By Nala Duma, Op-Ed contributor
“Clay was [never] my name.”
Muhammad Ali said this on March 6, 1964, in an interview with NBC News.
In the interview, Ali asserted that Cassius Clay—his former name—was a slave name that bound him to a lightless history of white patriarchy and bondage and that through the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam at the time, Ali had freed himself of that history. It was a truly beautiful moment of self-affirmation in blackness and Muslim identity, and the strength of that moment resonated powerfully through America’s Black community—through time, even. I feel its reverberations today.
That’s why when Ali died, almost a week ago, and dozens of op-eds and thinkpieces surfaced using his former name, I was extremely angry.
Ali was a distinctive voice among Black leaders of the 60’s and 70’s. He spoke to, revealed, and reduced America through his voice and never wavered in doing so. Death, nonetheless, rendered his words vulnerable to mutation and corruption. White journalists took that opportunity to rename Ali and to erase the identity of which Ali was so contagiously proud.
Referring to Muhammad Ali as “Cassius Clay” was the first injustice these white journalists—along with white politicians and white celebrities—committed against his legacy. (It’s also important to note that Ali encountered the same blatant display of disrespect in regards to his name when he converted to Islam in 1964.) The second injustice was repeatedly using the phrase, “transcended race,” to describe Ali’s legacy.
As Jesse Williams put it (in a tweet), "‘Transcended race’ is a declaration that Black people generally make you uncomfortable, but not this one, at this distance, at this time.” Muhammad Ali’s life was entirely centered around his race and religious identity, and he consistently made white people uncomfortable in the nature of his identity and in his indictments of America. To state that Ali “transcended race” is a horrendously insidious lie.
It is an attempt to return Ali to the darkness of miseducation and eurocentrism from which he liberated himself in 1964.
Unsurprisingly, these same efforts to erase the racial, religious, and political identities of leaders in the Black community have been used time and time again. MLK’s Poor People’s Campaign and the fact he admitted his efforts to destabilize racism in America didn’t help the majority of people of color is not included in students’ general history education; following Prince’s death, acknowledgement of his pro-Black activism was largely subjugated to remembering his music of which that activism was aspect; and following the release of Lemonade by Beyoncé, thousands called it an all-inclusive feminist statement. If you’re still confused about who Lemonade is for, watch here.
It’s happened to Malcolm X, Bob Marley, Nina Simone (listen to “Mississippi Goddam”), 2Pac, Madiba, Marvin Gaye, and Harriet Tubman (see her new $20 bill).
It’s both an attempt to render these Black figures more digestible for white consumers and to destroy these figures’ efforts to politically “conscientize” their communities. Radicalism in the body of a widely admired leader is dangerous to the traditional institutions of the state because it is so accessible. When Muhammad Ali refused to participate in the Vietnam War, his exile from boxing served more purposes than stimulating American patriotism; it reduced the number of platforms from which Ali could speak on injustice.
Now in death, these platforms have been reduced to news publications written by authors who can extract, cut-up, and rearrange Ali’s words to communicate different messages—ones that are smaller, softer, and sweeter. In this case, it is best to simply search for Muhammad Ali’s legacy through Muhammad Ali himself: through his interviews, speeches, press conferences, and boxing matches.
Your friend who tweets, “All Lives Matter” in the wake of a police lynching is not a good source.
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