“Me, an intellectual?”

I remember the summer of 1994 as an especially heady moment in my life, not least because work on my dissertation was progressing well. I was writing about intellectuals, focusing on four figures – Muhammad Ali, CLR James, Stuart Hall and Bob Marley – whom I conceived as vernacular intellectuals. On the morning of the of July 12 I set off for Irvine’s John Wayne airport via Pittsburgh. I am almost never late for flights but I was lucky to make that US Air one bound for Pittsburgh from New York’s LaGuardia. I hurried down the walkway. In front of me was a tall, broad shouldered man striding slowly but determinedly toward the airplane doors, a bag in each hand, accompanied by a young woman who was obviously there to assist him.

As I approached these two people, I had one of those moments. One of those moments when you know, you just know. “That’s Muhammad Ali,” I said to myself, “That’s Muhammad Ali.” This before I drew level with the people ahead of me. Within a few steps I was alongside them and, yes, it was him. I turned to him, dropped my garment bag, and blurted out, “Muhammad Ali.” He stopped and shook my hand.

When our hands clasped, briefly, very briefly, I caught myself as a wave of sadness swept over me. Growing up on the segregated streets of Cape Town, Ali had been a huge figure in my political imaginary. As a sports mad young boy, I knew his biography intimately. He had been born on January 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky, and  named Cassius Marcellus Clay Junior, after his father; the name itself belonged to a slave owner. I was familiar with the apocryphal story about how he got into boxing as a 12-year-old when another kid stole his red bike; a policeman suggested he turn his anger into a useful skill, he hits the boxing gym, wins the Golden Gloves, goes to Rome in 1960 and wins a gold medal at the Olympics. In 1964 he beats that “Ugly Bear” Sonny Liston in Miami, converts to the Nation of Islam; in 1967 he refuses induction into the US Army in Houston, is banned, returns three-and-a-half years later, loses to “Smokin’ Joe” Frazier in Madison Square Garden, wins the “Rumble in the Jungle” (1974) against George Foreman and avenges his Garden loss against Frazier with the epic “Thrilla in Manila” a year later.

There was the broken jaw he suffered in his fight with Ken Norton, there was his unique relationship with his trainer, Angelo Dundee, there were tales of his legendary camp in Bear Mountain, staffed by his brother (formerly “Rudolph Valentino Clay”) and loveable rogues such “Bundini” Brown, Falstaff to his Hal. There was the resolute Sonja and the teenaged Belinda and the beauty pageant queen Veronica. There was Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X.

Those trademark Ali phrases I had rehearsed as a boy: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” “I’m so pretty.” The prognostications and predictions in doggerel: old man “Archie Moore’s been living off the fat of the land/I’m here to give him his pension plan.” “I’m so mean I make medicine sick.” “Rope-a-dope,” the tactic that beat Foreman but led to Ali taking a battering before overcoming his opponent in the eighth round; the beginning of the end happened in Zaire, as it was then known? And, of course, “I’m the Greatest.”

Speed, his greatest asset as a fighter: speedy of foot, swift of hand, but speediest of mouth. Borrowing from, among others, Satchel Paige (who was talking about another Negro League player), Ali assessed his own speed in terms of the physically impossible: “I’m so fast I’m so fast that last night I turned off the light switch in my hotel room and was in bed before the room was dark.” Borrowed or not, its take some imagining, such speed. It also captures how marvellously  his brain worked to outwit opponents both inside and outside the ring.

At warp speed all this ran through my head as we shook hands. Ali’s hands were large, but they were soft and pulpy, even though I could feel the core of a long ago strength, hands that had beaten Sonny, Joe and George, to say nothing of the “whuppin” he had laid on the likes of Floyd Patterson, Britain’s “Our ’Enry Cooper,” Ernie Terrell, Jimmy Young, Joe Bugner and Chuck Wepner; hands that in the twilight of his career, 1978, first lost to the gap-toothed Leon Spinks and then regained the crown from him for a record third time; hands that laid one last blow on the Canadian Trevor Berbick, albeit in defeat, in his last bout in 1981.

