Ambassador Attallah Shabazz (eldest daughter of Malcolm X) speaking at Muhammad Ali’s public funeral, KFC Yum! Center, Louisville, KY, June 10, 2016. (http://www.odt.co.nz/).
Public spectacles, if not properly processed and analyzed, are like champagne and wedding cake at a reception. Without a filter, a spectacle can easily become empty calories and shiny objects, lacking in context and devoid of implications.
The hours-long coverage of both Muhammad Ali’s ride to his grave and the public funeral service that followed the private one in Louisville, Kentucky on Friday had its moments. Ambasador Attallah Shabazz’s heartbreak, joy, and eloquence regarding her lifelong relationship with Ali and the connections between him, her, and her father, Malcolm X. Bryant Gumbel’s somber and bittersweet speech about Ali the man and athlete, so imperfect, so flawed, and yet, nearly as great as Ali said he himself was. Billy Crystal’s ability to mix comedy and sorrow, so typical of the great comedian when he was in his heyday. Rabbi Joe Rapport’s ability to keep his words and stories simple, to make his message plain. They were the highlight of the public interfaith spectacle that despite all objections to the contrary (including my own), was all that Ali wanted in the aftermath of his death.
If the service had only consisted of this group of men and women, the service would’ve been over in under an hour, and would have accomplished all Ali apparently wanted. Sadly, other people had the opportunity to speak for Ali and on his behalf, imbuing their own selfish and whitewashing stamps on the man and his public funeral. Valerie Jarrett, one of the powers behind President Barack Obama’s Oval Office chair, read Obama’s statement commemorating Ali at the funeral. Except that Valerie Jarrett’s reading of the president’s commemorative letter sounded more like a call to America as a great and exceptional nation.
He’d have everything stripped from him – his titles, his standing, his money, his passion, very nearly his freedom. But Ali still chose America. I imagine he knew that only here, in this country, could he win it all back.
Where else was Ali going to go to continue his career? Ali was going through the courts in order to keep from going to prison for draft dodging, no? Running away would’ve made his predicament worse, not better. Ali may have chosen America between 1967 and 1970. But let’s not pretend as if Saudi Arabia, Australia, Sweden, and the USSR had invited him to live and fight heavyweight championship fights abroad as an alternative.
President 42, William Jefferson Clinton, ended the four (or was it five?) hour public funeral with his standard “I feel your pain” speech. Clinton had been crying for at least twenty minutes before he walked up the steps to the podium. His face was flush and a bright pink from grief. Clinton began with a few choked words as he stifled tears. Now, I am not saying that any of this was Clinton fakery. He has always been in the moment as long as he’s been in the public eye. And in that moment on Friday, the former president was as heartbroken as anyone in that 18,000-seat arena.
Still, Clinton managed a select choice of words that conjured up America the beautiful and the message of American individualism.
We have all seen the beautiful pictures of the humble Muhammad Ali with a boy and people visiting and driving by. I think he decided something I hope every young person here will decide. I think he decided very young, to write his own life story. I think he decided, before he could possibly have worked it all out, and before fate and time could work their will on him, he decided he would not be ever be disempowered. He decided that not his race nor his place, the expectations of others, positive negative or otherwise would strip from him the power to write his own story.
See how Clinton just slipped that in his eulogy, as if structural racism, economic inequality, the chaos of one’s family or community can be overcome by sheer force of will? (Or, as the researchers call it these days, “grit” and “resilience?”) Clinton snuck that American rugged individualism in there faster than a twenty-seven year-old Ali could turn out the lights and jump into bed. Or, rather, the way a sneaky teenager can spike a bowl of punch with whisky or rum.
For Ali, it wasn’t just grit or determination that was critical. He had skills that only a handful of people on the entire planet have ever possessed in any generation. The kind of skills that made him a three-time heavyweight champion. His family was working-class in the Jim Crow South, a major achievement in the 1940s and 1950s. A Louisville police officer who also happened to train boxers “discovered” Ali in 1954, when the latter was twelve years old. Maybe Ali, like me at twelve, had discovered some sense of his calling and pursued it fully. But opportunities matter. Talent matters. A background that incubates and nurtures that talent matters. Sheer will alone only gets individuals so far. Thanks for continuing to spread the American mythology, Clinton.
Clinton also said
I have spent a lot of time now, as I get older and older, trying to figure out what makes people tick, how do they turn out the way they are, how do some people refuse to become victims and rise from every defeat.
The answer isn’t merely in individual struggle, but in dismantling structures that stifle the ability of individuals to overcome. Or really, dismantling structures so that there is no need to overcome racism and inequality in the first place. The idea that it’s just the individual’s fault that they do not overcome being victims. This could just as easily be the argument that rapist Brock Turner’s father made against “Emily Poe” after his son was sentenced to only six months in county jail for sexual assault in California.
Maybe President Obama’s right. “Muhammad Ali was America. He will always be America.” But what America was he? Was he a narcissistic megalomaniac who had no empathy for the plight of the poor and vulnerable and didn’t understand structural racism and religious intolerance as fundamental obstacles to freedom? Or was he the unapologetic Black man who stood for what America ought to be, rather than the hypocrisy that America often is? Or, perhaps, Ali represents both strands of this bipolar and narcissistic American identity after all?
What this means is that while Ali can forever rest in peace, for America, peace will remain elusive.