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The Wonder Boy


Such latter-day disfigurements leave out
All mention of those older scars that merge
On any riddled surfaces about.
—Weldon Kees, “A Good Chord on a Bad Piano”

Muhammad Ali, as a result of his touching, or poignant, or pathetic, or tragic (take your pick) appearance at the torch-lighting ceremony at the 1996 Olympics Games in Atlanta, has become, for new generations that did not grow up with him and for the older generations that did, the Great American Martyr, our new Lincoln, our new Martin Luther King, Our Father Abraham, Our Father Martin, Our Father Muhammad: the man whose hands, once unerring pistons of punishment in the prize ring, tremble from boxing-induced Parkinson’s disease; the man whose voice is such a slurred whisper that he, who was once called the Louisville Lip because he loved talking so much, does not like to speak in public and rarely does; the once-uncompromising black nationalist now reduced, like Orson Welles at the end, to performing magic tricks for the crowd as if he were parodying his own pop-culture greatness, exposing it as an illusion, just as his nationalism had been, just as his cultist/religious self had been. Everything in popular culture throbs with impermanence, its significance threatened by the triteness it cannot hide, by the banality it bloats into eminence through a personality that blends the public and the private. And no one embodied American popular culture, its excesses, its barbarities, and its disarming densities, more than Muhammad Ali.

The public rarely responds to the demise of a great popular performer with anything approaching good sense or objectivity, and almost certainly with nothing approaching gracious humor, something that, in this case, the subject himself seems to be trying to instruct us in how to achieve. This is even less likely to happen when the figure in question is a black man, a cunning archetype who is already so burdened by the baggage of both sentimentality and taboo as to be likely to be virtually a walking expression of the culture’s irrationality, as he would be even if his old age had been a bit less marked by illness.

To be sure, Ali has been a lightning rod for the culture’s irrationality all his life, sometimes provoking it purposely, sometimes being a veritable representation of it himself. This was, after all, the man who not only brilliantly playacted a combination panic attack/nervous breakdown at the weigh-in of his first championship fight with the dreaded Sonny Liston in 1964; served as the redoubtable black trickster to Howard Cosell’s liberal Jewish straight man; had a highly publicized religious conversion to a strange, if influential, cult that disliked whites but wanted to be a perfect imitation of them, aggrandizing its importance while humanizing its stark doctrine; and who said that no Vietcong ever called him “nigger.” He also believed for some several years that a mad scientist named Yacub invented white people by grafting them from blacks, that satellites from Allah circled the earth and would imminently destroy the United States, and that blacks who dated or married whites should be killed. Like any true believer, Ali’s truth was mixed with a great deal of nonsense. Unlike most religious believers, he was not converted by revelation but convinced by polemics.

Now the public, because of Ali’s illness, wants to drown him in sainthood and atone for its guilt. This is principally true of whites, who spend a good deal of their time, when they think about race (and to think about Ali is to think about race because Ali made it a prominent subject in his public rantings and sermons—so successfully that he, in fact, managed to make over his most inner-city-like black opponents, the blackest of the black, into white men), either denying that it is a problem they caused or confessing that they have committed such atrocities against blacks that only the most abject deference toward them now can make up for it all. For a black person to experience this is to be caught between benign neglect and affirmative action, between tough love and a comforting paternalism, between the amputation of virulent racism and the gangrene of liberal racism. Ali, our racial alpha and omega, the object of absolute scorn and absolute pity.

This white guilt arises largely from Ali’s position against the Vietnam War, a war we have come to see as at best misguided and at worst evil, and his subsequent three-and-one-half-year exile from boxing; that somehow, we, the American public, or the white American public (as blacks see themselves as playing no part in the rather capricious application of the Selective Service Act that abused him), are the cause of his current affliction. And we did this to him because he became a Black Muslim and spoke out frankly against racism and white double-dealing, something no black athletic hero had ever done before (or since, really). He was severely maimed by and for our racial sins, our racist use of the system against him.

