By now, we’ve all heard of the passing of the Greatest, Muhammad Ali, over the weekend. He was truly the Greatest, as he himself continually reminded us, and we continually agreed. Since I moved to the Louisville area a few years ago, I came to know more about how influential and how important a figure Ali was, not just globally and nationally, but locally. His presence looms quite large over his hometown, with his statue and likeness emblazoned on the city’s downtown. A statue of him near the edge of the Ohio appears to taunt Hoosiers on the other side, egging them to come on over and see him some time.
On social media, there was some discussion of what made Ali so powerful a figure. Apparently, his supposed ability to “transcend race” was bandied about, as thought that were 1) even possible to do, and 2) something Ali actually did. As a white person, I am familiar with whiteness’s drive to claim, reclaim, or steamroll over persons’ legacies so they reflect more kindly on our own oppressive history. But it isn’t right. If ever a person embodied Blackness as pride, as identity, as beauty, as power, it was Ali. To see him intersectionally is to recognize that he can never transcend his race, nor should he ever have needed to. It should be enough for white Americans to stand in awe of what Ali accomplished and hope that maybe, we could aspire to even a tenth of his courage, ability, and compassion. It should be enough to honor what he meant to Black America. It should be enough to mourn the passing of the Greatest without making it about WHITE PEOPLE, like so much already is.
So let’s don’t say stupid things like Ali “transcended race.” Let us mourn with our fellow Americans of all colors, races, and backgrounds, because Ali really did represent all of us. But he did it as a Black man.
Here’s something I previously wrote at this blog about Richard Sherman, but which references Ali and his legacy, which I think is one Sherman himself carries on.