This past weekend I took a trip to Columbus, OH to meet up with some fellow writers and friends. After a couple days of constantly being in rooms with no fewer than eight and sometimes as many as fifty people, the introvert in me needed some time alone to decompress. So I dipped off to grab some quick dinner at a nearby diner on High Street.
I wasn’t even sitting down long enough to get a glass of lemonade when I noticed there was a man sitting alone at a bar a few feet away. He was an elderly white man sporting a John Deere cap and overalls who spent the next few minutes flirting with the waitresses when he wasn’t asking for another Budweiser.
I didn’t pay him too much mind at first because I was in the middle of Ohio and seeing someone like him wasn’t all that uncommon from what I’d seen in the past 48 hours and I figured he had some pain worth washing away in peace. But then he looked over his shoulder, stumbled to position his feet and swiveled himself around on the bar stool to look at me.
“Muhammad Ali died…,” are the words he let roll onto the floor in my direction. “It’s not fair. He was the greatest! Ya hear me? The greatest!”
I’ll be honest. One of the last things I expected a drunk, older white man in Ohio to turn around and talk to me about was the death of the world’s greatest boxer who was also once the poster child for the Nation of Islam and quite possibly the most publicized conscientious objector in U.S. military history.
After exchanging a few words in agreement, I realized he was in more of a stupor than I thought and let him enjoy the rest of the night until he sashayed out onto the street as if his feet weighed 30 pounds each. That experience stood out to me for a multitude of reasons. The main one being that I missed a golden opportunity to ask him some very important questions.
Was he always a fan of Ali’s or was he one of the many that became supporters only after some time had passed and he lost his ability to speak? After his “controversial” statements and persona had become a thing of the past. How did he feel when Ali refused to fight in the Vietnam War because he didn’t see any place in it for him as a black man? Or did he just choose to notice him in the boxing ring and ignore his personal life altogether?
Perhaps, this is the kind of exchange that leads people to believe that Muhammad Ali, and others like him, “transcended race.” Even though no one really cares to add this qualifier to the lives of fallen white icons, it’s meant to be seen as a compliment. But, in actuality, it implies that someone’s non-white background should only make them relatable to people that look like them, which makes it all the more impressive when others start to take notice as well.
Muhammad Ali didn’t transcend race. He owned it. He was always a proud black man and didn’t want anyone to forget it, even if some would like to. To truly honor him and his legacy, we have to avoid falling into the old habit of picking and choosing parts of someone’s life and legacy to honor while ignoring others.
If that man I met was nearly brought to tears because of the death of Muhammad Ali, the boxer, he may have just been looking for a reason to sit down at that bar stool. But if he was grieving for Muhammad Ali, the man, I imagine I would’ve bought him a round and shared some stories.
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