In a 1964 interview with Roots author Alex Haley, 22-year-old Muhammad Ali said, “’I know I got it made while the masses of black people are catchin’ hell, but as long as they ain’t free, I ain’t free.’ In his own words, he was ‘black, confident, cocky.’” He knew it, owned it, and made it clear to everyone. Whether it’s subtly suggested in various media outlets or through statements about seeing “no color“ with Ali, there is the view that purports Ali, as NBC had said it, “transcended borders and barriers, race and religion.” This idea is deeply flawed.
Sure, Ali’s proclamations as “The Greatest” endures throughout the world, irrespective of creed or color. But to ignore Ali’s unapologetic blackness is to diminish a part of his identity that contributed to the cultural and sports icon we know him as. Crucially, such reasoning excludes the global impact of his black identity in relation to the African diaspora.
There are many striking images of Muhammad Ali at the height of his boxing prime, including but not limited to the one you’re surely thinking of right now. It’s how we like to remember our departed legends: The wins and undefeated moments. We distill or we conflate, looking for ways to eulogize the complex simplicities of a whole person. To say Ali transcended race is a subtle affront dressed up as a plaudit of acceptance. Ali’s outspoken manner and demeanor was not palatable to mainstream white America. Ali’s embracing of his blackness contrasted with the likes of more modern athletes like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, who were less forward in their discussions or public articulations about race. Even if the political climate was different in Jordan’s prime, his avoidance of political issues is still notable when compared to Ali’s political activity. It is not just about influence, but the exercise of it.
Both Jordan and Ali had a global following, but Ali firmly aligned his celebrity with the black community. If Ali’s socio-political influence is considered as transcending his race, this is a faulty premise. Ali relished in his blackness, and discussed it at every opportunity.
Transcending is not about the actor, it’s about the audience. To transcend means to rise above. How does a person transcend their racial identity? Why would their racial identity even be viewed as something worthy of ascension in the first place?
Saying that Ali transcended race makes it sound like he was accepted by all, but it’s unlikely that Cristiano Ronaldo and David Beckham will be said to have transcended race when they pass, even with their large international following.
Transcendence hints at something larger-than-life, and Ali’s athletic and socio-political feats are undeniably important milestones. Perhaps this is what people mean when they say he his legacy “transcended race.” However, the language of racial transcendence suggests that even with these plaudits, Ali’s black excellence would only be fully accepted if the impact of his blackness was muted. There was always the possibility that people would deny his excellence because of the color of his skin.
In truth, the transcendence was not Ali’s; it was the audience’s. Times change, perceptions shift, and the hindsight of history grants a small opportunity to reinterpret the ascent of a once-disliked champion to a universally-loved hero. In part, Ali’s exceptional athleticism made him revered, but Ali’s racial identity was not something he needed to overcome for people to fully appreciate his sportsmanship and cultural impact. Nor is the ignorance of his racial identity a noble nod to his iconic legacy.
Ali’s unabashed black pride connected him with the global African diaspora. In a Civil Rights era, Ali publicly spoke for the rights of African-American citizens. His prominence as a public figure gave him a reach and access rivaled by few then and now.
The Rumble in the Jungle is the most iconic example of Ali’s attempt to connect with the African diaspora in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). For Ali and the people of Zaire, the affections were mutual. The famous “Ali Bomaye” phrase was derived from Zaire’s Lingala language, a rallying chant of excited fans. Ali reveled in the adoration, joining in the chants as he met with people. His combination of whip-smart phrases, final round punches, and embracing of Kinshasa was adored by the people of Zaire.
Ali’s prior visits to West Africa in 1964 conveyed his love of Ghana, as he developed an appreciation for a place that had connotations of exotic savagery in the U.S. His visit to Accra, Ghana was described as a “visit to the homeland.” He also wore the traditional Oyokoman, an outfit usually reserved for Asante kings, in-keeping with his “king of the world” bravado. Ali’s trip to Ghana cemented his identification with his ancestral continent, at one point declaring that he was “an African” coming back home to meet with his ”brothers and sisters.”
Followed by Ghana, Ali’s trips to Nigeria and Egypt showed him how he was famed and accepted in different parts of the African continent. Ali was a source of inspiration for none less than Nelson Mandela while he was imprisoned on Robben Island. In 1993, the former South African president wrote: “Muhammad Ali was not just my hero, but the hero of millions of young, black South Africans because he brought dignity to boxing.” In Brazil, Ali’s friendship with soccer supremo Pelé was a partnership he called “two of the greatest.”
In Europe too, Ali connected with black citizens. His 1974 visit to London’s predominantly black Brixton area was a memorable event. Brixton’s importance as an initial settlement area for Caribbean and African immigrants attracts black public figures to this day (its most recent visitor was Will Smith in 2015). Ali’s 1999 trip to Brixton was his last visit to the area, drawing crowds of young and old. His constant alignment with black people across different parts of the world shows that his blackness was an important relational aspect of his identity. If Ali transcended anything, it was the confines of the labels put on him by those unwilling to accept him.
Although Ali is globally revered as an inspirational sports icon, his blackness remained central to his navigation as an athlete and celebrity. Though his appeal may have been global, it wasn’t at the minimization of his blackness. He was proudly black, and bold with it too. Identifying with pieces of our heroes is often a reflection of our own perceptions. To appreciate the whole person of Muhammad Ali means confronting the intricacies of his life without dismissing them. It’s how we should remember our legends: Human.