“I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.”– Muhammad Ali
Transcend: To rise above or go beyond the limits of; to triumph over or go beyond the negative or restrictive aspects.
A couple of nights ago, the world received the news that Muhammad Ali—boxer, activist, unabashed Black man, Muslim and so much more—had left this realm. In a digital world that never sleeps, immediately the tributes and condolences started to pour in from all over the world. Ali was a man that touched many generations with his style, his grace his words and his actions.
Growing up, my dad was a boxing fan and so my own earliest memories of Ali are hearing about his prowess in the ring but later, as a teenager, I would learn about his actions and his outspokenness as a Black man in an era where we weren’t far removed from lynching Black men who didn’t toe the line that white folks set forth.
Ali, in refusing to be inducted into the U.S. Army to go to Vietnam, paid a price: loss of his title, a draft dodging conviction, banned from his sport at the height his career, a heavy fine, etc. Yet in the end, the conviction would be overturned and his actions would make the world think and maybe even help more than a few people connect the dots of marginalized and oppressed people across the world.
Without a doubt, the world hasn’t seen too many like Ali and maybe we won’t ever again…who knows? Yet as a wordsmith, in reading the tributes and words being written about Ali, I was struck by terms such as “transcend race.” Ali in his later years was so much more than just a boxer and civil rights activist, yet we as a nation are having a rather uncomfortable relationship with race; thus, we are far too quick to erase race even when it is very central to one’s identity.
For Muhammad Ali, part of his earlier fame was very much wrapped in his open confidence as Black man in America. Ali would later become Muslim, without a doubt one of the most well known Muslims in America. To be a Black, Muslim man in America is very much part of one’s identity and to have that erased with words such as transcend race is frankly insulting even if that is not one’s intent.
Time and time again, when a famous Black person or person of color dies, we hear that their work transcended race. Yet rarely is such wording the norm when a famous white person dies. An uncomfortable reminder of just how whiteness is seen as cultural norm whereas people of color whose talents cross the color and cultural lines must be almost mythic and superhero like thus they transcend race. They rise above the special faults and limitations that too many people inherently believe exist in non-whites.
Almost certainly someone will say: Why must we bring race into this? After all, can’t we just grieve the passing of a great? Given that this is a great who challenged us all think about race critically, I’d say not. He spoke up with enormous courage about racial oppression and white supremacy in a time when doing so could, even if it was less likely than in earlier eras to cost you your life, could certainly still cost you your social standing and acceptance by society. Ali’s courage and passion may transcend race, because we’re all human, and we share the same emotions, and that’s above color/race. But much of what he stood for specifically was all about race, so let’s no muddy the waters and dilute what he exemplified in terms of his race and his stance on it.
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