Readers: Welcome to Plume Issue # 60 –
July: and I write tonight drenched in the news coverage of the death of Muhammad Ali — Ali, who, apparently, was always universally admired, no — adored, and never more so than in his, and my, hometown, Louisville, Kentucky. Where, by the way, he was met personally by every second inhabitant of that fair-sized city at one time or another, who to a person was “touched” beyond measure by the encounter with The Champ– a “humble” and “spiritual” man who transcended race, who loved children and performed magic tricks for them, signed autographs and posed for photographs and later selfies, and gamely threw slow-motion air punches upon request even through his “health issues.”
Ah — if only it were so; or if only this were the complete picture.
For example, Louisville’s much-praised newspaper, The Courier-Journal, a beacon of reportorial integrity and bien-pensant liberalism that was, before Gannett took it over, an instrument of its wealthy founders’ noblesse oblige: It persisted in referring to Ali as “Cassius Clay” – his self-identified “slave name” — half a decade after the fact. One can only assume so as not to affect its circulation among the less enlightened of its customers.
For example, the young fighter hurls his Olympic gold medal into the Ohio River off the Second Street Bridge after being denied service at a Whites Only restaurant. Apocryphal, sure, and stoutly denied by Ali himself. But even the patently counterfeit sometimes speaks of a larger truth: see, art.
For example, in 1978, after Ali had won the heavyweight championship an unprecedented third time and was possibly the most recognized man in the world, Louisville renamed Walnut Street, the “Black Broadway,” Muhammad Ali Boulevard. Shortly thereafter the Pendennis Club, an all-white, all-male bastion of old-line money and influence that fronted on the newly renamed street, changed its address to an out-of-the-way side door on Second Street.
For example — this, from the BBC — the house at 3302 Grand Avenue [Ali’s childhood home] was vacant for many years, its roof caving in, before two out-of-town lawyers bought it. Even after the renovations began, thieves stole the house’s new air conditioning unit. This is the West End, still, today: economically blighted, racially quarantined.
For example, on a personal note, the day after that same newspaper reported Ali’s rejection of the Selective Service’s invitation, I stood before the A&P at Gardiner Lane Shopping Center, hawking, ahem, “found” copies of it in hopes of cadging a few dollars from those fans who might want a souvenir – a dark one, yes – of that transformative event. Which a few did. Most of my potential client base, however, simply passed by, taking the opportunity instead to cast upon my eager countenance a glance of withering disdain, or mumbled epithets – their content I am sure you can imagine. After perhaps half an hour a man my father’s age stopped before me, silent, hands on his hips, for a moment; then tore the remainder of my inventory from my grasp, ceremoniously ripped the top few, and deposited the rest in a nearby garbage can, making sure to spill on them the contents of his Coca-Cola.
I could go on. Louisville, it’s true, did finally embrace its “hometown hero” as one after another of the televised mourners calls him. There are the murals. A “major statue” in the works. And not least, the fact of the new Muhammad Ali Center – which sundry politicians and money-men and women, as if on script, stress earnestly to a parade of equally earnest interviewers is a museum not celebrating his athletic achievements alone of course but a center that preserves and shares his legacy and ideals. Some mention the Jimmy Carter Center or The National Civil Rights Museum in Selma. But also – wait for it – something that might – fingers x-ed! — as one local booster puts it, “do for Louisville what the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has done for Cleveland – namely, put it on the tourist map.” (By the way, Mint Julep Tours is introducing a, yes, Muhamad Ali Hometown Hero Tour, and The Brown Hotel offers the Muhammed Ali Suite, featuring signed memorabilia, photos and boxing gloves and decorated in gold and black, with a living room with wet bar, dining room with crystal chandelier, mahogany four-poster king bed and master bath with marble Jacuzzi tub. Rates start at 900 dollars.)
So, forgive me my skepticism.
Because that embrace — the real one, from the heart, if it ever has been truly proffered –only came, really, after Parkinson’s robbed Ali of the very gifts that so flummoxed and infuriated so many of its citizens: his preternatural elegance and above all: speech. Imagine: The “Louisville Lip” (I remain unconvinced that even this moniker is without racial overtones) on Treyvon Martin, Iraq, Darfur, Romney, Islamophobia, Trump…and not merely in short, probably ghost-written statements but in person, with all the force of his florid language — which would only have increased — moral stature, and sheer charisma behind them, on television and social media.
Would we be speaking of Ali as we do this week?
As for the others, the “I-met-the-champ..” crowd: pathetic, Topper-like figures (in the Dilbert-ian sense) and their ilk, who likely never came within a mile of the man, but dine out on their imagined “personal moments’ with Ali: See, e.g., the Flutie Game, or The Catch, ostensibly witnessed by several arenas’ worth of fans who could not possibly have occupied seats at the actual game. In the case of Ali, these falsely remembered or outright fabricated intimacies, however brief, why? Reflected glory, certainly. But also something of the apologia, the revisionist, the revanche. I am not – was not – a racist.
