The Agency of Joe Frazier

Regarding our Joe Frazier conversation from last week, I think this piece by Bill Rhoden is a lot closer to the mark:


The news of Frazier's death set off waves of heartfelt recollections and dredged up old, deep-rooted comparisons. Many of the tributes followed a pattern, propping up Frazier by putting down Ali. More than one writer concluded that, of the two, Frazier was the better man. This wasn't relevant in 1971, when Frazier and Ali fought the first of their three fights, and is hardly relevant now. 

The continued use of Frazier as a symbol and counterpoint to Ali reminds me of Bill Clinton's remarks at the funeral service for Coretta Scott King in 2006. Clinton had listened as speaker after speaker used the occasion of her death for sermons on civil rights and racial inequity. 

Before he began his formal address, Clinton, gesturing toward King's coffin, said: "I don't want us to forget that there's a woman in there. Not a symbol, a real woman who lived and breathed and got angry and got hurt and had dreams and disappointments. I don't want us to forget that."

I love that Clinton quote, because a reflects a lot of our conversations here around history, Malcolm X, the Confederacy etc. It is natural, human, and not altogether harmful to make symbols out of people. I can't find the post but Cynic once wrote a great comment on African-Americans and Lincoln. The upshot, as I recall, is that black people invested Lincoln with meaning, and that myth-making is just as important as the actual texts of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Hence it is natural that Frazier assume a place in our mythology. It'd be nice if that place were more than simply an appendage to Ali. Rhoden name-checks a new documentary Joe Frazier: When The Smoke Clears. I'm looking forward to seeing it.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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