Monday, June 06, 2016

The Greatest

All these Muhammad Ali tributes are disappointing.

So many of them portray as a comic book hero, essentially. That's not who Ali was, though--he was great and terrible and everything in between, often in the same five-minute period. He was magnanimous and gracious and incredibly cruel.

He was a complex man, in other words, and trying to simplify his life and character to fit into some predetermined superhero arc cheats who he was.

In many ways, how someone responded to Ali was as much a reflection of who they were as who Ali was.

To explain that, I need to explain my father.

My father was a highly infrequent influence in my life. For a few years, he would kite in during summer and take me fishing for a few days.

It never really went well, for all the obvious reasons.

One summer (when I was nine, in 1970), I actually went to Monroe, Louisiana, to stay with him. My sister came along as well.

There are two important things to understand about my father at this time: his life disappointed him, and he was a racist.

He had divorced my mom and remarried, but he was not happy. He was downright mean to his new wife, who by then wasn't new anymore.

The first thing he did when he got home--literally, before he even sat down--was to go to the fridge and pop open a beer. By the end of the night, he'd have had at least half a dozen. As he drank, he would get meaner and meaner.

This happened every night I was there.

One night, when he was a few beers in, Muhammad Ali came into the discussion.

Oh man, how he hated Ali.

This was after the point where Ali had refused to report to the military, but before the Supreme Court overturned his conviction (which happened in 1971).

The vitriol my father had apparently reserved just for Ali was staggering. He was a coward. He was a traitor. He didn't appreciate anything the United States had done for him.

Through the diatribe, though, there was something else, something behind his words. He was a white man raised in the Deep South, proud of it, and Muhammad Ali was a black man the white man couldn't control.

Not only could he not be controlled, but he was loud about it, too.

Muhammad Ali was dangerous.

So when you read all these cuddly retrospectives, don't be fooled. Don't let them sanitize a dangerous man.

If he had been safe, he wouldn't have mattered nearly so much.

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