I’d like for them to say he took a few cups of love. He took one tablespoon of patience, one teaspoon of generosity, one pint of kindness; he took one quart of laughter, one pinch of concern. And then, he mixed willingness with happiness, he added lots of faith and he stirred it up well.
Then he spread it over a span of a life time and he served it to each and every deserving person he met.
–– Muhammad Ali
Over the last week, as I watched the events surrounding the janazah (funeral prayers) and memorial service for the late champ Muhammad Ali, I could not help but reflect on the importance of the occasion and the legacy such an individual had left behind.
I could not also help but think that for the thousands who attended the prayers and service, he meant a lot to them personally.
Many there were lost in the moment of just being there, caught up with the modern technology of phones and selfies and posting on social media. The occasion to me was far more important than that; and, reflecting on the lessons this human being left behind, is much greater than getting that selfie in Louisville, Kentucky.
Since his death, many quotations and stories from Muhammad Ali have surfaced or resurfaced, and clearly they all remind us of who this man was and what he had achieved in his lifetime of not only fame, but struggle.
I pointed out last week that few persons in history command such global admiration and respect. But the reality is this wasn’t always the case. The same establishment that today lauds Ali was his oppressor years ago when he chose to stand up against its inhumane principles and practices.
Several commentators have pointed out this dichotomy of thinking. They consider this as whitewashing the legacy of The Champ. Maxwell Strachan, senior editor of The Huffington Post, for example, writes:
Throughout US history, white Americans have toned down the life stories of radical people of colour so that they can celebrate them as they want them to be, not as they were. It is why we first think of I Have A Dream when we hear the name Martin Luther King Jr, and not his opposition to the Vietnam War.
Narratives are altered. Complex people simplified. Revolutionary ideas watered down, wrapped and packaged with a bow for mainstream America.
Already, there are signs that people will waste no time trying to do the same with Ali. In the hours since his death, many people, most of them white, have taken to their various social media platforms to declare that Ali transcended race.
The phrase is intended as a compliment, as a way of saying he was beloved by all, but comes across as odd to many people. Funny, isn’t it, how you never hear about Steve Jobs or Peyton Manning transcending race?
In truth, the phrase is naive, bathed in white privilege. And most importantly, it is an eraser. Saying Ali transcended race banishes his long history of being uncompromisingly, beautifully black to the footnotes, just as the anti-Muslim Trump’s celebration of Ali whitewashes the boxer’s history as a proud Muslim man.
So today, before it is too late, let’s get one thing straight: Muhammad Ali was a revolutionary black man, and proud of it. He opposed the Vietnam War at a time when it was so unpopular and career-threatening to do so. He proposed reparations by another name, saying in the 1960s that the US government should take $25 billion meant for the Vietnam War and instead use it to build black Americans homes in the south.
I believe it is that ability to struggle and to sacrifice all of one’s comforts and privileges against injustice and unfairness that propels human beings to great heights. Today, America and the world look proudly on Muhammad Ali, but years ago, many of the powers that were didn’t.
They saw him as a revolutionary looking to change the status quo. The Champ persisted and fought valiantly inside and outside the ring for rights, justice and fair play to be extended to all people of all races and creeds. Over the years, that struggle evolved as situations changed.
Every human being has the capacity to struggle for what is right and just. Some will choose to go the full length till victory or death, others will go part of the journey while others may choose to remain on the sidelines cheering the torchbearers.
Admiration and adoration will ultimately come to those who choose to fight for justice.
In that struggle, however, one must never lose sight of one’s humanity: those God-given characteristics found in every human being of love, decency, kindness, faith and so many more positive traits.
Muhammad Ali at the still young age of 30 years knew these characteristics well.
The opening quote to my column are his “recipe for life”. He said them in 1972 in response to a question from journalist David Frost who asked him: “What would you like people to think of you when you’re gone?”
We know today these were not just hollow words. By the many testimonies coming out since his passing, we know that he lived his life by this recipe.
In the realm of human existence, every one of us can do something to make the world a better place. It is not beyond our ability, regardless of who we are, where we come from, or whether we have all of our faculties or not.
What it requires is sacrifice, struggle and that willingness to give up whatever comforts we enjoy to ensure a better good for all of humanity. Individuals like Muhammad Ali, Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Bussa, Clement Payne and others throughout history teach us these valuable lessons.
The scriptures of our faiths remind us of the prophets of the Creator who suffered greatly in calling humankind to belief and virtuous living, who spoke against oppression and evil, but who did so with humility and humanity, and who inspires those today to follow in their noble footsteps.
Peace be upon them all.
(Suleiman Bulbulia, Justice of the Peace, is secretary of the Barbados Muslim Association and Muslim chaplain at the Cave Hill Campus, UWI. Email firstname.lastname@example.org)