I do not remember much of Muhammad Ali’s life firsthand. The sharpest memories that come to me are of the middle-aged man, slowed and bowed by a crippling disease, who lit the flame at the ‘96 Olympics in Atlanta. Part of my life has been spent watching Ali’s in reverse; watching his godlike physique and hellfire oratory return, trying to figure out just how the figure of dignified defiance, one whom my elders treated with utmost deference, had been forged.
The photograph of his stunning upset knockout of Sonny Liston in 1964––the greatest sports photo of all time––hung over the wall of my uncle’s bedroom. In summers at my grandmother’s house, I would take his poster, taking care to roll it up just right, and pin it to my own bedroom wall with a handful of multicolored tacks. He watched over me in my sleep, and during the day I listened to old records, interviewed family members, and read and watched what I could of the past. My question then was simple, but dictated how and on what terms I came to appreciate him: Who was Muhammad Ali?
Maybe the first answer is that the person we knew as Muhammad Ali was a gestalt of identities. There was the dominating youthful warrior-poet, his most enduring mode, who floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee, and who rumbled until he was no longer a young man. Then there was the leather-tough veteran, a rope-a-doping, slippery, taunting tower of a man. There was the philosopher, the warrior, the conscientious objector, the firebrand, the Black Power icon, and the nonviolent pacifist. There was the man who rejected his “slave name” and scrutinized other black people for not doing the same. There was the elderly man who condemned Donald Trump’s contempt for Islam. There was the patriot, the exile, the Nation of Islam sectist, the Sunni, the father, the brother, the husband, and the ex-husband. There was Cassius Clay, Baptist chrysalis, and then Muhammad Ali, Muslim man. He contained multitudes.