He is ready to leave us. That was the prayer that came to my mind as I read about Muhammad Ali’s failing health. Yes, a prayer because I knew that even if we wanted him to stay, just so we could bask in his light a little longer, it was not to be. As the reports began to come in, I was filled with love and a peace of understanding. It is a blessing to have been able to interact with him on a personal level and also to have studied his journey. The evolution of his humanity and the strength of his convictions should empower us all. Knowing that he was a man who claimed his own greatness. Father, husband and friend to many, he made mistakes but continued to grow. In the end, by the force of his punch, swiftness of his words, magnitude of his intellect and sheer beauty, yes, beauty, he was able to turn foes into confidants. If you ever got to walk with him, even after the Parkinson’s had begun to ravage his physical stance, he was still sweet and flirty asking for a kiss, eyes twinkling, he made you feel special. Yes, he made you feel like a woman.
My first consciousness of Ali was as a 7-year-old girl in Atlanta. He was doing an exhibition fight with a young Mayor Maynard Jackson at the old Atlanta Municipal Auditorium. My mother, brother and I sat in the packed audience watching the theatrics in the ring. Both Maynard and Muhammad were talking big words. Julian Bond was playing his role as referee. They were having fun. I could not have known what I was witnessing. Three brothers in the struggle, men of substance, who each changed history. How can they all be gone now? Too soon.
The sport of boxing was never very appealing, however as dancer, I can appreciate the choreography in play when two trained athletes enter the ring. There is a level of conditioning the mind, body and spirit, for the ultimate matchup that Ali embraced as a lifestyle. He embraced his role as the people’s champion and was always ready to challenge his detractors. He loved his Blackness, unapologetically and made us believe in our beauty. He loved Allah, letting his faith and his words be his shield. He was the voice for us when others made the choice to stand down. It cost him many times, it cost him his title in the prime of his career. He did not run, he stood his ground, without a gun. His stance on the Vietnam War was a revolutionary act. It was the truest essence of being American. Eventually, he was vindicated by the courts. History shows us that he was right about the senselessness of a campaign that could never be won. Right about the negative impact on urban families that never could recover, on Black men left decimated by the experience. Right about so many things.
He was not perfect, but he was loyal. As a young man entering the Nation of Islam, he took to the teachings and wanted to believe in the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. He choose a particular spiritual path that was at odds with the greater society. Sometimes his words were incendiary. But he should not be faulted for his obedience. He was young, and he was emboldened by a sense of belonging. His brother, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X) was at similar place. They were two men, both in their prime, searching for answers. And then they began growing apart as Malcolm X started to examine his faith more deeply. He would eventually be shunned by The Nation and Ali stopped communicating with him. Their last encounter was in Ghana, West Africa, prior to Malcolm’s assassination. Ali has spoken of how deeply he regretted not taking that opportunity to listen to his brother. To somehow find a place of forgiveness. It was a hard loss but an important life lesson learned. One that he later shared in his writings and reflections on his life.
As a journalist covering the urban scene for rolling out, I began to encounter Ali at various functions across the country. This was the early 2000s and he still got around, mostly for fundraisers and charity functions. He was not giving interviews but would nod a response, or couple of words. He mostly would smile, maybe feign a punch and let you know he was glad to be out. Even if the words were not easy, you knew he was present in mind. I realize that I never took a photo of us together, too concerned about being professional. My regret.
Ali continued to impact people in positive ways that he would never know. In 2001, the movie Ali starring Will Smith came out. There was a big press junket in New York for journalists from all over the world. As usual, only a few urban outlets had been invited. After all, this was a major commercial motion picture. The studio was interested in attracting a larger audience, those of us there were used to being the chosen few invited to tell the story to the entire community. After previewing the movie the night before, we were split up the next day and sent off to various rooms for round tables with the stars. As the morning progressed, somehow my colleagues and I started getting pushed to the back of the room. When Will Smith finally entered, he stopped, and looked directly at us. “Why are my sisters all the way back there? Come up to the table.” I sat down right next to him and it meant something because this had happened before. To his credit, Jamie Foxx is the only artist that I have ever witnessed shut it down like this … Smith turned to me and I got the first question, which is kind of a big deal. It was, “What impact did going to Africa for the first time, playing a role like Ali, have on you?” He paused, no one had asked this before and he really had to think about how profound the opportunity had been. It was a powerful moment that shifted the consciousness in the room. I give Ali credit for this because I know he fought so that we would have a place at the table. And many people who are in positions to stand up for inclusiveness choose not to, especially in entertainment, but I will always give Smith credit for representing.
The last time I encountered Ali was on the corner of 125th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard in New York. No, really. It was 2004 and adidas was launching their “Forever Sport” campaign. On a cold February day people had lined the streets and a platform had been placed in front of the building for the unveiling. Laila, his prizefighting daughter, arrived first. Her picture would be on one side and Ali’s on the other as if they were boxing each other. She got out of the car, waved and walked onto the platform. When Ali arrived, the crowd went crazy. Chants of Ali, Ali, Ali, filled the air. Ali shook hands while his bodyguard tried to convince him to move on. And then he did it, he walked straight into the crowd. A sea of hands trying to just touch him. As he finally, moved back through to the platform, I witnessed elderly men and women with tears in their eyes. One next to me told me I would never understand how much he meant to them. Never. Here I stood, at the corner of destiny in Harlem, feeling like a part of history.
There will never be another Muhammad Ali. I covered the homegoing of Ossie Davis, which was one of the most enlightening experiences of my life. He was a giant of a man, who also stood firm on his convictions with a spirit that cut down barriers and built bridges. I wondered then, as I do now, what will we do without him? Men like Malcolm, Ossie and Martin were molded by a particular flame. Has the fire gone out? Is there an ember out there ready to catch in the wind? As we continue to ask for the elevation of Ali’s spirit, might we ask that the council of Ancestors who watch over us have mercy? May they ignite a future leader, leaders, who have been inspired by Ali’s words that impossible does not exist. Dearest beloved, born Cassius Clay, reborn Muhammad Ali, let it be known from your hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, to the White House, from Hollywood to Zimbabwe, to Atlanta and beyond, that the world stands witness to your greatness. We are blessed by the life you shared with us and now the final bell has rung.