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,

The content of the speech itself was standard Black Muslim rhetoric, but the presentation was pure Cassius Clay entertainment…. Perhaps one might, in fact, criticize Ali for making his address so entertaining and amusing that the seriousness of his subject was somewhat obscured.

It was this quality of Ali’s, his ability to attach a certain humor and thus a profoundly human face, as well as a kind of pop-culture sheen, to black anger and indignation, that, I think, saved his life. Much as the Marxist or deconstructionist critic reveals the workings of ideology in ordinary words and actions, so did Ali unmask the racism behind the complacency of white Americans. But he seemed more amused by his discovery than belligerent, more deeply struck by its wondrous expression of a benighted humanity than outraged by its expressions of unjustified power and dominance. This is the full dimension of the simplistic sincerity that protected him rather like an amulet or a juju.

So, in fact, after his exile, he went on to make an astonishing amount of money, to star in a movie of his life, and to become one of the most famous people, and surely the most famous Muslim, in the world. By the mid-1970s, after redeeming himself and regaining the title by defeating the fearsome, sullen George Foreman, Ali had become such an accepted figure in the American mainstream that DC Comics put out a special edition of Superman where “that draft dodger,” as he had been called in the 1960s, beat the Man of Steel, the Great White American Hero, in a prizefight to save humanity from an alien invasion. Martyrdom, where is thy sting? No black man, except Martin Luther King, ever imposed his Weltanschauung, such as it was, with such romantic and compelling force.

Second, there is no indication that Ali would have left boxing sooner, would not have suffered the brain damage he did or anything of the kind, if he had not been exiled, very unfairly, from boxing between the ages of twenty-five and twenty-eight. It is a rare boxer, especially one as good as Ali and as eager for and as needy of public attention, who quits before he is literally beaten into retirement. What Ali had was an irresistible combination of talent, showmanship, a vast conceit that bordered on both the heroic and the insufferable. He not only believed in God, but, to paraphrase the lyric from the musical Hair, he believed that God believed in him. Though Ali makes a poor saint, he makes a very good fallen prince, which is exactly what he is: the weary, enigmatic sovereign of our time, of our realm, of our racialized imagination.

What unnerves us now about Ali and brings out the insipidness of victimology is that he has wound up like an old, broken-down prizefighter. The guilt we feel is that we used him as a commodity and that he used us to create great dramas of his fights, dragon-slaying heroics, extraordinary crises of our social order. It mattered greatly whether he won or lost and we are guilty about having been conned into believing a prizefight means much of anything in this world, guilty about what our being conned did to the confidence man. But Ali, far from being a victim, is perhaps one of the most remarkable examples of triumph over racism in our century. It is not surprising that so many white people hated him; it is surprising that before his career ended a good many had come to love him.

Ali has been compared to a number of famous people, from Oscar Wilde to Jack Johnson, from Elvis Presley to Jay Gatsby. I think he bears no small resemblance to our two finest jazz musicians, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, and perhaps his genius might be best understood in relation to theirs. Like both of them, Ali was a Southerner. Like Ellington, he came from the border South and so did not experience the most brutal sort of racism, but like Armstrong he came from a mythic Southern place, Kentucky, with its thoroughbreds, its bluegrass, its mint juleps, its colonels, so he experienced a deeply self-conscious white South, which may explain why he felt the oppression of racism so deeply without having had to endure a great deal of it. Being a Southerner, I think, explains his showmanship. Like Armstrong, Ali was essentially a comic. This is why, although he was deeply hated by many whites at one point in his career, he was able to come back. He rarely said anything without a certain kind of mocking quality, and his rage, like his incessant bragging and egoism, was often that of the teenager. Ali offered the public the contradictory pleasure of having to take him seriously while not having to take him seriously. He was deeply aware of this himself and played a game of public relations deceit as cleverly as anyone else.

In retrospect, Ali struck intense chords of ambiguity as a black public figure, though somewhat different ones, just as Armstrong did. Joe Louis might have seemed an Uncle Tom to many compared to Ali but Ali laughed and smiled more in public in a week than Louis did in his entire life. Ali actually seemed to like white people (which he did; he liked everyone); whereas Louis never seemed comfortable around them and never much appeared to like them. He simply contained himself in their presence. How was it that a black man could openly show how much he enjoyed white people and yet not be branded an Uncle Tom by his own people? What Ali did with sheer brilliance was to make himself the center of laughter but never the object of it. He controlled what his audiences laughed at when he made himself a source of humor.

