The recent passing of Muhammad Ali got me to thinking about how the legacy of highly politicized figures are co-opted by dominant institutions. America has a tendency to co-opt what they cannot defeat. Once a person’s image is co-opted, it is sanitized and watered down for public consumption. If they cannot, outright choose our leaders, then they take control of their image, sand down the rough edges and give us back some ‘Santa Claused’ version of our heroes. Often times, their more radical or particularly troublesome politics are buried and the image becomes alienated from their own ideas. This usually happens after the person’s death, sometimes before.
In the brief aftermath of Muhammad Ali’s death, we see the dominant institutions, the same ones that despised him for his activism and his voice during his prime singing his praises. In his later years, after his health began to deteriorate and his voice silenced, he became a darling of mainstream America, a frail grandfatherly figure. The conflict in Vietnam has become universally unpopular over the years, even among the ruling class, and thus, ok to criticize. However, the Ali that refused to support the war must be compartmentalized because his analysis of the war and why he refused to participate, extends to war in general and is just as applicable today. He was not just against the war in Vietnam; Ali was an anti- imperialist. However the co-opting of his image requires that, that Ali remain separate from ‘grandpa’.
His current image has effectively been separated from his anti-imperialist politics of the late 60’s. How would Ali be depicted if he maintained his vocal anti-war stance throughout his life through every ensuing American aggression? He’d likely be a pariah or faded into oblivion like John Carlos, who, during the same era raised his fist at the ‘68 Olympics in Mexico City. Muhammad Ali’s silence is what made him a figure that mainstream America could get behind.
The process of depoliticizing him is well underway. Just look at who spoke at his funeral, Bill Clinton, Billy Cristal, Bryant Gumbel. His image is being thoroughly brought into the fold of non-threatening American hero. What did these folks think of his public stance against war when he took it? Probably not supportive. Why not have Kareem Abdul Jabar, Louis Farrakhan, or anyone else closer to his experience speak. The interfaith funeral is an attempt to separate him from the teachings of the Nation of Islam. There may be a time when we do not even remember the Muhammad Ali the draft resister and anti-war proponent who put his livelihood and freedom on the line in the interests of freedom and justice. We may just think of a nice old man with Parkinson’s who was once a great boxer.
Who remembers Nelson Mandela, revolutionary founder of the armed wing of the African National Congress? Who remembers Helen Keller, radical Socialist and labor activist? The radical elements of their history and character have been systematically removed in order to make them more palatable to the system and given back to us. They will go down in history without all their complexities, but as carefully crafted images.
Perhaps the best example of this is Dr. Martin Luther King, who’s radical dimensions have been tailored for public consumption. We do not know the King who criticized racism, militarism and individualism as inextricably linked, who questioned America’s brand of capitalism. His life, speeches and writing after 1965 have all but disappeared. School children generally do not read King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech in 1967, but they know “I Have a Dream”. This is not an accident. Some heroes like Ali and King are so huge, they cannot be put back in the bottle so their images must be co-opted because the personal example of principled people so loved and admired is dangerous in and of itself.
Sometimes the most subversive thing we can do is to simply remember, remember what we are encouraged to forget, remember that the institutions that shower platitudes on radicals when they die are the same ones that marginalized and tried to kill their image, if not their physical person when they were alive. Let us never forget that young, dashing, charming, man who called Ervin Terrell and Uncle Tom for referring to him as Cassius Clay, who told a room full of white college students, “If I want to die, I’ll die fighting you, you my opposer when I want freedom”. It is no mystery why the image of a prominent black athlete standing up and willing to put his fortune, image, championship on the line on principle is threatening. The youth need his example today more than ever. In these times, young folks don’t even understand the rationale for such a stance, being bombarded with materialism and nonsense all day, every day. Let us be subversive in our classrooms and not only remember, but teach our students to do the same. Ali Bomaye!