Muhammad Ali, Blackness, and Belief in Oneself
Only The Greatest could, even in death, accomplish the gargantuan feat of making me feel my best on a Saturday spent confined to indoor spaces to avoid 117º heat. Muhammad Ali’s life inspired my father so much that he made him a central figure of my political education early and often. It was relatively recently that I even began to notice the impact that Ali’s always-prideful demeanor had on my own performative habits. My journey of loving myself and my Blackness is on-going, and his words never fail to reestablish themselves among the constant stream of nonverbal affirmations that dominate my stream of consciousness.
Anxiety and crippling self-doubt enjoy their relative stronghold in my daily thought processes, and the most effective medicine I know is performative self-confidence.
Giving the appearance of being a confident person is something I learned to do from a young age as a coping mechanism. It doesn’t come naturally to me, so performing self-confidence gives shape to something that seems otherwise foreign. Muhammad Ali provided one of my earliest examples of how to show people that you knew you could. In the face of bitter, and often bullshit criticism he never wavered, never deviated from the path of self-love, and always maintained that he alone determined his own worth. Ali was a prime example of someone who was unafraid to risk it all to preserve him. Through personal and professional loss — and there weren’t many of those to speak of — losing sight of his love of self, being Black, and Black people were never a part of his repertoire.
“Well, I don’t like his arrogance,”
I’ve spent the majority of my morning and afternoon consuming as much Muhammad Ali footage, images, and reflections as you can squeeze into a day. To say that I’m feeling a particular brand of very Black and very proud of it would be an understatement. This is a familiar feeling that only Ali gives me. Ali was a truth-teller revered by all other truth-tellers. If you didn’t want to hear the truth, you were better off tuning out. So learned the woman in the Phil Donahue audience who challenged Ali’s character with the above quote.
“That’s cause I’m Black.”
The exchange that followed captured perfectly, the reason why he walked the tight rope that made him a hero to some and a villain to others. The problem with being forced into such an awful position simply for believing in yourself is that villains don’t challenge dangerous institutions set out to destroy the will of entire populations of people to achieve and be proud. Don’t listen to me go on about it, take two minutes to let Ali become your hero, too (the exchange gets real at 0:55):
The evisceration of respectability politics, brought to you by The Greatest.
“Arrogance,” in this context, is a word employed by the defeated British Minority™ as a response to her lack of control. “Arrogance,” is intended to rob Ali of his agency. “Arrogance,” is a dog whistle.
That nasty A-word implies an exaggerated self-worth. Since improvisation is hard when you’re on the spot on the wrong side of a camera, I’ll give our minority friend the benefit of the doubt. I’m certain the term she was searching for in that moment was self-efficacy.
Believing in your ability to do things that you’ve proven you can do time and time again is self-efficacy.
Black people in America have been and continue to be burdened with the expectation of humility in such a way that any pride at all, no matter how deserving we might be to show it, is perceived as arrogance.
There is a mental impact to having your perception of self-worth attacked as “arrogant,” as undeserved. Ali stood as tall against such attacks as he did in the ring. He was unfazed. He taught generations how to be unafraid of loving themselves, how to love being Black, and that being Black was beautiful in spite of the obstacles presented to Black people by white supremacy.
Muhammad Ali KO’d 37 men during his professional career and yet, in the eyes of many, his most herculean task is never once backing down from a fight with racism, his most enduring opponent. Empowering millions of Black people to love themselves in a society that devalues their existence is the one win so big that it doesn’t have a place among the rest. That win commands its own column.
The People’s Champ, indeed.