Feet shuffling across a checkerboard floor.
A left fist, flicking in the air, then again and again and BANG, a right cuts the air.
Both hands thrown in the air.
Unknowable, the number of times this scene played out in cities and suburbs, in parks and playgrounds, on street corners and boulevards and bazaars and so many places it probably happened in most places. Over days, then decades.
I’m back inside a barber shop in Baltimore. The 80s. Professional wrestling on a small, black and white TV set bolted to a shelf overlooking the storefront shop. A usual Saturday for a haircut. Men congregating, talking boxing. Sugar Ray. Marvin Hagler. The great boxers of the day.
As great as they are, when the discussion turns to Ali, the room itself lights up. The men animate. An older barber moves around his client as he talks, giving a spiritual testimony as much as an assessment of Ali’s skills. Other brothers around nod and sway in agreement.
Talking Ali is more than just discussing a great fighter. He’s more than that. I’m too young to fully understand the passion in their voices, their eyes.
Fight night was big. It was at our house. My mom was a fan.
This was Mike Tyson’s heyday. Make sure you got all your eating in and your bathroom business done before the main event started. Once it did, things would go slowly during the paegentry of the entrances and introductions and then downhill and fast and it would be over.
Ali was better, she said. The best. The fights were better. The Liston fights. The Ken Norton fights. The Frazier fights. The Foreman fight. Those were events. There was no PPV and you had to go in person if you could or watch on closed-circuit TV. But they were important. Everybody wanted to be there.
Ali would hype the fight. Talking shit about how pretty he was and how his opponent didn’t have a chance. How he was going to win and his opponent better not even think he could whip him. And then he’d go into the ring and back up all the shit he’d talked. All evening if he needed to. 15 rounds worth of dodging and banging and making his opponent say his real name when the opponent wouldn’t.
I’d missed out, she said. Born too late. Tyson was in my day, but Ali was in hers. And what a day.
“No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.”
I’m from Baltimore. There’s never been a shortage of bad seeds, bad apples, bad motherfuckers. Dudes who will take a life and go get a chicken box. With hot sauce and ketchup. But even they’ll still hide from the lawman when he shows up.
Government came for Ali. They wanted to ship him over to Vietnam. He told the government to kiss his ass. He wasn’t going to fight the Viet Cong (or for propaganda). His oppressor was right here at home. While people who looked like him were trying to go about their lives and be free, the same people who wanted to send him over to Asia to fight, were hurting and maiming those who looked like him right in America.
Black athletes like Jesse Owens and Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson had challenged America on the field. They’d proven that, despite the ideas of the day, Black people were capable of being great athletes. And of enduring the hatred and bigotry they’d still experience out of the area of competition. Like not being served at lunch counters or being able to rent a room in the same hotels that served white athletes.
Their play spoke for them but off the field, they still played by the same politics of appeasement and respectability that dominated the thinking of those times. They were going to win America over by being great on the field and ingratiate themselves to America off.
Ali wasn’t having that. He told America to its face what was what. And he told America he was going to look good doing it and he did. They took his boxing license and his best fighting years, but he preferred putting all that on the line to giving into his principles. To giving in on his Islamic faith. On his Blackness.
Ali was done fighting by the time I came along. He’d been proven right by his refusal to go to Vietnam. Become a global figure for his boxing and his commitment to social justice and freedom. He wasn’t in the limelight as he had been in his fighting days, but he still traveled the world and gave people hope and joy.
Even as his body would continue to be ravaged by Parkinson’s. But still, he won that fight. Lighting the Olympic flame in the 1996 Olympics. I remember some people being bothered by the image of a shaking Ali unsteadily holding the Torch, but he was still there holding it. He was still holding strong.
Back in the barber shop, the joy they felt talking about Ali, I finally came to understand it one day. They were people who had been living in segregated neighborhoods, denied access to better jobs, better lives, more respect. They couldn’t go into Roland Park or Rodgers Forge and tell those people what they thought about them. Couldn’t tell the old racist bus drivers who would pass them by on the streets to kiss their asses. They were still Ellison’s Invisible Man.
Ali spoke for them. And to them. Ali lived as freely as a Black man could. As a Black person could. He didn’t march when they said march. He traveled the world. He lived life on his terms.
He transcended sport and what people thought athletes should be. He transcended ideas about boxing and boxers and became a worldwide humanitarian. And became an icon for it.
He didn’t transcend blackness, but transcended many people’s ideas about Blackness and what it meant. The limits of it. How black far black people could go in the world. How black people could be seen. How we could see ourselves.
He wasn’t just a champion, he was our champion. He championed us. He showed us how great he was. How great we could be.
“I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize, but get used to me. Black, confident, cocky. My name, not yours. My religion, not yours. My goals, my own. Get used to me.”
“I’m gonna fight for the prestige, not for me, but to uplift my little brothers who are sleeping on concrete floors today in America. Black people who are living on welfare, black people who can’t eat, black people who don’t know no knowledge of themselves, black people who don’t have no future.”