When I was about 10 years old, Muhammad Ali became my hero. He strutted amiably, a little like my Uncle Dewey and my father, faintly dangerous but good-humored men whom I also adored. Ali wrote poetry like I did, but he chanted it openly, unashamed in his manhood, like I longed to be. Poetry was an object of scorn in my boyhood world, and I mostly kept quiet about mine.
His matchless athleticism infuriated his many critics. His was a beauty and power that could not be denied, and yet he was fearlessly playful. But above all, Ali stood unwavering in his moral vision and openly declared it. He openly rejected the Vietnam War, which at 10 I could already see was crazy and wrong. Like my father a generation earlier, Ali was a conscientious objector, and he refused to participate in war, whatever the price. He stood up for racial justice in a manner fiery and yet good-humored, disarming the empty stigma the world forever tries to inflict, embracing his own soul and defining a manhood that struck awe in me.
Muhammad Ali shined as the icon of some strange tribe to which I aspired to belong: those who defied and thus defanged the powers of this world, those who would hammer beauty out of the darkness.
When I was about 12, my football coach heard from a teammate that I adored Muhammad Ali, and he confronted me, which despite my fear I correctly perceived as a sign that the adult world had lost its mind. In 1971, this was a petrified fact.
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“I hear you like Cassius Clay,” he snarled. “You know he ain’t nothing but a draft-dodging nigger. If he had just done like Elvis and gone into the Army, he would be a hero, and all he would have had to do was fight some exhibition fights for the troops. He wouldn’t have had to go into combat.”
I don’t remember how I responded, but I probably stammered something about Ali as a great boxer, as if I were innocent of his higher meaning in the world.
But I knew Muhammad Ali in fact had gone into combat of the most serious kind, a soldier in the war against cruelty, sham and the politics of immoral domination. And though I was not armed to fight my football coach, nor yet the other powers in the insane world that confronted me, I knew Muhammad Ali was undeniably the greatest, and the unelected representative of my defiant tribe, and I was proud.
Dr. Timothy B. Tyson, Ph.D., is a senior research scholar for the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.