From time to time I ask students in my classes to try and recall their earliest political memories. In other classes I ask students to think back as to when they first realized that they are the particular ethnicity or race with which they identify. The exercise is a beginning point towards one’s self-examination and self-understanding. I believe it also makes one more acutely aware as to how intertwined their life is with the larger surrounding world. It is also possible to apply this exercise to various other aspects of one’s existence. For example, “What is your earliest recollection of Muhammad Ali?
I recall hearing “Cassius Clay” sing a version of “Stand by Me.” This single was released in 1964. I also recall the adults in the room debating as to whether Clay had any musical talent. In addition to debating about his musical talent the adults were debating about his bombastic demeanor. Some approved. Some disapproved. I just know that as a child, I was being introduced to a new and famous person who was called Cassius Clay. I was only nine years old at the time. Clay was about twenty-one or twenty -two years old. This was the same year that Cassius Clay defeated Sonny Liston in a seventh round knockout to become the heavyweight champion of the world. Former heavyweight champion, Joe Louis, referred to the fight at the time as perhaps the greatest upset in boxing history.
By the time of the rematch between the former champ and the new heavyweight champ, Cassius Clay had changed his name to Muhammad Ali. It should be noted that when Ali entered the arena for his second fight against Liston, Ali was booed. This began what I call the “paradigm of struggle” phase of Ali’s life. The paradigm of struggle states that every aspect of Black life in America reflects struggle. Therefore, even Blacks in such disparate fields as boxing, basketball, baseball, tennis, acting, teaching, medicine, and plain politics are expected to possess some level of consciousness concerning the African American narrative in the United States. This is why Lew Alcindor became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. This is why Halle Berry, upon winning the Best Actress in a Leading Role Oscar, stated that she was accepting her award on behalf of all the great Black actresses who had come before to help pave the way. This is why Barack Hussein Obama has struggled mightily with a stubbornly ignorant and racist section of American society which has refused to respect his presidency.
Somewhere between hearing Cassius Clay sing “Stand By Me” the first fight between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali on March 8, 1971 in New York City’s Madison Square Garden, I had become a solid fan of Muhammad Ali. When Ali lost the fight, I was devastated. I just did not believe he would lose. The decade between Ali’s first Frazier fight and his retirement in 1981 was quite an eventful time. Nevertheless, it served as a distant background to my own life. There are things that I recall, but do not remember. Ali primarily became a figure that I would know through movies, documentaries, and televised appearances displaying his progressive deterioration due to Parkinson’s disease. For example, many know of the Ali story through Will Smith’s portrayal of Muhammad Ali in the 2001 movie “Ali.” However, before Will Smith portrayed Ali, Muhammad Ali starred as himself in the 1977 movie entitled “The Greatest.” In a comparative note, 1977 was the year that the first Star Wars movies was released. On a personal note, I saw both movies. I would also refer the readers of this article to the excellent 1996 documentary of the 1974 heavyweight championship fight in Zaire between heavyweight champion George Foreman and Muhammad Ali which is entitled “When We Were Kings.”
In today’s media age, very little seems to escape us. We are all invited to take a front row seat to life or that which seems to be an “imitation of life.” The joy of our favorite celebrities is brought to us in high definition living color and in surround sound. Yet, the losses seem more acute. We still have not recovered from Prince, Michael, or Whitney. Bob Dylan wrote a song called “Forever Young.” Ali also sang to us and he will remain forever, “The Greatest.”
Anthony Neal earned his Ph.D. in political science at Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University). Dr. Neal is an associate professor at State University College, Buffalo. The author of numerous book reviews and journal articles, he has had his work published in the Western Journal of Black Studies, the Journal of Black Studies, and Black Issues in Higher Education. In 2014 Dr. Neal received the university’s Faculty Appreciation Award, was named Instructor of the Year by the university’s United Student Government, and Professor of the Year by the Student Political Society in the Department of Political Science. In 2015, he published The American Political Narrative which is a succinct yet poignant narrative about the development of the American political system and what is needed to maintain it. In 2016, he will publish a book of poetry entitled “Love Agnostic | from 9/11 to Charleston”