Trouble in Black Paradise steadily flares—while the light of precious “giants” steadily grows dim.
“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee…his hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see!”
Muhammad Ali’s blistering chide was aimed at then Heavyweight Boxing Champion Sonny Listen before their historic 1st bout. Lighting up the national popularity switchboard this taunt became a special moniker, especially for Black folks.
Ali’s double-barbed phrase delivered his unrepentant swagger, lionizing an electric boxing skill. He stampeded over others in his “sports calling”—a talent soon to become nationally revered.
For us its flip-side boasted the notion that such a gracefully towering celebrity could also deliver a painful blow against forces of inhumanity—soon to have world reverence as well we quickly crowned him with our own title: “The People’s Champion!”
Of course other “stars” had preceded Ali as advocates for social justice, but Black celebrity involvement was scarce to find (particularly showing Ali’s level of audacity to express “social truths”—actually telling it like it is!). Black folks as a whole though, were slow to embrace honoring Ali. My family was no exception.
I was 9-years-old in 1964 when Cassius Clay was set to take on Liston. My mom, older niece & nephew & I, sat on the floor riveted to the radio broadcast. My mom & dad hated what they called the “brash, arrogant, mealy-mouthed Clay.”
Not knowing any better so did we.
Media coverage blared Clay’s seemingly narcissistic rants with fervor, the perfect set-up to launch their own moralistic, self-righteous rebuffs (furious at an “uppity Negro’s” audacity).
Nothing was reported about the thug-like Liston’s ties to organized crime, thus he garnered our cheers—we figured “Negros” were rising to at least dominate this sport (us being so locked out & demeaned elsewhere).
We were devastated when Liston lost, even more so when the infamous rematch found him utterly demolished—and in the 1st round! (The entire fight lasted under 2 minutes.)
Muhammad Ali by then was born; Clay had converted to The Nation Of Islam; Black spiritual & religious “consciousness” gained the vehicle of Ali’s ferocity and he aimed a new level of “reality check” to Negros who blindly accepted (& accommodated) our racist “system.”
Getting the fuller story of “The Nation Of Islam’s” birth & rise is a must. There’s a key reason these events (fleshing out all the central players) are prominently set in my book, “Trouble In Black Paradise.” In it I connect some eye-opening & significant dots.
My parents—quick themselves to explosively reproach racist situations—knew the isolation gained by “not sitting quiet” about those relentless assaults, but were not fans of Black Muslims. They also were angry and frustrated about Black “preachers.”
Aside from Dr. Martin Luther King’s core colleagues in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (centered obviously in the South) Black preachers overall were “missing-in-action” regarding a national Civil Rights Movement—we lived in California, whose boarders had nowhere near filtered out racism.
Ali’s brazen truths confronting the “entire nation” started getting my parents to listen.
1966 brought the 1st anniversary of Watts’ riots, from which the week-long Watts Summer Festival emerged. The culminating festival parade ran right in front of my oldest sister Olevia Pitcher’s house (now Legacy Day in Facebook). Muhammad Ali was the Grand Marshal & electricity filled the air!
I’ll never forget the thrilling commotion when he arrived. There he was right before me clear as day, up close in person. Men raucously cheered! Women, led by my sister, fell out in fits of adoration. “U-u-u-u-u-u-u! He sure is a Pretty Man! Yes indeed!” they all cried.
The timing was uncanny & symbolic. Now, we were Black, not Negro. Black Pride, Power & reclaiming of our stolen “culture” (central to the consciousness movement) was rising like a rocket—upsetting the old stagnant Negro guard.
In 1969 I had my first ever semester long Black History class—in High School. Revising curriculum to reclaim our stolen African culture was one of many gained “protest demands.” It’s considered essential for both Black student’s & their nation’s road to excellence—bridging the white enforced gap to inspire social unity (thru healthier, “non-distorted” cross-cultural understanding).
I owe much: getting the core of my own fiery passion for Black social repair & Human Rights advocacy from my family—& examples like Ali. Few are the successful Black mega celebrities who’ve relentlessly addressed wrongs & actually invested—demonstrating true love for both their own ethnicity and the world.
It’s safe to say this: untold masses prayed that upon his retirement from boxing Ali would naturally transition unscathed into public life, cradling the all but lost “baton”; we dreamed he might fill the gaping slot, becoming maybe the next Dr. King, Malcolm X, or even Gandhi—which no one had dared (or cared) to do.
It would need reinforcement from extensive cross-level, social justice networks—such elements back then had been pounded by the ruthless system into total disarray, but an Ali in “top form” could have delivered their needed, “reboot” injection.
Parkinson’s disease shattered our dream, insuring that the fiery, robust, physically commanding level Ali needed for the task, soon would be dulled & absolutely encumbered. Sharp wits remained intact, but the damaging blows from extended social wars & opponent’s gloves (the latter tragically being way too prolonged) took their toll.
Who are the Ali’s of the industry today, sacrificing the prime part of their careers “on principle” for Black folks (and the underdog), organizing to build desperately needed sanctuaries & resource institutions?
The Whoopi’s? Tiger Woods’? Oprah’s? Jay-Z’s? Ludacris’? Nicki Minaj’s? Michael Jordan’s? 50 Cents’? LeBron James’? Iman’s? Chris Brown’s?
Have any of these Afro-American “superstars” even mentioned in public (outside of their entertainment “venues”) the phrase, “Black Lives Matter?” Maybe even attended a related march or rally?
In this sea of self-absorbed gangsters, prima donnas & status-quo “apologists”—who place sex, money, shallow “new age” spirituality & materialistic gaudiness as their supreme “object of worship”—good luck with that!
Muhammad Ali we all have our flaws & idiosyncrasies, but you are truly “The Greatest?”
R.I.P. and know a thing: with this “Warrior” at least, your dedication will not go for naught!