Our legends are dying. On Friday, June 3, we lost another—Muhammad Ali, a man who called himself The Greatest, because he was.
The news of his death was reported a little after midnight EST. By 1:54 a.m., Time already had a lengthy obituary published: “Why Muhammad Ali Matters to Everyone.”
The title is a nod to a longer Maya Angelou quote. She’d written, in the 2001 book Muhammad Ali: Through the Eyes of the World, “Muhammad Ali was not just Muhammad Ali the greatest, the African-American pugilist; he belonged to everyone. That means that his impact recognizes no continent, no language, no color, no ocean. It belongs to us all, just as Muhammad Ali belongs to us all.”
If Muhammad Ali belonged to everyone, it’s because Muhammad Ali demanded that everyone reckon with his presence, his politics, his experience of blackness. Maya Angelou knew this; she understood the radical politics contained in the universality of Muhammad Ali’s appeal.
But everyone wants to claim a legend after he’s dead, and the idea that Ali mattered to everyone, belonged to everyone, evolved in more than a few places into the wild idea that Ali’s career and charisma, his politics and experience, were not uniquely rooted in his blackness. That in achieving legendary status, he had transcended race.
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A Fox sportscaster went as far as to say that in Muhammad Ali, a man who spoke about race candidly and often, you “didn’t see color.”
An NBC News obituary swung for the fences and brazenly threw down the actual “transcending race” card.
Ali was an anti-establishment showman who transcended borders and barriers, race and religion. His fights against other men became spectacles, but he embodied much greater battles.
The Los Angeles Times obit also used the phrase “transcended race.”
To subvert the racial politics and black identity of Muhammad Ali, of all people, is astonishing on the level of trying to use Martin Luther King Jr. quotes to reprimand Black Lives Matter. That anyone had the instinct to do so is a reminder of how frequently black Americans are separated from their race as soon as white America deems them great. It’s a reminder of the treatment Prince received when, after his death in April, the New York Times argued that he “defied conventional notions of race.” CNN’s Jake Tapper clumsily described Prince as a “post-racial singer,” and the Independent called him mixed-race as some sort of synonym for having lighter skin. Many wrote that both Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson “transcended race,” following their deaths.
The most insidious part of this idea of transcending race is that it’s meant to be a compliment, in the same way that Hollywood will whitewash history and expect us to be glad that some stories involving a few black or brown people are even being told at all. When a black person is pronounced, after his death, to have transcended race, it means that white people have stopped holding his blackness against him—the way they deigned to, out of the helpless benevolence of their hearts, with Michael Jackson and Prince. Transcending race means being forgiven for being black. It means these artists and athletes and orators were so masterful at their chosen craft that a white audience would look racist, petty and ignorant if they didn’t acknowledge their greatness.
I’m fond of the phrase “black excellence” for the way it honors an extra burden that surrounds success for black people in America. (And, truly, the same can be said for any marginalized group.) We do not yet live in a world where being black or being a woman or being transgender does not, in some way and in most cases, make it more difficult to be successful. Implied within “black excellence” is the fact that, while Steffi Graf was indeed an excellent tennis player, she did not have an Indian Wells. David Bowie was visionary, but he did not have to fight to get his music videos played on MTV. Yes, Taylor Swift’s massive fame is impressive, but what Beyoncé has achieved is remarkable in a completely different way.
It is impossible not to read the eagerness to discard race when a black person is very, very good at something as a suggestion that the black person in question would have been more readily worthy of admiration if they were white—and not because of extant racism, but because it is simply the way things are. If a black person is great, they can finally be separated from their blackness. The hubris required of white critics and fans to believe this—that they have the right and the ability to dissect blackness from a person’s identity—is staggering.
Being black is not the entirety of Muhammad Ali’s identity. But as a part of his identity, it is not detachable. Blackness is part of the narrative of every black person in a country that has reminded us of our blackness since the day we arrived. No person who has lived every day of his or her life as both black and American can transcend that fact. Nor, likely, would they want to. Because the idea that greatness distinguishes you from blackness suggests that blackness itself has a built-in limit—that blackness itself can never be great.
Muhammad Ali knew that his blackness was great—that his blackness was humanity, and as such contained infinite possibilities. He was full of braggadocio because he had to be: no one was going to call this black man “The Greatest” unless he did so himself. That did not make him bigger than race or a different kind of black man, that simply made him a black that you hadn’t seen before.
There is no deep and true respect for Muhammad Ali that does not also come with a deep and true respect for his blackness. And to love Muhammad Ali, you must also love his love for his people. Those who attempt to draw attention away from Ali’s blackness—whether deliberately, carelessly, or by delicate omission—do so because they either cannot or choose not to love black people. They can’t understand that Ali’s blackness was integral to what made him great. A white Ali would not have been possible, nor would he have meant nearly as much to the world.
Image via Getty.