Muhammad Ali was an ungentrified black man.
That simple truth has resonated in my heart over the last few days as volumes of praise and tributes have been lavished on Ali and his legacy.
I had not expected to be this sad. We all knew this day was coming, that he would die, but the finality of it has been a bit difficult to accept.
Now I understand what my father meant many years ago. He said that when Joe Louis died he felt that he lost a little bit of himself. Louis had helped frame the ethos of my father’s generation of black men and women as Ali helped frame mine.
Louis’s warning to his opponents summed up the determination of my father’s generation: You can run, but you can’t hide.
Ali told us to float like butterflies and sting like bees.
We all have the heroes and legends of our youth. I am forever grateful that the athlete I most respected and admired taught me the realities of life in the United States. That being an active, conscious black person in America meant traveling a road where wealth and trinkets would test the will of men and women of principle.
Gentrification is on my mind because I live in Harlem and have watched as this and other previously black neighborhoods around the country are being gobbled up and transformed from black to nonblack.
Black homeowners, eschewing neighborhood and community, sell for million-dollar trinkets.
Ali never sold.
I was a high school junior when he was stripped of his heavyweight title. When his championship belt was taken, Ali effectively said that it was a mere trinket, nothing compared to the principle he was being asked to relinquish.
I loved that and would try — sometimes succeeding, sometimes not — to live by that ideal.
I met Ali for the first time in the 1970s while working at Ebony magazine. The year I arrived at Ebony, Ali pulled off the greatest boxing upset I have ever seen. He knocked out the seemingly invincible, previously undefeated George Foreman in Zaire.
Two of Ali’s three fights against Joe Frazier were classics, but the victory over Foreman was transformative. For Foreman, it was life-altering.
I never spoke to Ali about the Foreman fight but I spoke plenty about it with Foreman. He was devastated and eventually would take a 10-year hiatus from boxing. Foreman said he had a religious revelation. I think the revelation was Ali, and everything he stood for.
It was during that period that my friend Gregg Simms, then the sports editor at Jet magazine, called me one afternoon and asked if I wanted to go to Ali’s house.
Of course I did.
But once inside his house, in the presence of an athlete I held in such high regard, I wasn’t sure what to say, and said nothing. I just stood there.
Life went on. In September 1976, I covered Ali’s third match against Ken Norton, at Yankee Stadium. Two years later, I left Ebony to become a feature writer and jazz critic for The Baltimore Sun and, from there, joined The New York Times in 1982. By that point, the impact Ali had made on my life – the strong belief I now had that black athletes needed to express themselves politically – was set.
I was in Atlanta for the 1996 Summer Games when Ali lit the Olympic torch and seemed to set the world on fire. Two years later, I was at the United Nations when then Secretary General Kofi Annan presented Ali with the Messenger of Peace award.
In 2005 I was in Louisville for the dedication of the Muhammad Ali Center. In each of these instances, the toll that Parkinson’s disease was taking on Ali was becoming increasingly evident. Still, Ali kept up a grueling schedule. After the Louisville event, for example, he was scheduled to fly to Germany to receive an award. I asked his wife, Lonnie, why Ali kept traveling. Why he subjected himself to the grind. She said: “People always ask: ‘Isn’t he tired?’ Shouldn’t he rest?’ Muhammad says, ‘I got plenty of time to rest.’ ”
My last real exchange with Ali came at the Sydney Olympics, in 2000, during a reception. By now, his Parkinson’s disease had progressed to the point that you really had to strain to make out his words. Yet Ali was in great form.
Asked how it felt to light the Olympic torch four years earlier, Ali said: “Scary as hell. My left hand was shaking because of Parkinson’s, my right hand was shaking from fear. Somehow, between the two of them, I got the thing lit.”
When someone asked him to name his toughest foe, Ali said: “U.S. military. Next toughest fight was my first wife.”
Later, in his hotel room, I was speaking with Ali when he looked at me and asked: “What’s your name?”
Of course he knew my name, but he wanted to make a larger point.
“Bill Rhoden,” I said, knowing what was coming.
“That’s not your name. That’s your slave name.”
He talked for another 15 minutes about racism and oppression and history.
What I gleaned from Ali’s life, as I lived mine, is that the goal is not to go through life undefeated. The quest is to exercise resilience and come back stronger.
Beloved by much of the world, Ali nonetheless was consistently, unapologetically black.
I loved that about him. Muhammad Ali was an ungentrified black man.