Did I love Cassius Clay? No. I was born the year of the infamous bicycle theft and his subsequent meeting with Joe Martin, the white policeman who admonished the young man that, if he wanted to confront the thief who’d stolen it, ‘You better learn to fight before you start fightin’.” (Full disclosure: I did know, later, not the man but the place to which Martin took him the next day: The Columbia Gym, where my older brother trained some years later for a couple of bouts on “Tomorrow’s Champions”, the local television show where Cassius Clay won his first fight.) I was six when he won gold in Rome. Ten, when I read of his defeat of “The Bear” Sonny Liston and changed his name, the latter a fact not found, alas, in my memory file.
But, Ali. yes. For the usual reasons any sports fan reveres an athlete, his talents– what he or she could never do or be, embodied in another. In Ali, the impossible speed of his jab, the balletic footwork, that almost feminine grace — even I, then, felt some stirring pubescent recognition of his physical beauty. Yet far more, there was his audacity (I choose the word purposefully). His clown-ish, child-like exuberance, the thrill of life that shot through his eyes and orchestrated both his superhuman combinations in the ring and his poetry and courage outside it. As a nascent hippie — age thirteen in 1967 – moratorium-ed and peace-bedazzled, I found in Ali a most paradoxical ally: this professional dispenser of violence who eschewed a greater violence; a wild, braggadocios man of faith, one who inspired my newly beloved Merton’s (another, albeit adopted, Kentuckian, of course) own epiphany:
On March 18, 1958, Merton was standing at the corner of Fourth and Walnut in downtown Louisville when he suddenly had an epiphany, a satori, a mystical revelation. As he described it in his book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
And then: his refusal to be drafted. The act which cemented his status in my own pantheon forever. For in doing so, he had identified the enemy, exposed their own vulnerabilities and idiocies, more accurately and on a far larger stage than those sputtering adults mentioned above at Gardiner Lane (as if destroying news of an act could destroy the act itself). If, in my earliest adolescence, I did not recognize all the particulars of the political ramifications of this remarkable act of self-assurance and selflessness, the rage it stirred in others pointed me in the right direction.
And through the years he did not disappoint. The nights I stayed up late, pacing feverously as I listened to the round-by-round summaries from the Philippines, or Africa. The Sports Illustrated covers that adorned my walls in apartment after apartment. The hostages. Atlanta. The White House.
Oh, Ali was no angel – ask Ernie Terelle. And there are the matters of the accommodation of the likes of Seko and Marcos, his own racial insensitivities (see, Frazier) and the relentless womanizing of his younger days. But, always, too, there was the sense that he could not be bought (in stark contrast to so any current athletes), would not be co-opted, even when to do so would have been the safe path, not to mention the lucrative one – as Ramsey Clark recalls:
“The government didn’t need Ali to fight the war,” Ramsey Clark, then the attorney general of the United States, recalled. “But they would have loved to put him in the service; get his picture in there; maybe give him a couple of stripes on his sleeve, and take him all over the world. Think of the power that would have had in Africa, Asia, and South America.”
Or listen to the words of ever-cautious Julian Bond:
“I remember when Ali joined the Nation of Islam,” Julian Bond recalled. “The act of joining was not something many of us particularly liked. But the notion he’d do it, that he’d jump out there, join this group that was so despised by mainstream America, and be proud of it, sent a little thrill through you.”
Or Jim Brown:
“The nature of the controversy was that white folks could not stand free black folks. White America could not stand to think that a sports hero that it was allowing to make big dollars would embrace something like the Nation of Islam. But this young man had the courage to stand up like no one else and risk not only his life, but everything else that he had.”
Finally, there is the not inconsiderable matter of…cool. Was there – until Obama – a more coherent incarnation of that term in the 20th century? Belmondo, Cohen, Dean, Miles, Patti, Nina, Jimi, Jordan (seriously?) … Please. Look at almost any photograph, from any era, and mentally set Ali in their company. The breadth and depth of that cool – staggering, undeniable. Unmatchable.
So: I turn off the television, step into this room to write this little note, add my two cents. In the middle of which I hear the faint ping that signals a new email. It’s Bill Carner, photographer and friend of some forty years. Bits of gossip, commiserations, our own Ali reverences and reveries. Accompanied by the photograph you find on our cover this month and its caption and credits:
Muhammad Ali with his mother Odessa Grady Clay at her home in Louisville in 1963.
Credit: Photograph by Lin Caufield. UofL Photo Archives
Of all of the photographs Bill might have chosen, I think this is one of the most interesting. The intersection of a kind of Spartan opulence – those new-seeming silvered serving pieces, the elaborate frame against the plain walls of her simple house; his muscular build barely contained in a domesticated fighter’s gown; the figure all but concealed behind him – his father? – and the almost central presence of his mother: yes, the pieces fit. And then there is Ali himself – between them, among them, for now, but already in flight, from Lousiville and his own past, into the future, casting his voice elsewhere, anywhere, privately preparing a life perhaps unimaginable even to him : his beautiful face doubled in the mirror, a potent metaphor on many levels
Such, anyway, are my thoughts this evening. Have I gone on too long, again? No doubt. I apologize. Next month, a return to a personal narrative, this one involving matches. And shame.
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19 June 2016