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Muhammad Ali

Speaking of Cassius Clay

Many blacks were once uncomfortable with The Champ

When someone of note passes away, the torrent of accolades from public figures reflects the same sweet amnesia that characterizes most people’s reminiscences of their own deceased loved ones. At most funerals, eulogizers focus far less on what they disliked in the decedent — her disturbing addiction to gossip; his frequent tipsiness or womanizing — than on their less positive traits. Acknowledging what we loved about the departed, we recall everything we appreciated about them. The ways they embarrassed, wounded or enraged us? Not so much.

It’s happening now with Muhammad Ali.

I was in grade school when the brashly belligerent boxer exploded onto the scene. As a small child traumatized by black-and-white TV images of civil rights protesters being hosed, spat upon and chased by German shepherds, I was all too aware of what could happen to “Negroes” who pissed off white people. So I was terrified for this cocksure young man. I was also a good girl — my outlaw eldest brother, who secretly smoked, drank and otherwise misbehaved, called me “Little Miss Perfect” because I studied hard, (mostly) minded my parents, and was sensitive enough to the effects of name-calling and gossip that felt guilty when I participated in either.

Is it any surprise that I couldn’t stand Cassius Clay?

I’d never seen anything like him. In his early 20s, Clay was stunningly loud in an era when most respectable black folks spoke proper English in measured tones — at least when microphones were pointed at them. He bragged about and exaggerated his skills, good looks and desirability to women in an era in which even the most gorgeous and accomplished entertainers, athletes and academics at least feigned modesty and let others applaud their excellence. At a time when many blacks in my working- to-middle-class neighborhood believed that being quietly competent and displaying a pleasant, nonconfrontational attitude would make them worthy of white America’s respect, Clay pretty much invented “in your face.” Worst of all, he was mean — hurling “ugly” and other put-downs at opponents less popular and conventionally attractive — and darker-skinned — than he.

Listening to the outpouring of heartfelt kudos and adoring remembrances about how cathartic and validating the boxer’s unfettered words and behavior were for many black folks of the era, you’d never know that large swaths of the community were once uncomfortable with the Champ. White people weren’t the only ones turned off by his larger-than-everybody ego.

"I'm the champ!" screams Cassius Clay as his handlers hug him joyfully after he defeated Sonny Liston for the heavyweight boxing title. Clay was credited with a 7th round TKO when Liston was unable to answer the bell because of a shoulder injury suffered in the first round.

“I’m the champ!” screams Cassius Clay as his handlers hug him joyfully after he defeated Sonny Liston for the heavyweight boxing title. Clay was credited with a 7th round TKO when Liston was unable to answer the bell because of a shoulder injury suffered in the first round.

Like many people’s, my feelings about Ali shifted around the time he defied the U.S. government by courageously refusing to be drafted and called upon to kill people with whom he had no quarrel. The fact that I had draft-age brothers further fueled my reassessment. I knew I wanted them never to go Vietnam, but hadn’t considered what would be hypocritical about them being sent there. By that time, I was old enough to wonder why I felt I needed to prove my worth by rising to a level of excellence few white girls seemed forced to achieve. Hadn’t God made us all inherently worthy? In fact, Ali and I had both changed. It wasn’t just that time had smoothed away a cocky juvenile’s spiky edges, transforming him into an insightful and eventually wise adult. Ali hadn’t just grown up. He’d grown out — out of a youth’s self-involvement, braggadocio and posturing, blossoming into something increasingly extraordinary. The man who said, “The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life,” understood that change isn’t just inevitable — it’s necessary to fulfill one’s purpose on this magnificent, maddening planet. Today when I look at the young Ali, I’m still uncomfortable with his boasting and verbal bullying. But I marvel at his refusal to stuff the hugeness of his charisma and exuberance into the tiny vessel the nation had prescribed for him. And I understand why he resonated with a community whose members had too often internalized the suggestion that they had to earn the respect, the humanity, that was a given for its white citizens, whatever their flaws. Ali never seemed to consider that he might be inferior to anybody — and dared you to disagree with him.

Not one of us arrives into this life fully formed. Watching Cassius Clay’s self-absorption evolve into Muhammad Ali’s openheartedness expanded me, too. Seeing that undeniably pretty boy’s transformation into a truly beautiful man was both a lesson and a joy. His embrace not just of his own beleaguered people but of, well, everybody, widened my world and made me finally see him as the greatest.

I’ll always be grateful to him for reminding us all that there’s far more to every soul than initially meets the eye.

Donna Britt is an award-winning former Washington Post columnist and author of the memoir, “Brothers (and Me): A Memoir of Loving and Giving."