Ali has died aged 74. As a white 12 year old boy I idolised him without embarassment or constraintby Sam Tanenhaus / June 4, 2016 / Leave a comment
He was the first famous person I ever saw in the flesh. It was in November 1967, six months after his sentencing to five years in prison for refusing induction in to the US Army at the peak of the Vietnam War. I had just turned 12, and Ali—it was always just “Ali,” just as it was always “Brando” and “Dylan”—visited the campus of the state University of Iowa in Iowa City. My father was on the faculty and perhaps he told me Ali was coming. I see now in the campus newspaper, the Daily Iowan, that Ali arrived on short notice—from Chicago—and it was standing room only in the ballroom where he spoke. I don’t remember how I got a seat or even, frankly, why I was there, except for the obvious reason: for me, as for so many young Americans in the 1960s, Ali really was “the Greatest.” He said it with mock insistence, and a world of adults seemed joined in a conspiracy to prove him right: the Army, the federal government, the World Boxing Association, which had stripped Ali of the title he had won when he had humiliated the fearsome Sonny Liston in one of the greatest upsets in the history of modern sport.
I remember only bits of Ali’s speech that day, a gentle version of black separatist dogma. Or so it seemed. The edge was harder, I see from the Daily Iowan. “A Frankenstein was created during 300 years of slavery,” Ali said. “Now it’s backfiring on you… In the past the black man has seen a white Santa Claus, a white Jesus and white angels. The colored angels were probably in the kitchen preparing milk and honey. He’d see a white Tarzan, a white Miss America, a White House, white angel food cake, and that devil’s food cake was chocolate… He’d see that a black cat was bad luck.” Afterward I stood in line on the stairwell, got his autograph— “M Ali”—and promptly lost it.
It didn’t matter. Seeing and hearing him were enough. A 12-year-old white boy—a professor’s cosseted son—could idolize Ali without embarrassment or constraint, could really feel his barbed “you” didn’t refer to me, because “we” were both young and the world was ours, or ought to be. There had been violent eruptions—“race riots”—in Detroit and Newark in the summer of 1967. There were fears of a civil war. If so, it was generational, an uprising of the young. Ali’s visit to Iowa City shared the front page of the Daily Iowan with a report that 15 members of the Students for a Democratic Society were planning a public hunger strike, in front of the pillared old Capitol building, “until Dow Chemical leaves the campus.” Dow manufactured napalm, which the Army was pouring on villages in the war Ali declined to endorse because “I got nothing against no Viet Cong. No Vietnamese ever called me a nigger.”
Again he was right, of course—on both the literal facts and the larger truth. Vietnam was not only a horrific mistake but an absurdity, a kind of national madness. Ali’s protest was grand because everyone knew he would not have gone within a thousand miles of combat, against the Vietcong or anyone else. The Army wanted him for public relations: boxing exhibitions for the troops, photographs with generals, images of his glorious uniformed physique on magazine covers, TV screens, billboards. All this plus giant purses for his next fights; all his, at age 25, but he said no. Why? Perhaps he’d weighed the choice another gilded young Southerner, Elvis Presley, had made, in 1958, when he’d been drafted. Elvis had gone along, and a year later there he was in uniform on the cover of “A Date With Elvis,” smiling from the wheel of his pink Cadillac—no longer the rebel, radiating danger and sex, but the responsible young man next-door assuring the grownups he’d return their daughters safely after an evening of wholesome fun.
Ali instead preferred the danger. Elvis was a product of the 50s, Ali of the 60s. In the end official glory came to him anyway, after the long hard struggle back. He had always offended traditionalists by holding his hands low, sometimes waist high, instead of raised in front of his face in the approved posture of manly self-defense. Ali wanted to show he could make his opponents miss, so quick was he, a genius of anticipation. But he was a target now—the sculpted muscles heavy, the taut middle softer, the blur of footwork slowed. Yet he reclaimed his title—won three of four bouts against his two great rivals, Joe Frazier and George Foreman, in what is now understood to have been boxing’s golden age. He was battered in each of those fights—a wreck, barely able to move. But it was in this period that he silenced the doubters, who saw that his real talent wasn’t in the flurry of jabs, the unworldly footwork, but in his ability, almost frightening, to absorb punishment, to “take a punch.” This other campaign, to remake the most brutal sport into a kind of balletic art, left him brain-damaged, barely able to speak.
In the end, Ali was no longer just a hero, but an institution—bigger and more beloved than any American athlete before or since in a country that reveres its sportsmen above all over figures. Republican presidents invited him to the White House, craving his kingly touch. And his imprint is deep. The White House is still white, but for eight years a black man has lived in it with his young family. Ali’s ironic fable, “the colored angels… in the kitchen preparing milk and honey,” now seems as ancient as the lyrics of a minstrel song.
For many Americans my age, Ali was the first and purist laureate of this great transformation. The phrase “black is beautiful”—another legacy of the 1960s—was made inescapable in him and is vividly present in the photos being reprinted now.
The story Ali told wasn’t really about race, but about youth, about a country that still felt young, confident in its belief that it could remake the world in its image, just as Ali had remade boxing. He was us, and now we’ve become him, punch-drunk in our long season of decline.
Yesterday Ali died, having being admitted to hospital on Thursday with a respiratory problem. He was my generation’s sweetest bird, his wings bruised but never clipped.