ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
After [Ali] became champion in 1964, the Worlds Boxing Association,
largely an honorary agency with little power, stripped him
of his title because of his adoption of the Black Muslim faith.
The Defeat of the Great Black Hope
By Maurice R. Berube
Boulton Demas is a black 31-year-old lecturer in political science, originally from Trinidad, who, until recently, had never seen a live prizefight. In fact, Boulton Demas not only cant distinguish between a right hand lead and a right cross but he dislikes boxing. Yet he was one of 19,500 ticket-holders at Madison Square Garden when Muhammad Ali was beaten. For Boulton Demas, Muhammad Ali (also known as Cassius Clay) was the Great Black Hope.
The transformation of Boulton Demas was by no means instant. Originally a conservative political scientist, nonetheless, gradually became an admirer of Malcolm X, the prophet of blackness. Boulton Demas recalls ignoring Malcolm X on Harlem street corners when Malcolm was alive and preaching black power to few followers. Neither did he take an interest in Clays defeating Sonny Liston in 1964; nor was he impressed that Clay, Malcolm Xs prime disciple; the next day announced his conversion to the Black Muslim faith. Since that time, black power has come into its own, touching the lives of every black and Malcolm has been unofficially canonized as a black saint.
For Boulton Demas, Muhammad Ali is a folk hero, one of the first truly black men to challenge America in black terms. There was none like him in his chosen profession, or in other professions for that matter. He was not the humble Negro champion like Joe Louis, the good champion who knew his place, a credit to his race, whom whites could tolerate.
He was not the bad, thug-like champion like ex-convict Sonny Liston, whom whites still accept because Liston conformed to their stereotypical nightmare of the bad nigger, the juvenile delinquent grown up.
He was not the known-white champion, Jack Johnson, who terrified whites by seeking white prerogatives, by marrying a white girl, and who first inspired the racist demand for a Great White Hope to beat him.
There is nothing white about Muhammad Ali. He preached blackness through the vehicle of his religion. He is neither humble nor socially amoral. He is a complex, brilliant young man, who rewrote the scenario on his terms. Ali consciously cultivated a black image.
Prior to the Bonvena fight, for example, he invited a class of black schoolchildren from Harlem to watch him train; prior to the Frazier fight the only television show he appeared on was Flip Wilsons, the black comedian; he insisted that white reporters sit in the back of his car and black up front.
And, of course, white America reacted. After he became champion in 1964, the Worlds Boxing Association, largely an honorary agency with little power, stripped him of his title because of his adoption of the Black Muslim faith. And when he refused to be drafted into the Army in 1967, opposing the war in Vietnam, every state boxing commission took away his title and his right to box because his act was detrimental to boxing. Alis refusal to serve cost him dearly; after nearly four years of inactivity he was nearly bankrupt from his legal appeals to avoid a five-year jail sentence. Late last year, a federal court ruled that New York State must permit Ali to box.
He had won the right to fight again only to have to recoup his millions in a precious short time before a Supreme Court can rule on his draft appeal.
Although many lawyers feel that he has a strong possibility of winning his case, Ali could not take a chance.
And so, Muhammad Ali, after a long layoff from boxing, exiled during his best fighting years, was forced to fight the three top heavyweight fighters within a ridiculously short period of five months. White America wanted to see him beaten.Even the most unimpeachable sources were infected. Ring magazine, more definitive in its professional judgments than any boxing commission, faltered. Ring refused to award Ali its 1970 Fighter of the Year award (giving it to Frazier) because they felt that . . . the winner should be a model for the Growing American Boy, that his public relation be immaculate. . . .
And, of course, Ring concluded that certainly Cassius was no example for the American youth to follow. Ring provided the basis for its ad hominem, reasoning: Cassius Clay would have been the ideal example of a professional fighter if he had not refused to sing out God Bless America.
