Muhammad Ali died this week. His death represented a watershed moment personally and for our country and the world. He was one of the movers and shakers of the era in which I grew up. His life affected my life, my thinking and my understanding of race in America.
I was the child of an Italian-American father who only learned English when he went to school and a mother who was a WWII war bride of Irish descent from Australia. We were solidly trapped in the class of the working poor since neither of my parents graduated high school. The concept of white middleclass America was fuzzy in my child’s eyes.
Clearer was the circumstance of my father’s best friend Harold who, like Ali, was the grandson of slaves. I understood his concern when he told us to stay behind at the house while he walked down to the grocery store to pick up rolls for our dinner. He did not want to cause us trouble, but I know my dad respected his request because he did not want to cause Harold trouble in his mostly white rural community where he moved after retirement into the house his grandmother left him and my father was helping him renovate.
I watched boxing from an early age with my dad. It’s one of the few things I shared with him. He watched boxing by throwing punches at the TV, jumping up and down out of his chair, pacing, yelling, and clapping. I adopted his raucous spectatorship and still watch boxing with my husband Ronald. Ronald, who has always been protective of me, has repeatedly said I would not like watching boxing live in the arena. He said you hear the punches and see sweat and blood fly. I agree with him. Often one of the things I am yelling at the screen is for the referee to stop the fight.
I remember watching Ali fight, when he was Cassius Clay and when he changed his name to Muhammad Ali. I heard adults talking about his name change and then again when he registered as a conscientious objector during the Viet Nam War. He was stripped of his title and his license was suspended. People were angry with him. When he returned to boxing three years later after the Supreme Court reversed his conviction, some wanted to watch his fights in the hope that he would lose. But he disappointed them by winning.
He kept speaking up on the right side of history; although few people understood what side of history he was on and what side they were on. Maybe he wasn’t thinking that at the time. Most people don’t wake up one day and say, “I’m choosing the right side of history. I’m going to change the world.” They simply respond to the situations presented to them, and, after the fact, the historians and pundits decide who changed what and who had the most influence.
I wonder which people will be considered the movers and shakers of these times? Certainly President Obama will be chosen. Maybe Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be looked upon the same way in the future as the first presumptive female presidential nominee and maybe as the first female president.
Trump, on the other hand, is clearly on the wrong side of history. He promotes racism, hatred, prejudice, violence, selfishness, and narcissism. His supporters followed him to the wrong side, claiming political correctness was dead.
Of course, there is political correctness and then there is blatant racism and discrimination. Trump supporters were really choosing the latter, and I do not think they chose it mistakenly. Trump said of Judge Curiel, “I’m building the wall, I’m building the wall. I have a Mexican judge. He’s of Mexican heritage. He should have recused himself, not only for that, for other things.”
Within the same week he said at a rally, while pointing to a black man in the crowd (someone who said he was not a supporter), “Oh, look at my African-American over here. Look at him. Are you the greatest?"
The GOP establishment is now walking an unknown path: the way to preserving the GOP while distancing the party from an avowed racist. What a treacherous journey they have ahead of them, particularly because they have relied on racists as supporters since Nixon’s Southern Strategy.
One day, sometime after Ali retired, white Americans declared him a hero. He had become a shadow of his former self, his body holding his mind hostage. They forgot he was physically powerful and dominated his opponents in the ring. They forgot they cheered for the other boxers to beat him. They forgot how he spoke out against racism and white supremacy. They forgot he was a black nationalist. They forgot how they hated him for converting to Islam and changing his name from a slave name to a name with spiritual meaning and identity. President GW Bush awarded him the Medal of Freedom.
Maybe, as I’ve often heard, our memories grow sweeter with the passage of time. Me? I always thought Muhammad Ali was an amazing and intelligent athlete, who sometimes let his ego choose his fighting strategy, and he was a person who was courageous enough to tell his truth no matter how people reacted.
Sometime during this election campaign and the deaths of several icons of my era (Ali, Prince, Bowie and others), I lost my mind and all understanding of the world. Maybe I never understood it in the first place.
I watched Trump turn the campaign into the art of the deal, playing the role of the modern PT Barnum who once said, “There's a sucker born every minute,” and “Money is in some respects life's fire: it is a very excellent servant, but a terrible master.”
I watched millions of first time voters “feel the Bern” and heard one say that if Bernie Sanders did not become the Democratic nominee, she refused to vote for the lesser of two evils (Hillary Clinton) because it was unfair to make her vote for a candidate who was not her first choice. I wondered as I listened when they would reinstitute civics classes in high school and teach about personal sacrifice for the greater good. I wondered if Bernie would choose the right side of history and concede, perhaps this evening at the close of the polls.
Then last night the AP and NBC projected Secretary of State Clinton as the presumptive Democratic nominee. I rushed to change my Face book profile photo from a glum, cranky pants expression to one of absolute glee. I am elated we reached this historic moment in our country, 36 years after Iceland elected their first female president Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, and 50 years after Indira Gandhi was elected the first female prime minister of India, serving until she was assassinated in 1984. It feels similar to my excitement in 2008 when President Obama clinched the nomination and then won the election. As a woman, a spouse in an interracial relationship, and the mother of biracial daughters, these moments are tangible.
Perhaps if Trump supporters could tell the truth about how scared they are in a world in which they feel irrelevant and disenfranchised, we can begin to heal this country. We can assure them they and we are all Americans and that we have more in common than they believe. We can promise them no one is going to take away their way of life or their guns or their religion or their safety in public bathrooms; we simply want equality and the ability to live our lives and our truths, too.
Telling the truth is something all of us need to do more often, even at the risk of others not accepting you or it.
Mohammad Ali knew that. He lived it.