Muhammad Ali was a hero to everyone, sure, but first and foremost, he was a Black hero, one of our greatest and most influential. He had style, he had swagger, and he showed us all we don’t have to conform to be accepted. Almost everyone uses the phrase, “He risked jail for his beliefs,” but few go into detail and say, “He risked jail because he didn’t want to fight a war across the world for a cause he didn’t understand against people he didn’t know for a system that stood in the way of his basic human rights.”
Being Black isn’t a monolithic set of codes. There’s no one way to act or dress. There are countless ways to embody and express Blackness, but the one thread running through them all is to be true to yourself and your community. Help each other, lift each other. Fight for a better world than the one we were brought into, forcibly, hundreds of years ago. That’s what Ali was about.
It’s true, he knew what he was doing when he ran his mouth. He was selling fights. But he could back it all up. Muhammad Ali played the heel, but he also won, and won big. That scared the establishment, the thought that this man, the walking antithesis of respectability politics, would show a generation of young Black people not just that they could be great, but that they could also enjoy it and let everyone else know it, that Blackness wasn’t inherently second-class status.
It was a long time since he’d been that firebrand, largely thanks to Parkinson’s disease, but Ali was a survivor. He survived for as long as he did, through exile, Parkinson’s, and perhaps even worse, having his persona de-politicized and de-fanged. He survived it all and still stood proud as a symbol of human excellence, and as a strong Black man. So losing Muhammad Ali is a terrible blow for that reason, but also for everything above, for what he represented, for what he taught us.
He was a Black hero. Don’t forget it.