Ali’s laughter was meant to signify something different from Armstrong’s, not exactly an expression of deference to his audience (although Ali certainly wanted to please his audiences, even as he may have exasperated them) but rather an expression of boyish joy in his own freedom and strength, a casual astonishment at the refulgence of his own extraordinary gifts, which seemed to strike him simultaneously as both miraculous and absurd.

Like Ellington, Ali had a certain charm and elegance, both in and out of the ring, a need to baby himself and to womanize. Both men were highly photogenic. Like Ellington, Ali loved to hear himself talk, and he loved having people around him, not because they were the best possible people at what they did, but because they did one or two things that amused or intrigued or that he admired and felt he could use, much as Ellington saw his musicians, some of whom were not the best possible players Ellington could have had on those instruments. They did well something Ellington had a great need of for his orchestra, and Ali lived his life largely as if he were conducting a very large orchestra.

Ali did this for his opponents, too. He brought out the best of what they had. He was enormously generous and this touches us deeply. Ali, like Armstrong and Ellington, had magnetism, inventiveness, a heroism that did not evade using the devices of the trickster of black folklore or those of the minstrel black of the nineteenth-century American stage. But he embodied both images as the antithesis as well as the fulfillment of himself, not as a person but as his own individualized archetype. That is why Ali is loved so much today. Like all great heroes he showed us the enormous possibility of true self-determination.


And is this then (said I) what the author calls a man’s life?…
Only a few hints, a few diffused faint clews and indirections….
—Walt Whitman, “When I Read the Book”

Muhammad Ali could barely read. Yet his was the religion of the book. Not only the Koran but Elijah Muhammad’s Message to the Blackman in America. (He was a fervent advocate of the book One Hundred Years of Lynching, a popular book among certain knowing coves in the black community, as I remember from my boyhood, used to convince those who were casual or apathetic about the Unspeakable Negro Massacres that they had better get with the truth and quit having the white man brainwash them with the white Jesus and movies like King Solomon’s Mines.) What fascinated Ali, like many of the poorly educated, was the authority of books or their failure as authority. When I met Ali a few years ago, he went on at some length about the contradictions in the Bible. As a devout Muslim, he seemed greatly pleased by this: he must have felt he was deflating the power of that text. I told him that as a Christian I hardly expected the Bible to be anything more than a messy and messed-up book. “Now, you see how tough it is to be a Christian,” I said. He smiled at that.

Ali scored a 78 on the army intelligence tests, indicating that he had a low IQ. He was, at first, declared mentally unfit to serve in the army. “I have said I am the greatest,” Ali said in 1964, “ain’t nobody ever heard me say I was the smartest.” A man of his wit and quickness could not be that dumb, we protest. Yet I think the score was an honest reflection of Ali’s mental abilities. Ali was not literate, nor was he analytical. When he was younger he could successfully debate people who were much smarter because he had the zealot’s set of answers to life’s questions. His mind worked through formulas and clichés. His personality gave them a life and vibrancy that they would otherwise have lacked. He was intuitive, glib, richly gregarious, and intensely creative, like an artist. He would have scored better on the test had he been better educated but still he would never have had a score that reflected the range of his curiosity or his humanity. But it is perhaps no surprise for a man so taken by the authority of the book that he would be so attractive to people who wrote books for a living or that a book itself may possess some small authority in telling us about him.

The first piece of sportswriting that ever struck me, and that I still remember vividly, was Red Smith’s November 16, 1966, account of Ali’s fight against Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams, a fight Ali won in three rounds. I am not quite sure why I was so impressed by this article; toSmith I am sure it was probably just another fight assignment, except that the exuberance of Ali seemed to have affected the writer in such a way as to make the reading a deeper experience than it had any right to be. It was this piece of writing, not actually watching the fight on television, that convinced me that Ali was truly a great fighter, a once-in-a-lifetime performer. I was a freshman at Penn when I read Norman Mailer’s “Ego,” about the first Ali-Frazier fight, in Life magazine. The sheer propulsion of the prose, the relentless brinkmanship of the rhetoric, the dizzying intellectual mixology of history, sociology, and journalism in the cocktail of Mailer’s own omnipresent ego nearly took the top of my head off and, oddly, made it possible for me to write a paper on Spenser’s The Fairie Queene, on something called “the psychological body,” a straight steal from Mailer. I realized even then, as a teenager, that there was something special about much of the writing about Ali, as if a writer were thinking that he or she might be writing for both the ages and for the disposable present for there was something so indispensable and so perishable about the subject.

