Remembering Muhammad Ali On His Birthday
Yesterday, Muhammad Ali celebrated his 65th birthday. Although a few networks like ESPN acknowledged the occasion with a series of films and programs, there was a curious silence surrounding The Champ's born day. No primetime specials. No benefit concerts. No celebrity tributes.
While I am disappointed by the lack of fanfare for personal reasons -- I am so awed by Ali that he remains the only celebrity whose autograph I would requestâ€”I also worry that we are losing our collective grasp of the life and legacy of a national treasure.
In addition to being a supremely gifted fighter, Muhammad Ali has been a tireless ally for social justice and international peace. More than any athlete in the history of human existence, Ali understood the power of his status and devoted his life to using it in defense of the weak and the voiceless. It is this genuine concern and profound engagement with humanity that pushed Ali past the politically impotent Michael Jordan for Time Magazine's Athlete of the Century Award.
Tragically, Muhammad Ali's legacy has taken a vicious hit in recent years. Now that 80% of the rights to his likeness, name and image has been sold to CKX Inc., the same company that owns the rights to Elvis Presley, Ali has lost primary control of his own public identity. Consequently, instead of remembering Ali for denouncing the war, challenging racism, or sacrificing his entire life for his religious beliefs, we are left with a warm and fuzzy poet/pugilist whose Parkinson's-induced silence is too easily mistaken for political contentment. Like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, Ali's image has been domesticated by profit-makers who have transformed him from anti-colonial freedom fighter to post-modern pitchman.
If we are to really honor Muhammad Ali on his birthday, we must remember his true identity. We must revive his radical political spirit and ethic of risk. We must revisit his analyses of poverty, race, religion and war. We must renew our commitment to (re)name ourselves in the midst of a world that is hostile to our very existence.
Only then can we truly celebrate.