The Showtime Lakers, Muhammad Ali, and my early education on race

I grew up at a time and in a place where the word n*ggr was said, often by people I loved and respected. In the late 1970s, early 1980s, and even today the only encounters that some of us, whose families never could afford to travel anywhere, were going to have with black America was going to come through our television sets. (You can tell when I grew up, simply because I use the term “television set.”)

Muhammad Ali Ali was on the television set, as were a group of men known as The Showtime Lakers–Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, and James Worthy. There was also Julius Erving. And Arthur Ashe. I was interested in these men. How could you not be? They were handsome. They were famous. They did beautiful, athletic things.

My fascination with them led me to ask questions, read things, and ask more questions.

In Ali’s case, he was roundly described, by many in range of my little ears, as a “mouthy n*ggr.”

Hey! I was told I was mouthy all the time, too! I had something in common in this magnificent, adult man. What did people mean when they said he was mouthy?

He talked about race. He didn’t know his place.

What was his place?

Don’t ask questions.

I read more things, from the library. I read a book by William Faulkner where the word “uppity” appeared.

Oh.

But why did people around me seem to dislike Ali so much? So what? What investment did they have in him being subservient if they didn’t even know him or have to be around him?

(This took me a long time to understand; I had to shelve it for years and years, but I did get there.)

Some people were not racist, they said. They just disliked him because he dodged his duty in Vietnam.

Oh, that was bad. It was bad to do that. Why did he do that? He couldn’t be a physical coward; he was a boxer. Why did he do that? More reading, in my school library, and the quote that has been making the rounds since Ali’s passing:

“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality. If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.”

That didn’t strike me as ‘not knowing one’s place” or dodging anything. It struck me as valid reasoning. (One of the curses of being a little Asperger kid is that for me at least, you are swayed by valid arguments well beyond what those in your social circle want, and thus you risk being reviled when you take the side of reason against traditions or norms, which generally have to do with how people view the soundness of the premises. This is the biography of my entire life in two sentences.)

And why did Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul Jabbar have such cool names? Those names were lots cooler than my name. “They changed their names from their real names.”

Why did they do that? Can I do that, to a name I like better? (This is, along with cutting one’s own hair and thus, risking not being pretty, apparently a huge sin as it meant you weren’t entirely defined and controlled by your parents, which you should be. Obey. Obey. Obey: the drum beat of a working class kid’s childhood. Even when there is no sound reason to obey, obey, dammit.)

So I did some more reading. Cassius Clay and Lou Alcinder. I had to admit, I thought the name Cassius was cool, too. But I could understand the rest: not wanting to inherit the name of a line of slave masters. Wanting to start a different tradition, one that rejected the ones where you were always on the bottom, and that told others of like mind that you have publicly and visibly joined them.

That made sense.

What is the Nation of Islam? What do they do? What is Islam? What do they believe?

I wasn’t allowed to watch Roots. So I read it instead (nobody paid any attention to my reading) right in the middle of my fascination with Magic Johnson, who could pass a basketball like nobody before.

WTFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF. Human beings did that stuff to other human beings? And we wonder why people want reparations?

Muhammad Ali was a leader, and great leaders are an education in themselves.

Parkinson’s knocked down Ali for the last time last week, at the age of 74, which is tragically young for a man who in his youth had trained his body to beyond perfection. I am glad it seems his family got to come say goodbye.

Edited to add: dang it! I hit publish on this post before I proofed it, and it had Mr. Ali’s spelled wrong! My apologies. I meant to check it and published before I did. Dork.