It is amazing that Ali has managed to fascinate so many first-rate writers for so long, nearly forty years. “When he isn’t performing,” Wilfrid Sheed wrote, “he is not so much dull as non-existent. There is an awesome blankness about him.” And perhaps it is this blankness that has attracted writers, a need, with such a fabulously burnished surface, to create or fill in a depth that can, simultaneously, never be reached while being easily filled. After all, Ali was not a particularly difficult person to understand because what he may have been hiding was probably no more complex or real than anything he chose to reveal at any given moment, although, on the other hand, he may have been very difficult to penetrate because, for so public a man, he did choose to hide something, did serve as his own most effective psychic gatekeeper. Hunter Thompson spoke, melodramatically and self-mockingly, of having to pass nine moats to get to the real Ali. Budd Schulberg spoke of Ali’s Chinese boxes. Mailer called him the psychology of the body. Larry Neal called him “body bebop” who “understands the mysteries of the circles and the squares.” Garry Wills thought of him as having the awesome vacuity of utterly self-absorbed celebrity. Choose whatever metaphor of inscrutability you wish!

All of this, one supposes, represents the writer’s challenge: to explain a man who perhaps did not deserve so much explanation but who seemed to serve a need in writers to explain. Great writers may have been challenged because they wanted to find the angle on the subject that other great writers hadn’t found in a figure who was known to everyone. Writing about anyone in popular culture becomes, for any good writer, the quest for the holy grail, a mission to supply texture where it has been washed clean by cliché and obliterated by too many tramping feet. Besides, it was fun to write about Ali, largely because it made two otherwise dreary, ponderous subjects—race and boxing—seem irreverent and comic, lively and vital, while still giving the writer a sense that writing about them granted him access to some esoteric knowledge of the grimmer side of life.

To write about someone whose like is not to be seen again in our lifetime has brought out an urgent brilliance in some of the writers who have tackled Ali as a subject. We might classify the writers who wrote most notably about Ali in this way: the professional sportswriters such as Smith, Lipsyte, Mark Kram, John Schulian, Pat Putnam, and Pete Axthelm who did straight reporting and character studies; the highbrow journalist/chroniclers like George Plimpton, A.J. Liebling, and NormanMailer who did longer literary and sociological analyses and were the self-conscious reincarnations of Paul Gallico, Pierce Egan, and William Hazlitt, respectively; the other intellectual boxing aficionados like Budd Schulberg and Joyce Carol Oates who resemble the highbrow journalist/ chroniclers except they don’t pretend to be Boswell to Ali’s Johnson. We also find the boxer/intellectual like Jose Torres, who has the authority of the insider; the fan-as-disciple like Davis Miller, who reminds us that any celebrity can become a religious cult because any celebrity is, in the end, not like you and me; and black intellectuals like Ishmael Reed and Amiri Baraka, although, in the end, one is surprised that so few black intellectuals wrote about Ali, and fewer still wrote about him memorably, although dutiful homage was paid to him by black writers as disparate as Harry Edwards, Nikki Giovanni, Quincy Troupe, and Samuel Yette. No black writer of note who wrote about him, except Gordon Parks, tried to get to know Ali in the way many of the white writers who wrote about him did or tried to.

There is a reason for this that is related to how hero worship of a black subject is a somewhat different exercise, depending on where you are along the fault lines of race. Put another way:Charlie Parker and Jimi Hendrix became white heroes as did Ali, but what made any of these men heroes for whites was not quite what made them heroes for blacks. Still the fact that they were heroes for whites added a complex dimension to the meaning of their heroism for blacks, and therein lies the tale. For blacks, Ali represented determination, pride, defiance, religious commitment, excellence, physical beauty; all of which became synonymous with being black. For whites, Ali may have represented these qualities as well but they were all quite apart from his blackness, which, whether seen as prosaic or mysterious, as an essence or an artifice, as a social condition or a state of mind, was something that had to be plumbed for its own sake. Also, Ali was an athlete, and blacks feel a great deal more uneasy than whites about the meaning of athletic heroics and race politics. For more than a few black folk hate connecting black achievement to athletics.


But you, a new brood, native,
athletic, continental, greater than before known,
Arouse! for you must justify me.
—Walt Whitman, “Poets to Come”

If you told me I could go back in my life and start over healthy and that with boxing this would happen—stay Cassius Clay and it wouldn’t—I’d take this route. It was worth it.

