I am heartbroken. I am preparing to leave for Costa Rica this afternoon but had to write this before I got out of here. I owe my champion that much.
Muhammad Ali gone. I’m trying to wrap my head around this loss. This loss of not just a sports icon, although surely he was that; not just the loss of one fine brutha, because he was undeniably that too; not just the loss of a political lightening rod because lawd knows he fit that bill; but the loss of an era because he represented the best of a time that was so affirming for so many of us African people.
Muhammad Ali burst on the scene as a young, brash, self assured sho nuff brother at a time when Black people all over the world so needed a voice that spoke loudly and confidently. His metamorphosis from Negro to Black represented that of an entire Black World and in so many ways helped us all stand a little more firmly on a Black ideological platform. As a striving artist trying to define a Black aesthetic in my work, I know I felt a certain kinda way looking at this fine black brother stand up to the white power structure and refuse to fight their war. I know I puffed up just a little more when he refused to be subservient to the white journalistic world and spit back at them retorts that made their heads spin, never letting them put him in some “dumb boxer” box. I can still recall how proud I felt that this King of the athletic world wasn’t afraid to have strong political views that didn’t include kowtowing to white folks and extolled loving your blackness because all of us needed to be reminded of this daily in order to stay strong in racist America.
Muhammad Ali was a complex man; a man who many didn’t realize was a latent artist. Like his father, he loved making art, and like his father, was never directed/allowed to follow that path. I wonder what would have happened had he been encouraged to follow his talent in art rather than boxing. According to his biographers, art and physical education were the only two subjects he did well in as a student in school (I suspect he had dyslexia, a learning difference that didn’t get much attention until long after Ali had graduated). When I saw some of Ali’s work a while back it was evident that he had a keen eye for design and color and his comical piece depicting the epic Ali-Liston fight had a nice political bite, I couldn’t help but to wonder if Ali wouldn’t have been at the forefront of the Black Arts Movement were his art aspirations realized. I saw an interview with artist Layla Ali (no relation to Muhammad Ali but ironically having the same name as his daughter albeit spelled differently) where she explained her need to make art. She said, and I’m paraphrasing, that essentially she had to make sense out of the electrical/spiritual energy that was rolling around in her head vis-à-vis artmaking or someone would get hurt! What would have happened if Muhammad Ali had made that journey into his creative energy persona rather than his athletic energy persona? I wonder if his world of hurting someone physically would have been one of hurting someone psychically?
I know this is a conversation that is veering way off the course of talking about Muhammad Ali’s life as a Black Icon, but is it really? When I think of the power of art to shape society, I think of why so many African people are never encouraged to follow that path. I think of how young Black boys throughout urban America (who are just like young Cassius Clay) can demonstrate ability in the arts but not have that cultivated in favor of pumping them up as athletes. I think how they can be used as athletic pawns in the game of professional sports only to be discarded once past their prime, and left with nothing to renew their humanness so they self-destruct. Muhammad Ali was one of the lucky ones in so much as he at least wasn’t left broke at the end of his usefulness to the sports world. But he was left physically broke and in some ways was defanged because his ability to articulate verbally was no longer possible and his disease rendered him incapable of pursuing his creative side. What would Muhammad Ali the painter be telling us if he were articulating the political views of the Ali I so love? How potent would his visual messages be to us about what it means to be Black in a time when #blacklivesmatter is the hashtag of the era? Granted, he may never have reached the worldwide stage as an artist and therefore not gained the platform to influence in the way that he did as an athlete, but I can’t help thinking that someone with his charisma and self-assuredness would have made his mark in a big way, no matter what the limitations inflicted by the so-called mainstream artworld.
A great athlete is gone, of that there is no question. I mourn his passing as much as I mourn the passing of all our Black champions of justice. But I also mourn the fact that Muhammad Ali was never given the chance to express himself any way except through his physical prowess in a country that devalues the creative impulse of African people save that which white America can capitalize on financially. I mourn the fact that Muhammad Ali may have been just as valuable to Black America as an artist as he was an athlete. Rest in Peace Brother Ali. You deserve your rest.
Vicki Meek is a retired arts manager, a practicing artist and activist splitting her time between Dallas & Costa Rica. She writes a blog Art & Racenotes and a column ART-iculate for TheaterJones.com, both exploring issues around race, politics and the arts. Contact her at www.art-racenotes.blogspot.com.