Here I was, talking with Muhammad Ali. A journey begun some two decades ago in Cape Town culminating on an airplane walkway: I was talking to Muhammad Ali. Face to face with “The Greatest”.

For the next two or three minutes, it might have been shorter or longer, I was too overcome with meeting Ali to keep good time, I went on about my dissertation and specifically about how I posited him as a vernacular intellectual.

If his hands betrayed the signs of Parkinson’s, his eyes did not. They twinkled, perhaps with mischief, at this conceptualisation of him. And his mind was as sharp as ever, as I was about to find out. He listened, patiently, and when I finally had to pause for an intake of oxygen, he responded with a probing wit. It was a question, a query so pointed and telling and yet so gentle, that it has remained with me these last 22 years. Smiling, he offered: “Me, an intellectual?”

I know he wasn’t making fun of me. He’d been called many things, “Loudmouth,” “Black Muslim,” “race monger,” “Champ,” “The Greatest.” Had he ever been called “an intellectual?” Called an intellectual by an over-enthusiastic graduate student?

The question hung in the air. And then Ali was gone. Just like that.

It was for me a remarkable encounter. I had just talked with the most important American of the twentieth century. And also one of the most complex, a radical who was capable of political betrayal, a surprising conservatism and yet who remained possessed of a wit, humour and massively endearing braggadocio. The Greatest who was as funny as he was outspoken, as capable of clownish antics as he was of delivering searing political indictments.

It is, of course, unarguable that Martin Luther King, Jr. completely re-conceived the American political. The civil rights struggle forever changed what was possible for black life in America, and his impact was felt well beyond the borders of this country. However, what Ali did was make America – its racism, its military adventurism, its imperial ambitions – accountable for itself before the world.

Ali’s most famous fights took place, the Frazier bout in New York apart, in the “Third World”. Foreman in Kinshasa. Frazier in Manila. He endeared himself to the Congolese (“Ali Bomaye!” “Ali Kill him!,” the locals shouted. Foreman never stood a chance.) and to the Filipinos, a veritable “man of people” allied with them against his American opponent, an opponent made recognisably American and therefore not of the Congo or the Philippines.

But, firstly, Ali made America accountable before itself.

“I ain’t got no quarrel with them VietCong, they never called me Nigger.” This was the voice of a black Kentuckian declaring himself opposed to America’s ill-fated war in south-east Asia, a voice seasoned as much by domestic racism as it was influenced by his deep sympathies for the anti-colonial movement from Africa to Asia. In his memorable pronouncement, Ali connects America’s Deep South to the VietCong’s campaign against the Euro-American military forces. And yet, in 1978, with his career tailing off and high profile opponents of the Frazier-Foreman variety hard to come by, he was willing to fight in the apartheid bantustan of Bophuthatswana. For a black South African opposed to apartheid, for a black South African raised on the principle of “No Normal Sport in an Abnormal Society,” Ali’s dalliance with the apartheid state was a bitter pill to swallow.

The same Ali who had been denounced by then-California governor Ronald Reagan, (“No draft dodger will fight in my state,” Reagan declared.), would in 1980 stump for the Republican governor against the Democratic incumbent, Jimmy Carter. As a new Nation of Islam member, Ali had been taken under the wing of Malcolm X (Malcolm was a stealthy presence in the Ali camp during the Liston fight in Miami). Yet Ali stayed silent during Malcolm’s excommunication from the Nation by its leader Elijah Muhammad. In the wake of Malcolm’s assassination, Ali was once more uncharacteristically quiet. The violence of the American state in Vietnam he condemned, rightly, but the violence committed by those institutionally closest to him raised not a peep.  He was similarly reticent about Mobutu Sese Seko , Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos and Indonesia’s Suharto. Ali’s ideological inconsistencies added layers of complexity in the conception of a vernacular intellectual, just the kind of stuff to sustain one in the writing of a dissertation.

I finished the dissertation, delightfully haunted by the question he’d posed to me. “Me, an intellectual?” How does one make such a case for Ali when he himself is so playfully skeptical? More directly, I pondered about what kind of intellectual opposed racism and the war in Vietnam, refused induction into the US military but then withdrew when his friend was killed?

