Muhammad Ali Taught Me To Fight Back Against Oppression
By Saigon Flowr
Muhammad Ali was one of the most prolific and charismatic athletes of our time — and also one of the most political. He was a man of principle who showed the world — and most importantly, people of color — that it was okay to push back against a government that hates us, to ensure they understood that we know we are the greatest, no matter how much they try to oppress us. He told the world how much he loved and believed in himself — even when he didn’t. He was my parents’ generation’s Kanye, before there was a Kanye.
I’m in absolute shock and filled with utter sadness to hear of his passing. We all knew it was coming — but that doesn’t make it hurt any less to continue to lose our elders.
I remember during the 1996 Olympics, when Ali was lighting the torch, seeing the tears well up in the eyes of my mom and uncle. When I asked them why, they started telling me stories about when they were teens, and how he was an important symbol to our people so many thousands of miles away from where he was. The Tamil minority community on our small little island of Ceylon had been under occupation and suffered severe oppression under the ruling Sinhala state that took over our country once the British left.
My uncle told me about him and my mom and my gramps, gathered around their black and white television set, glued to interview and fight footage of Ali broadcast over BBC and other fuzzy international stations. They hadn’t met any African Americans, but still, they immediately felt a kinship with Ali’s words, his political fight against the U.S. under white supremacy echoing their own against Sinhala supremacy.
Muhammad Ali wasn’t just an American athlete and public figure — he became a global symbol of political resistance to oppressed people the world over in far and distant lands.
It wasn’t until later in my teenage years that I truly understood his impact. When I came to this country, my mother instilled in me that as a refugee, as an immigrant of color, and as a woman of color, the only way I could be successful was by being obedient and doing what I was told. I was told to fly under the radar and not get confrontational about whatever it was that dehumanized me. I was asked to not upset the status quo.
We had already been in exile from our own country; we didn’t need to push back against what oppressed us here, too. She taught me that the best way to fight back was by over-excelling. But the more aware I became with age, the harder it was for me to follow that advice — especially after I was introduced to Ali’s captivating interviews and political stances that never minced words.
I remember as a teenager, going over to my best friend Phil’s house everyday after school, and him forcing us to watch every single Muhammad Ali clip that ever existed. (That, or Shawshank Redemption.) This was before YouTube, and before the internet became so accessible and ubiquitous. Phil either bought or rented each piece of footage that we watched. He was obsessed — and increasingly, I understood why.
It’s fascinating the things we remember, when those who affected our lives leave us from this world. Phil loved Muhammad Ali for his sportsmanship, but also because of how self-assured he was, and how he trained himself to be that way. He’d tell me that watching those Ali videos would help train me to be whatever I wanted to be, too. Back then, I was super shy and self-conscious. In a way, watching Ali taught me how to be sure of myself. He was the first person of color I’d ever seen be unabashedly unapologetic for believing he was the greatest.
But what I’ll remember most is how Ali never backed down, defying the dictate to not fight back against oppression. As an act of political resistance, he changed his government name “Cassius Clay,” the name of a 19th-century white emancipationist whose family owned slaves, to “Muhammad Ali.” Later, he said of the name change:
“Cassius Clay is a slave name. I didn’t choose it and I don’t want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name — it means beloved of God, and I insist people use it when people speak to me.”
He even refused to fight in the Vietnam War, which led him to be stripped of his heavyweight title and nearly jailed (in 1967, he was convicted of draft evasion, sentenced to five years in prison, fined $10,000, and banned from boxing for three years). He used the enormous amount of press he received from refusing to enlist to consistently speak out against the oppression African Americans and people of his religion faced under white supremacy. Ali was the first public political figure to decry that war on account of it going against the principles of his religion and his race. And he unknowingly led a revolution that not only eventually helped overturn his legal persecution for refusing to participate in a war he did not agree with, but also led to a nationwide rejection of that war.
I don’t think I’ve ever respected an athlete more than him, and I probably never will.
Rest in Paradise, Muhammad Ali. As you float like a butterfly, the world is stung with pain.