Thus it seems no accident at all that Muhammad Ali should be reawakened in the public’s mind, largely as the subject of thc Academy Award-winning documentary When We Were Kings, along with the celebration of Jackie Robinson in 1997, the fiftieth anniversary of his breaking the color line in Major League baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Yoked together in the public’s consciousness this year were, arguably, the two most influential American athletes of the twentieth century, the American century, the first and maybe not the last, hallowed nearly as handsome, transcendent, boyish American angels hovering over our leveled playing fields of dreams, sacrifices on the altar of our hypocritical democracy, emblems of the double V, the victory on two fronts, the real world of social relations and the fantasy world of athletics: the noble black American male as inventor of an heretical Americanism, demonstrating what it cost a black to have democratic ideals and to force whites to live up to them. Ironically, Robinson did this by insisting he was an American and Ali by insisting he was victimized because he was never considered an American, but both paid the price. What do we remember most about Robinson but that he suffered, he endured insults and provocation, that he died at fifty-two, prematurely aged, we feel, from the abuse he took as a player in order to integrate the Great American Game?

It is no slight schizophrenia that troubles us when in today’s society young black men are so often represented in popular culture as buffoonish thugs or coon-like clowns, and in our collective imagination as real, certifiable thugs and rapists. When the police mistreat a black man like Rodney King or when a sports hero like O.J. Simpson falls from grace people hardly know whether to be outraged or relieved. Yet when it comes to Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali these days, the public, especially whites, nearly weeps. James Baldwin was right: that a certain type of black male figure of social protest elicits this contradiction, of blunting the very effects that his social protest was meant to induce. The white response to Ali and Robinson may be a reflection of racism but it seems more profoundly to be a sign of some organic confusion, a mythic yet turbulently defective pietism at the very heart of our perception of ourselves. We cannot see in the way Captain Delano, in Melville’s Benito Cereno, could not see, in all our tragic innocence.

Muhammad Ali, in truth, does not make a very good martyr, as Wilfrid Sheed once observed, or cannot quite be taken seriously as one. Doubtless, as Sheed has pointed out, Ali had a martyr’s complex, which is why he became a member of the Nation of Islam, not because he felt the slings and arrows of outrageous racism (Ali had an indulged life, from boyhood on) but because he wanted “to [take] on the scars of his brothers.” For a man with as great a sense of public mission and public consciousness as Ali had, an act of such solidarity with the most bitter blacks on the bottom was a theatrical and vividly condensed bit of risk-taking. What Ali had, in this regard, is exactly what Malcolm X claimed to have near the end of his life, not truth, not vision, not wisdom, but sincerity.

This counts for a great deal in an age of relativism and cynicism, in an age when we have given ourselves over to the adolescent’s version of reality, instead of the Hemingwayesque version: one’s measure of authenticity was not how one lived one’s life in the face of what made it impossible but how deeply one felt about something. Intensity of feeling equaled real experience. Ali always had a portion of something Hemingwayesque but he had more than a bit of sheer adolescent emotionalism. His reasons for not wanting to join the army were never terribly convincing but they had a potency because he was so sincere, movingly and petulantly so. He had the strength of a simplistic, unreal orthodoxy for which he seemed prepared to die in an age when the simplistic, unreal orthodoxy that held this country together was beginning to unravel, violently and quickly.

But Ali cannot be taken seriously as a martyr because: first, athletes such as Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis, Ted Williams, Bob Feller, Hank Greenberg, Christy Mathewson, and others lost several years of their athletic prime serving in the armed forces during World War I, World War II, or the Korean War. No one seems to think this was tragic. Granted, we have a different view of those wars but Ali did not pay anything more for his dissent, in relation to his career as an athlete (as a citizen, he paid more than he should), than other star athletes in the past have paid for not dissenting. Plus, he had the luxury of not being in danger in combat, although he was always open to the crazed assassin’s bullet.

And Ali never went to prison for his pacifist beliefs, like his leader Elijah Muhammad, or like Bayard Rustin. He wasn’t killed for his beliefs like his one-time mentor Malcolm X or his admirer Martin Luther King. For instance, when Ali appeared at Randolph-Macon College for Men in Virginia on April 17, 1969, to give a speech, one of 168 campuses he was planning to visit that year in order to raise funds for his defense against the draft, although there was some considerable outcry from the alumni and the locals about his visit, there was virtually no protest when he arrived on campus. He gave his speech, largely a kind of rote Nation-of-Islam homage to Elijah Muhammad, answered questions at some length, rather tactlessly asked the dean of men for his check when he was through, and, despite being worn out, was talked into appearing at an inner-city school in the vicinity. According to the account given in The Catholic World,

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