A few years ago, my high school aged son walked into the room, sat down at the table across from me, looked deep into my eyes and proclamed:
I have rassled with an alligator
I done tussled with a whale
I done handcuffed lightning
Thrown thunder in jail.
Only last week, I murdered a rock
Injured a stone; hospitalized a brick.
I'm so mean I make medicine sick.
Last night I cut the light off in my bedroom
Hit the switch--was in the bed before the room was dark.
(by: Muhammed Ali)
That was my first exposure to the words of Mohammed Ali. I knew who he was, of course, but not much about him. For the next few years, I thought I was getting to know him, but really I was just reading more of what they called his "trash talking." He was an insanely good trash talker, and much of it was what we might today call self-affirmations. He died on June 3, 2016, and I mourned with his other admirers. But there was so much more to him than I knew.
On episode 166: Watch Old Video Clips from the Happier With Gretchen Rubin podcast, she challenged her listeners to find someone from the past that they are interested in learning more about and watch old video clips of them. She and her sister Elizabeth suggested that this might be more interesting than just reading about them, because the video clips were like time capsules, capturing them and their surroundings in a way you wouldn't otherwise see. They were right! This was like a time capsule of prejudice and the civil rights movement.
Muhammed Ali wasn't just the first person I thought of when they suggested doing this. He was the only person. I tried to think of other people, but as soon as I thought of a name, Muhammed Ali would box them right out of my brain.
What I learned:
Muhammed Ali was funny. He was smart and passionate and he lived his life with honor and dignity. He wasn't just a proponent of black rights, he was a champion of it. His words were empowering to me, a middle-aged white woman, but as I watched his video clips, I realized something I hadn't fully considered before: he was alive at a time when black people in America were being degraded and demeaned and made to doubt their own humanity. To have Muhammed Ali burst into their lives, proclaiming that he could "Float like a butterfly; sting like a bee; The hands can't hit what the eyes can't see" was like a bolt of lightning on a dark night. Gena Golden said,
Ali taught us to love ourselves unapologetically. He made statements like “I’m so pretty!” while boldly and unabashedly telling the world that he is someone to be loved and adored. He demonstrated an outward expression of self-love when it was common place for television programs, magazine articles and radio ads that portrayed negative images of black people. When Ali, a man, and a boxer called himself pretty, it stirred feelings of self-love that most were unfamiliar with. It encouraged many to affirm their own beauty...
While the media, the government and various intuitions were persistent with their negative portrayal of African Americans, he probably sensed that the damaging messages were destroying the self-esteem and confidence of his people. He probably figured out that repetitive, negative messages that permeated the culture would create irreparable damage to the minds of the people. I want to believe that his goal was not only to distract and weaken his opponent but also to encourage all those that could see or hear him, to never doubt nor criticize themselves, but rather to offer themselves words of praise and encouragement at all times.One of Muhammed Ali's most famous quotes is "I am the greatest; I said that even before I knew I was. I figured if I said it enough, I would convince the world that I was really the greatest." Knowing what we know now about self-affirmation, in convincing the world, he was probably also making it so.
I admire him for being an example of the power of words to transform a life. I also admire him for figuring out what he believed in and fighting for it. He's almost like a storybook hero in the way that he developed his own Honor Code and stuck to it, even through the most murky of circumstances. He allowed the Heavyweight Boxing Title to be stripped from him when he refused to fight in Vietnam.
He said, "My conscience won't let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big poweful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn't put no dogs on me, they didn't rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father...Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people?"
He didn't know how it would all turn out. He gave up everything to keep his integrity. It doesn't matter if I think he did the right thing or not. What matters is that he thought he was doing the right thing, and he was willing to give up everything for it.
I absolutely loved doing this challenge from Gretchen Rubin. However, I completely underestimated how long it would take. For some reason I thought I could spend half an hour on youtube and learn what needed to be learned. Half an hour got me through ONE video of hundreds.
When Muhammed Ali died, the nation mourned. Here is Billy Crystal speaking at his funeral:
He was so much more than a fighter. He made all of our lives a little bit better than they were. He taught us that life is best when you build bridges between us, not walls. He is gone, but he will never die. He was my big brother." ~ Billy Crystal