Today we see people upset over bathroom use and terms like trans-gender. This country routinely drones Muslims overseas and makes life tough for some in this country, also vice-versa. It wasn’t always like this.
Believe it or not, once upon a time in this country, everybody wore a flat top haircut, in their mind. A man from that era died a few days ago who started the wave of change. You know him as Muhammad Ali, but I knew him before he was Ali, because we lived in the same town at the same time. He stood out because long before it was fashionable, he knew his own mind, followed his own style, and lived his life how he wanted to. He was ahead of his time.
Back in the day everyone used to go to a public school. This was the era of separate but equal, the policy of racial segregation [enforced social racism] which still exists in places, but this was when changes had moved the whites and blacks together more in the public marketplace. Think b&w tv, then think again about being in the country’s 4th most segregated city [MSN ranking], Louisville, KY.
At this time, only six occupations were available for women, black or white, one of which was teacher. My mother was a teacher who taught first grade at the elementary school Muhammad Ali, then named Cassius Clay attended. Because of this factor Ali knew me in a different way, a social acquaintance, and I followed his public path through half his life like that of a cousin who’s cool.
Most of what you will see or hear is about his sports life, his impart on people, and his courage to speak up. But there was a lot more to him than that.
Last decade, being a music reviewer, I came across an interesting premise. The theory was that Ali was the originator of rap as a music genre. At first, I poo-pood this. After all, Ali was a boxer [he had retired by the time of the post]. I never even knew if he was into music though everyone listened to the soul station in town, WLOU, well, everyone black then. It may seem odd at first, but a sub-culture isn’t much different from a group like the 420nurses. There is a common stigma and misconceived expectations, but a bond similar to a family or clan.
Ali was a poet, another less spotlighted talent except when used in his taunts of opponents and they weren’t flat or filler either. A white sports figure may have gotten more play but in these days most poets, male ones, were looked at as gay. In those days even historical gay figures were still in the closet.
All poetry that is the most popular, flows; and has a certain rhythm. Poetry also has style and punch. Ali and his poetry had this in a nouveau art deco verve. At one time there possibly was a book of his poems available, but don’t quote me. This was a long time ago and almost as much stuff was happening then as now.
Another feature that can’t be stressed enough is that it wasn’t just in the ring where Ali’s moves were swift. He became a Muslim, a Black Muslim [a separate designation from the ME Muslims but adopted into the fold many years later], changed his name, and denounced the Vietnam War almost all in the same breath it seemed at the time. People were stunned. I mean, he could have had a life in the service like Elvis. No one questioned the War before that, not that people were lining up to fight like World War II either. But no one, and especially anyone of color, stood up against the government in those days.
Ali came from that last generation of greatness, before this Atomic Generation. His peers were Dr. Martin Luther King, Elvis Presley, Malcolm X, the Kennedy Brothers, Redd Foxx, Motown, etc, and he came to the championship 3 times, and won like a three-peat. Ali was the Lion King in human form. When you saw Ali in person, you knew why he was the Champ. He was the Micheal Jordan of Boxing. He looked good, he was great, and he had these long arms. He had reach on a lot of guys. He looked the way Neal Adams, a DC artist, drew Superman. Except he was black. That was the only difference in [body] looks.
To sum it up now, like Elvis, Muhammad Ali has left the building.
But for all that greatness gained and potential missed from his time era, this is why I will always remember Ali. Since my mother taught at his elementary school, though we never hung out, Ali knew my face and would give me a head nod on the times we crossed paths publicly. I did know some of his younger cousins personally, but I never ran with him. He was older than me and when he first won the championship I didn’t run across him much after that. But there was one time when I did.
I don’t remember how old I was but I was down at my cousin’s house and for some reason I had gone, or we had gone over to this Ma&Pa store on Greenwood Ave a few blocks from his house. It was winter but not too cold to be chilling beside the chain link fence there in the front to the side of the store. Along in front of the store stood three kids, probably family, various ages and heights.
This black Caddy pulls up and out hops Ali [then Cassius Clay]. He was probably getting some stuff for his mom. He was like Elvis in that regard. Now he was Champion at this time, just Champion by a year or two. Everybody knew him. He walks up the concrete walk, sees me and does a head nod (I returned it) and then proceeded to head for the front door. The shortest of the three kids, all of them in their winter coats, a boy with his coat unbuttoned, steps out and says, “C’mon Champ” and starts to spar with Ali, or rather his kneecap. Ali bent down and they did this for about a minute. Now Ali was in a hurry, you could tell. But he still stopped. I never forgot it.
MUHAMMAD ALI (Homeboy CASSIUS CLAY)
The world may remember you as a boxer, but Ali, you were a poet who threw a mean punch. Beauty has no gender.