—Muhammad Ali on his Parkinson’s illness, 1988

“I’m just a typical American boy from a typical American town,” folk singer Phil Ochs sang in his “Draft Dodger Rag,” and perhaps I was or thought I was, once. The summer of my fourteenth year was the last that I played baseball regularly. It was that spring that a Jewish friend gave me Bernard Malamud’s novel The Natural to read. I am not sure why he gave it to me because he did not care much for baseball. I didn’t think that he cared much for novel reading either. But he liked The Natural a lot. I guess he just liked the story. He thought it was funny and said a lot about losing and life. I so loved the novel that I wanted to make a bat like the Roy Hobbs’s Wonderboy, for I loved the name of it, the splendor of omniscient innocence it carried. I told all the boys, all the fellas, as we all read comic books together (and little else), that Batman’s ward, Robin, was misnamed. “He’s not the boy wonder. He’s the Wonder boy!” And they all agreed for they had never heard of a boy wonder but everyone, everyone knew about the Wonderboy.

I was no good at woodworking and the like, so I saved my paper route money and simply bought a bat, the best bat I could find, a genuine Louisville Slugger, the first one I ever owned. I sanded that bat, restained it dark, retaped the handle, and decided to give it a name. I carefully carved, scratched, really, into the bat the word “Ali.” I tried to carve a lightning bolt but my limited artistic skill would not permit it. I wanted to carry it in a case but I didn’t have one. I just slung it on my shoulder like the great weapon it was, my knight’s sword. And I felt like some magnificent knight, some great protector of honor and virtue, whenever I walked on the field with it. I called the bat “the Great Ali.”

I used that bat for the entire summer and a magical season it was. I was the best hitter in the neighborhood. I had a career year. There was no pitch I couldn’t hit. At the plate, I could do no wrong. Doubles, triples, home runs. I could hit at will. This probably would have happened with any bat I might have used. I had grown bigger and stronger over the last year and had practiced a great deal over the winter. My hand-eye coordination was just superb at that moment in my life. Once I won a game in the last at-bat with a home run and the boys just crowded around me as if I were a spectacle to behold. O wondrous boy was I!

In any case, the bat broke. Some kid used it without my permission. He hit a foul ball and the bat split, the barrel flying one way, the splintered handle still in the kid’s hands. It was the end of the Great Ali.

It was 1966 and Ali seemed not simply the best boxer of the day but the best boxer who could ever possibly be imagined. He was so good that it was an inspiration to see him fight on TV, to see even a picture of him. My body shivered when I saw him as if an electric shock had pulverized my ability to feel. It was the good feeling of boyish hero worship I had. He was the Wonderboy. Nothing could touch him. He so filled me with his holy spirit that whenever, late in a game, our side needed a rally, I would chant out loud to my teammates, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Rumble, young man, rumble!” That made little sense metaphorically in relation to baseball but it seemed to work more often than not. It was for me, this 1966, Ali’s absolute moment of black possibilities fulfilled. And I wanted that and for a moment, too, had it, perhaps, among the neighborhood fellows, the touch and glory of the Wonderboy.

When the bat broke, it seemed as if a certain spell was broken, too. I still continued to hit in the little time that was left that season before school started but I was not as interested in baseball anymore. I drifted away from baseball after that summer by steps and bounds. The next summer, 1967, Ali was convicted of draft dodging. Martin Luther King came out against the Vietnam War. Baseball did not seem very important. Something else was. For you see, I could never be sure, before that spring when Ali refused to be drafted, if he really would, really would actually refuse to go, refuse to take that step. Maybe Ali would turn out to be another Roy Hobbs. Maybe he was just some miserable, talented hick who would sell out and strike out.

So when he refused I felt something greater than pride: I felt as though my honor as a black boy had been defended, my honor as a human being. He was the grand knight, after all, the dragon slayer. And I felt myself, little inner-city boy that I was, his apprentice to the grand imagination, the grand daring. The day that Ali refused the draft, I cried in my room. I cried for him and for myself, for my future and his, for all our black possibilities. My poor broken bat, the evaporating memories of my great season, all ghostly in the well-lighted reflections of the fires of some politics and principles that I did not understand but I felt as if I had a new nervous system, as if my cerebral cortex had become a new antenna for a newer reality. If I could sacrifice like that, I thought. If I could sacrifice my life like Ali! You see, it was, I was sure then, the end of the Wonderboy, the utter and complete end, the final breaking of the bat. But it was, as things turned out, only the end of the beginning. It wasn’t even that the best was yet to come, or the grand second act, but rather—everything that was to give 1967 meaning was to come. Nineteen sixty-seven was only the first death, the germinal crisis. The grand knights always live twice. Nothing breaks the Wonderboy.

Copyright © 1998 by Gerald Early.

This Issue

May 28, 1998