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Saturday, February 4, 2012

February 4-5, 2012: A Key Question about Muhammad Ali

[For this Super Bowl week, I’ll be blogging about interesting American Studies moments, texts, and issues related to the history of sports in America. This is the fifth and final entry in the series.]

In which I ask a critical question (of you, dear readers!) about one of America’s most talented, compelling, and above all socially significant sports figures.

I wrote a couple weeks ago, in this Martin Luther King Day post, about the ways in which popular narratives of Martin Luther King, Jr., have elided his more angry and aggressive positions in favor of his peaceful and optimistic ones; those ideas of mine are certainly complemented by the work of historian Rick Perlstein, who has developed at length a theory about the “Santa Claus-ification” of King and has pushed back by emphasizing the many Americans who expressed bigotry and hatred toward King in his own era (and beyond). The same case could be made, to connect to my last week of posts on sports in American Studies, for figures like Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron—not that they were as divisive (nor as influential or inspiring) as King, but certainly that the death threats and abuse they received in their respective careers have given away to almost universal public adoration in our own moment.

There’s no question that Muhammad Ali is similarly adored; in fact, I would argue that he is on the short list for our most celebrated American athlete (both today and of all time), as evidenced by the 1996 Olympic torch/cauldron lighting, the recent and extensive 70th birthday celebrations, and much else besides. Yet there’s also no question that during his boxing career, at least the first couple decades of it, Ali was known as much for controversial political and social choices as for his phenomenal talents: principally the 1965 choice to convert to Islam and change his name from Cassius Clay (which he called “the name of the white slave master”) and then the subsequent and related 1967 draft resistance and refusal to serve in Vietnam (which Ali framed not as a choice between the military and jail, but through the third option of “justice”).  These choices were, in their era, significantly more striking and potentially divisive than (say) Aaron’s pursuit of Ruth’s home run record, during the course of which Aaron got those death threats.

So my question is this: was Ali as hated and attacked as Robinson and Aaron? Did he receive the kinds of threats and attacks to which King was subjected? Has he, in short, been Santa Claus-ified in similar ways? Or was there something about Ali—his singular talent, his charm and charisma, his sense of humor and style, his particular sport—that allowed him to navigate the troubled waters of his own decisions and the 1960s without the same responses; not without controversy or critique, but without that level of vitriol, maintaining his status as a generally beloved and idolized athlete and figure? I’m sure I could learn the answers—or at least how certain historians and writers have answered those questions—through extended research, but this blog and site are nothing if not, in their purposes at least, crowd-sourced. So I ask you, those of you with experiences, a perspective, or a sense of these questions—which was the case with Ali?

More this coming week, a series celebrating Black History Month to which this post can definitely be connected as well,


PS. I’ll just ask again for your input!

2/4 Memory Day nominee (national): Betty Friedan, the scholar, author, and activist whose book The Feminine Mystique (1963) is one of the 20th century’s most significant works, and whose efforts in founding the National Organization for Women (NOW), the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (Naral), and the National Women’s Political Caucus transformed every aspect of American society and life in the 1970s and beyond.

2/4 Memory Day nominee (special): I’ll let the nominator, Ilene Railton, do the honors: “Herman Fine, born in Boston in 1913, died in Florida in 1989. He was the youngest of 10, son of Russian Jewish immigrants. His mother’s family was wiped out in a pogrom, and she hid in a soap barrel, was adopted by a family and eventually came to America where she met her husband. He was a junk dealer, who drove a horse and cart. Herman, or Bob as he was called most of his adult life, was spoiled by his sisters, and loved to tell a joke. He went to night school at Boston University and became a pharmacist, and for a while owned the drug store in the Ritz Carlton Hotel by the Public Gardens. The war ended that episode in his life, but he always remembered it fondly. Bob was an avid reader and a lover of opera. He often spent Saturday afternoons listening to opera on the old Motorola record player, sitting with the libretto, humming along. He passed his love of reading on to me, his only child, and I was undoubtedly the rare girl in the 1950′s whose favorite books were Stevenson’s adventures.”

2/5 Memory Day nominee: James Otis, the lawyer and firebrand whose eloquent and impassioned opposition to both the Sugar Act and writs of assistance in the early 1760s helped set the stage for the American Revolution; even though a 1769 fight with an angered royal customs commissioner left Otis disabled and unable to take full part in the Revolution itself, his words and arguments were instrumental to every stage of colonial resistance and independence.

1 comment:

  1. I actually predict we'll see the same thing with Obama after his presidency. Heaps of praise for his dignity and integrity, etc. etc. by the same people who have been spreading the lies, fear, and hatred.