Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
When former World Heavyweight Champion Muhammad Ali lit the torch for the 1996 Olympic games, he set into motion a bit of an Ali revival. The resurrection has featured a cover story in GQ and the documentary When We Were Kings, a film that was delayed for over 20 years. As ESPN counts down its top 50 athletes of the 20th century, it’s widely believed that Ali will be named No. 1. This is heady stuff for America, a country that doesn’t regularly make heroes out of men who toss their Olympic gold medals into rivers.
It’s not exactly news that for a good portion of his boxing career Ali was the bane of the American Establishment. Condemned as a draft-dodger, loudmouth, traitor, and “reverse-racist” (often in the same breath), Ali was a frequent dartboard for everyone from sportswriters to the State Department. Even his own folk aimed their gun barrels at Alicivil rights leaders like Roy Wilkins took turns denouncing him, as did black sports pioneers such as former World Heavyweight Champion Joe Louis.
In his book Redemption Song, Mike Marqusee sets out to examine how Ali has been transformed from one of the country’s most vilified citizens into one of its most beloved. But Marqusee isn’t exactly pleased by the turn of events. Throughout the book, Marqusee questions Ali’s acceptance and asserts that Ali, “Like Martin Luther King or even Malcolm X…has had his political teeth extracted.”
It’s not a hard argument to make, given that Ali has reached this new popularity at a time when he has essentially been rendered politically mute by Parkinson’s disease. Marqusee, however, spends precious little time making it. Instead the author uses most of the pages of Redemption Song to rehash information that’s already been published about Ali. Thus the book ends up reading like a very impersonal biography: Ali is gregarious. Despite the disdain he experienced for most of his career, Ali injected a bit humor back into boxing. The sport was devoid of personality, given the very flat Floyd Patterson and despite the menacing Sonny Liston. And, as hated as he was, Ali kept America laughing, if only in private.
When not telling readers things that most Ali fans already know, Marqusee attempts to place Ali within the tradition of Pan-Africanist radicals such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Malcolm X, and Kwame Nkrumah. But instead of showing the influence that radicals like Du Bois had on Ali, Marqusee insists on reviewing well-known biographical information about Robeson and Malcolm X.
It’s a tragedy, considering that the Pan-Africanist argument is not without merit. And Marqusee’s point about Ali’s being politically muted is also valid. Clearly the fact that Ali can no longer verbally pimp-slap everything respectable about America makes him easier to like. After all, it was always his verbal jabs that got him in the most trouble. In Ali’s heyday, you’d have been hard pressed to find a more despised athlete.
In this sense, though, Ali was not a trailblazer. Jack Johnson, the first black man to hold the world heavyweight championship, is often dragged out by boxing pundits as a forerunner to Ali in rambunctious behavior. But Johnson was not so much revolutionary as he was merely rebellious. His renegade image was derived mostly from the fact that he openly dated white women at a time when miscegenation was a lynchable offense. His chief function was to give black people a vicarious thrill at the expense of white Americans; they got to watch Johnson slap around the best of white America’s pugilists and then walk off with one of its daughters at the end of the night. It was a cheap, reactionary, and somewhat sexist thrill, and it did very little to change the reality of African-American life.
Black heavyweights who followed Johnson eschewed such dramatics. Joe Louis, during the 1940s, and Floyd Patterson, during the 1950s, were sterling American patriots who were considered righteous role models for black America. Even Liston, who had all the makings of a bogeyman, was less offending to white American sensibilities than Johnson.
But, whereas Johnson was simply a walking Bigger Thomasa fulfillment of white American stereotypesAli was a self-creation. He got white people’s pulses jumping not because he intentionally trampled over their sensibilities, as Johnson had, but because he completely ignored them. “I don’t want to move into white neighborhoods. I don’t want to marry a white woman,” Ali said when asked about his conversion to Islam. “I’m free to be who I want.” Johnson was simply a defiant child intent on disrupting the house of white America. Ali acted as if the house didn’t even exist.
Marqusee correctly argues that while black heavyweight champs before Ali had largely belonged to America, Ali belonged to the black Atlantic and eventually to the whole world. After he became world champion, Ali didn’t go to the White House to get chummy with the president; he went to the United Nations and met with various African heads of state. Within a year of gaining the championship, Ali even took a tour of Africasomething that was usually left to radical political leaders like Du Bois. Ali’s refusal to fight in the Vietnam War, despite denouncements by his civil rights movement compatriots, also helped entrench him as black America’s champion, given, as Marqusee notes, that blacks were much more likely to oppose the Vietnam War than whites during the ’60s.
But Marqusee fails to adequately account for Ali’s transformation from shunned rebel to American icon. Instead, he reduces Ali’s eventual gradual acceptance by white America to two factors. First, Marqusee argues, when public opinion on the Vietnam War shifted, public opinion on Ali shifted with it. So whereas only a few years before Ali had been a draft-dodging coward, at the end of the ’60s, he was a courageous symbol of resistance victimized by American war-mongering. “[A]t the end of the decade,” writes Marqusee, “Ali found himself less alone than at any time since he had publicly embraced the Nation of Islam.”
Second, Marqusee argues that the depoliticization of that religion, which took place after founder Elijah Muhammad’s death, also altered public perceptions of Ali. When Muhammad died in 1975, his son Wallace Muhammad assumed leadership and subsequently purged the organization of its political stance. The name “Nation of Islam” was dropped, the strict dress code was relaxed, and most of the Nation’s holdings were sold. A few years later, Louis Farrakhan launched his own Nation of Islam, which resurrected the organization as it had been under Muhammad. Ali, however, stuck with Wallace’s group and rejected much of the racial rhetoric that had made him a target in the ’60s. Ali’s change in ideology made him much easier for white Americans to stomach.
But Redemption Song comes up short in fleshing out its explanation for Ali’s acceptance. In his eagerness to remind the world that its beloved Ali was once its favorite punching dummy, Marqusee ignores the role that Ali’s sickness has played in his acceptance. And he ignores the fact that eager capitalists have proved that they can turn a profit off almost anything it reviles. Hiphop was once derided as the music of thugs, hooligans, and fools. Now rap icons like LL Cool J are doing commercials for the Gap.
For years, Ali specialized in giving America the middle finger almost any time he opened his mouth. But by the early ’80s he was selling roach poison. Ali’s appropriation by the forces of commercialism is grand testament to the fact that in America, anyone, including a draft-dodging reverse racist, can be turned into a sales pitch. CP