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A Beautifully written lie
on October 1, 2013
Pivoting on the Ali-Liston fight, Remick shapes a narrative that comes very close to rising to the transcendental dimensions that Ali's heroic and mythical life requires. It is a story of such poetic proportions that we all know it well: It is the story of a little black boy from Louisville, Kentucky who got his bike stolen, and as a result ended up in a boxing gym so that he could learn to fight well enough to be able to take his bike back from the bully that had stolen it. This little black boy would go on to become the King of the world.
It turns out that the bully in question was not just your familiar neighborhood bike thief, but Ali's own racist nation. Ali's life has become nothing if not a living metaphor of how a single moral individual should fight a thief and rapist as big and as formidable as ones own country. And racist America was a thief and a rapist -- not just one trying to steal Cassius Clay's bike -- it was trying to steal something much more important and valuable. American tried desperately, as it has succeeded doing with most black men, to steal Ali's manhood too. But try as it might-- stripping him of his chance at the title during his best years, of his means of economic survival, in trying to jail him -- it failed.
Sadly, the part of the story that Remick got wrong was the only important part: claiming that it was Ali who had re-created himself to suit the requirements of racist America instead of the other way around? Ali did no such thing! To suggest so, is not just an implicit lie; it is an explicit lie as well. By getting this part of the story bass-akwards, hate-filled racist America is again allowed to make another "clean getaway," a "literary comeback" to its own racist status quo, getting its usual moral free ride without having to pay a price, or even acknowledge that it did anything at all to destroy Ali.
With the point of view given here, racist America does not have to look itself in the mirror when it comes to Ali. It does not have to acknowledge or account for its own racist sins that repeatedly tried to derail Ali's life. Instead, Remick leaves unstated as the subtext of this narrative, that somehow, Ali "re-made himself" in a way that he then became acceptable to the same racist public that had spewed so much hate-filled venom towards him? But this is so far from the truth of the situation that one wonders how this fine well-meaning author could have gotten it so wrong?
The facts are radically contrary to the author's point of view: It was America, not Ali, that changed. It was America that first began with its hate-filled venom sharply directed at Ali, embracing both the Uncle Toms Floyd Patterson and Joe Frazier, and even the graduate of the penitentiary, ex-con, Sonny Liston, over the magnetic, charismatic, athletic, virile and handsome Ali. After Ali beat America's crop of "stand-in Negro bums," it had no choice but to begrudgingly accept Ali, not the other way around.
It was America's racist ways that was forced to heel and accept and then respect Ali's religious claims, even if it did so as a last resort and only at the U.S. Supreme Court level. It was America that had to accept the name change from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. It was America that had to accept the fact that Malcolm X was Ali's mentor and that the Black Muslim religion was a legitimate religion and a legitimate moral force in the fight for black Civil Rights. And it was racist America that had to swallow its pride when every one of its many attempts to defeat Ali -- both inside and outside the ring -- failed.
Except for this breathtaking flaw of attributing change and re-creation to Ali instead of to racist America, where it justly belongs, Remick has written a beautiful ode, not to Ali, hut to a "falsely neutered version of Ali," the only version of a black man that American seems able to countenance.
Thus the tragedy of this otherwise beautifully written book is that it allows "racist America" to get away clean, Scot free, again, to continue its racist ways unhindered, uninhibited and unacknowledged. What a pity!
A much better story would have been the real one: That racist America stood "eye-ball-to-eye-ball" with a formidable moral force within its own borders called Muhammad Ali, and blinked. And as a result of having been made to blink, became a slightly better nation as a result. Three stars