Thursday, June 9, 2016

Muhammed Ali - Fierce Boxer & Lyrical Poet

The passing of Muhammed Ali - one of the greatest political, cultural, and sociological forces in American history - has generated some appropriately poetic reflections on the man and the myth. Ali is one of the earliest sports icons in my Gen X memory, and I vividly recall the fight against Leon Spinx to regain his title a third time as one of the first significant sporting moments for which I was aware. Ali was something more than just a boxer or champion or icon - he is one who truly transcended the physical realities of his prowess in the process of becoming a cultural force. And, that was a result of his intellectual character and truly brilliant wit.

As an English teacher and cultural critic, I have always appreciated the writing about Ali's lyrical mastery - "the rope-a-dope" and the "Rumble in the Jungle" - and I am still intrigued by the complexity of his personality. Two pieces in today's New York Times accurately and aptly capture and explore that depth. The first is from the intellectual cultural historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who examines and explains Muhammed Ali: the Political Poet.

But the same verse can strike one critic as doggerel and another as art, and not everyone missed the power — and the point — of Ali’s poetics. Even Ahern admitted that “the guy is a master at rhyming,” and The New Yorker editor and Ali biographer David Remnick would eulogize him as “a master of rhyming prediction and derision.” Perhaps Maya Angelou, whose own poetry is sometimes labeled doggerel, said it best: “It wasn’t only what he said and it wasn’t only how he said it; it was both of those things, and maybe there was a third thing in it, the spirit of Muhammad Ali, saying his poesies — ‘Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.’ I mean, as a poet, I like that! If he hadn’t put his name on it, I might have chosen to use that!”

The second piece is a cool reflection from Rosie Schaap, and in it Schaap shares a thoughtful personal memory of Ali from when she was a young girl and had the pleasure and privilege of meeting him at a photo shoot. The sincere story about the "soft side" and genuine character of Ali is telling for its insight on the depth of this man's personality and spirit. Schaap shares the story of Muhammed Ali, my Father, and Me.

I certainly was too young to grasp, at the time, the subversive brilliance of staging Ali in the costume of one of the most famous archetypes of white privilege and power, given his unapologetic identity as “a race man,” his potent pride in his blackness. I wish I could remember more about that day, but after more than 40 years, the memories have inevitably faded. I recall it now in a softly spectral way: I somehow knew, even if I wouldn’t have said it this way at the time, that I was in the presence of a great human, who was also very funny, and who took the time to play with children and seemed to enjoy it. I remember his physical presence, so vast compared with my toddler smallness. 

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