Muhammad Ali: “I Am America”

Many have noted that, on the occasion of Muhammad Ali’s death on Saturday, the statement released by Barack and Michelle Obama doesn’t read like a press release from the White House – but was probably written by the President himself. This is the line that made all of the headlines: “Muhammad Ali shook up the world. And the world is better for it. We are all better for it.” But there was another part that grabbed my attention. It goes directly to Ali’s impact as a Black man in America.

“I am America,” he once declared. “I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me – black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own. Get used to me.”

That’s the Ali I came to know as I came of age – not just as skilled a poet on the mic as he was a fighter in the ring, but a man who fought for what was right. A man who fought for us. He stood with King and Mandela; stood up when it was hard; spoke out when others wouldn’t. His fight outside the ring would cost him his title and his public standing. It would earn him enemies on the left and the right, make him reviled, and nearly send him to jail. But Ali stood his ground. And his victory helped us get used to the America we recognize today.

As I watched all of the Muhammad Ali quotes roll by on my twitter feed on Saturday, it became more and more interesting to me which ones people chose to highlight. There was a lot of talk (from white people) about how he “transcended race.” Here is the tweet that summed up how that phrase missed the mark.

That’s why I found the quote chosen by President Obama to be so powerful. Rather than an attempt to transcend race, Muhammad Ali demanded to be recognized for who he was.

The confident (cocky) Black man has always been the biggest threat to racism. No one exemplified that more than Muhammad Ali. He seriously threatened most white people with statements like the one Obama quoted (I know, I was living in the South at the time). That is the Ali this President said he came to know as he came of age. When he referred to the “America we recognize today,” I couldn’t help but think of his speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of the march in Selma.

As we commemorate their achievement, we are well-served to remember that at the time of the marches, many in power condemned rather than praised them. Back then, they were called Communists, or half-breeds, or outside agitators, sexual and moral degenerates, and worse — they were called everything but the name their parents gave them. Their faith was questioned. Their lives were threatened. Their patriotism challenged.

And yet, what could be more American than what happened in this place? What could more profoundly vindicate the idea of America than plain and humble people — unsung, the downtrodden, the dreamers not of high station, not born to wealth or privilege, not of one religious tradition but many, coming together to shape their country’s course? …

America is not some fragile thing. We are large, in the words of Whitman, containing multitudes. We are boisterous and diverse and full of energy, perpetually young in spirit…

Because Selma shows us that America is not the project of any one person. Because the single-most powerful word in our democracy is the word “We.” “We The People.” “We Shall Overcome.” “Yes We Can.” That word is owned by no one. It belongs to everyone.

The spirit President Obama was celebrating in the life of Muhammad Ali was the one that demanded that he, too, was part of the “we” that is America. At the time, that didn’t sit very well with a lot of white people. Just as with the marchers in Selma, Ali was more often condemned than praised for saying things like that. But he stood his ground and “the world is a better place for it.”

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.