No wonder then, that Ali, with his radicalism complicated by silence and a conservative turn, made me, for almost 40 years, think about the world, about what an intellectual is, about the kind of philosophical and political difficulties such a designation raises. His question, I hope, leavened my project, took the edge off the Gramscian seriousness with which the project was saturated. As a figure of thought, for thought, Ali – for well over half a century – has challenged our minds, our political perceptions, our expectations, our sense of what the world is and how it should be.

In my experience the best intellectuals, among whom Ali numbers, confront us on territory, in guises, that we least expect. Thinking flourishes in the strangest place.

His hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, is a case in point. In Louisville, the intellectual assumes the guise of a boxer (let this designation serve, for the moment, as shorthand for Ali), a baseball player and an academic. Louisville’s famous sons: Muhammad Ali, Pee Wee Reese, the white shortstop and the captain of the Jackie Robinson Brooklyn Dodgers, Robinson’s best friend on the team, and Houston A. Baker, Jr., renowned African-American literary critic.

Ali being Ali, died on a historic day. June 4, Tiananmen Square day. There is something appropriate about Ali’s passing coinciding with such a brutal date in political history. One brave man, Wang Weilin – known as the “Tank Man,” stood, face down, almost visible only in profile, before a series of Chinese tanks, at least four of them, lined up, ready to crush him. Weilin, utterly vulnerable before those tanks, nothing but a shopping bag and jacket in his hands, risked his life, was committed to opposing a regime ruthless in its treatment of dissidents.

Ali never put himself in harm’s way quite like “Tank Man.” But he lived much of the first 35 years of his life in that spirit: indomitably opposed to America’s most reactionary forces. Unlike Weilin, he faced the cameras, squarely, with confidence and his inimitable humour. Tiananmen Square day remains an occasion for political reflection, for thinking about how to oppose regimes that seek to monopolise power in the name of some grand ideal long since revealed to be nothing but a fig leaf for that selfsame monopoly, who wage an unjust war against those with the temerity to denounce their actions.

In death, then, as much as in life, Ali does not makes us think, he has made – and this is how he has transcended his moment, and, possibly, himself – the world accountable to us. By leaving us on Tiananmen Square day, he has made us think about the world, about the violence it perpetrates, and the name in which that violence is conducted. Passing on Tiananmen Square day, he concatenates the world for us: Beijing 1989, Baltimore 2015. We are left to forge links between the hegemony of the Chinese bureaucrats and the movement that is #BlackLivesMatter; and then there is the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, already famous as his nation’s “Donald Trump,” an entirely different kind of “Thrilla in Manila.” To say nothing, of course, of the spectre of a Trump presidency in Ali’s native land, a presidency, as we all know by now, that is coiffed in “greatness.” Trump’s idea of making “America Great Again” deserves the sharpest jab Ali could throw, accompanied by an even more telling rhetorical blow. The adjective “great” should, at least in the moment of mourning, be the sole province of the truly great.

In his prime, Ali would easily have made such an argument. And, a more poetic and catchy one too, we can be sure. What could be more intellectual than that? Who has made us more politically aware of the big questions at stake in the world since 1960 than Muhammad Ali?

The answer, then, that I was too overwhelmed to render to Ali, is, should have been: “Yes, you, Muhammad Ali, you are indeed an intellectual.” The work of the intellectual is to think and, boy, how you made us think.

In life, and now again, in death, questions animated by Ali’s life, questions that, today, assume a poignancy and the kind of smiling urgency that only he could master.

In death he again brought vividly to life those political concerns, those causes, on whose side he stood. In death, his life comes into sharper focus: to fight in the way he did, that was nothing less than great – in accomplishment, in its poetry, in its courage and complexity. How beautifully he floated in that marvellous socio-political web he spun with his words, with that sublime artistry in the ring. How grateful we now are that we, not in the ways of Frazier or Foreman, we should have been the recipients of razor sharp “sting.” For a moment, as we take a moment, we can all just luxuriate in our ability to float in that great orbit he made.

 

Photo-Punch: Ali, despite his politics supported the conservative Republican candidate Ronald Reagan for the presidency of the United States in 1980 – Courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Library

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