age, the age of my father and my uncles, Ali was the pinnacle: he was elegant and eloquent; he floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee; he was unapologetically pro-black; he was the best in the ring (back when boxing mattered); he was unafraid to speak his mind to condescending, incredulous TV personalities and audiences; and he was willing to sacrifice personal fame and fortune for his anti-war and anti-racist principles.
I am not old enough to have watched Ali in his prime, but I was raised on his legend. My father, born in Laurel, Mississippi, in 1930 and my uncles born in the mid-30s in Arkansas, loved Ali, and they taught me to, as well. I, like many brothers of my vintage, was raised on a healthy diet of Ali, Jim Brown, Kareem and Maya Angelou. Sadly, only two of them remain with us. 2016 has been a hard year of deaths. It seems that everyone I knew when I was young is old. Everyone who was old, is now dead.
Ali’s death is especially poignant because we need truth-tellers right now. In the era of $100 million endorsement deals and social media consultants, athletes have become PR trained automatons. No athlete today would or could take the stands he did. If they dared, they’d be crucified by the alleged journalists, like the clowns on First Take. Watching YouTube interviews of Ali (as I have much of today) I am reminded of Orwell: “In times of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” Muhammad Ali’s truths about the Vietnam War, about racial injustice in America, about the colonization of Africa, were revolutionary, for his time and for ours.
I believe if you have a platform, dammit use it. In this moment, when a nativist, dog-whistle blowing, reactionary right, is ascendant in American politics, we need Alis in sports and in the black community.
I think it’s why I love Michael Bennett from the Seahawks so much.
I think it’s why I have grown to love Bey; we need more “Formation.”
I know it’s why I love Kendrick, but can’t mess with Kanye. Kendrick Lamar uses his platform to talk about police brutality, critique consumerism and to discuss economic inequality. Kanye usually uses his platform to talk about Kanye.
It's why I have zero time for apolitical figures like MJ. Michael Jordan is a counter-revolutionary. I have never owned and will never buy a pair of Jordans. Kareem nailed it in 2015, in an interview with NPR: Jordan has consistently chosen “commerce over conscience” and refused speak out on matters of justice, racial or otherwise, because “Republicans buy sneakers too.”
Ali used his platform. Few ever spoke so much truth to so much entrenched power.
It kills me, my oldest students were born in 1997. They were born a year after Ali lit the Olympic Torch in the Atlanta Summer Games. By that time, Ali had battled Parkinson’s for twelve years. I may have missed Ali’s prime, but they have only seen him in a diminished state. I imagine it’d be like only knowing MJ as a sneaker-pimp or from the Crying Jordan memes, or only knowing Curtis Mayfield after the accident that paralyzed him. You know of, but you don't really know.
At some point God just stopped making men like Muhammad Ali. Today I mourn the Greatest, but I also mourn for anyone who has grown up only knowing him as a shell of his former self.