The draft refusal was but an extension of Alis blackness. The New York Daily News, which kept up a frenetic campaign against Ali, best explained the reaction of the silent majority to the Great Black Hope. Columnist Dick Young observed of white haters of Ali that: It is the Muslim mask of Muhammad Ali that they want beaten in. That is, what they fear. That is what they resent, really, that and his refusal to serve in the armed forces. They are the whites of the middle generations, those who served in wars gone past and those with sons or nephews in this one. They are the whites who think with hate in their hearts and who root for Joe Frazier to do this thing for them. . . . Even Fraziers manager, Yank Durham, didnt like what he [Ali] stood for.
Although Joe Frazier is also black, his social vision is severely limited. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference picketed Frazier in Philadelphia for refusing to grant SCLC the franchise rights to show the bout in the black ghettos, proceeds to help fight poverty. And CORE, praising Ali as a black model, was unsuccessful in its attempt to persuade Frazier to disavow the white racists who saw him as the means to defeat the Great Black Hope. I stand up for the black man, Frazier apologized. But the most important thing, I stand up for Joe Frazier. Thats where it all begins, each man standing up for himself and looking for his family.
Ali, on the other hand, felt he represented a cause of millions of black people. Muhammad Ali, Eldridge Cleaver wrote in Soul on Ice, is the first free black champion ever to confront white America. In the context of boxing, he is a genuine revolutionary, the black Fidel Castro of boxing . . . [He] marks the victory of a New World over and Old World, of Life and light over Lazarus and the darkness of the grave.
The Frazier fight closed out the myth. White America had won. The whites paid [the big prices] to see Ali get his lumps, Dick Young of the Daily News wrote, and they saw it. Joe Frazier viciously pounded a no longer fleetfooted boxer in thirteen of fifteen rounds, and most of the ringside celebrities applauded the comeuppance.
He deserved it, said one international film star. There were few sympathizers near the ring. One could spot the consternation on a few liberal writers like Pete Hamill, Budd Schulberg, and George Plimpton. But most ringsiders seemed satisfied.
Only Alis trainer and friend, Bundini Brown, wept on Alis shoulder.
One cannot write dispassionately of Muhammad Ali. His beliefs won him white liberal and radical sympathizers, whereas his cruel skill in his prime endeared him to fight fans who liked their boxing in the classical style. There were few movie house patrons who cheered him on in the first Liston fight; by the time the Great Black Hope returned and confronted Jerry Quarry, however, his black and white movie house fans were fanatically screaming for their hero. Alis three-and-a-half years in exile were mostly spent on college campuses annexing a new white constituency; and it cost him his boxing skills. There are no comebacks in boxing.
Most of those who idolized Ali, as well as those who hated him, simply confused politics and religion with a good stiff jab. For me, an unrepentant fight buff, Ali at his best was grace and finesse. His victory over the awesome Sonny Liston, whom fight experts had called the most indestructible and fearful heavyweight, was a victory of style and intelligence over the irrationality of brute force. It was the victory of the rebel, the seven-to-one underdog, of David over Goliath.
Prizefighting is not a sport but a sadistic ritual. At best it is the most destructive psychic release of hostility short of war. Those who find sport in prizefighting have not boxed much or perhaps not at all. Boxing eventually maims and cripples and even the most extraordinary adept barely escape paying the full price. Yet, once acculturated, the love of boxing dies hard.
A man, however, channels hostility into more constructive pursuits. And, of course, the younger Cassius Clay became the man Muhammad Ali, and fought his best fights outside the ring, in the larger real world. There are two menCassius Clay, the boxer, and Muhammad Ali, the Great Black Hope. I respect the black rebel, but it was the skilful fighter who fascinated me most.
But, even, in defeat Ali was a symbol. Her became an anachronism, belonging to a recent past America wants to forget. Ali was the 1960s, strident, militant, black, anti-war, socialand overreaching. We may not see his like again for some time.
Source: Commonweal (26 March 1971)
* * * * *
For July 1st through August 31st 2011
#1 – Justify My Thug by Wahida Clark #2 – Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree #3 – Head Bangers: An APF Sexcapade by Zane #4 – Life Is Short But Wide by J. California Cooper #5 – Stackin’ Paper 2 Genesis’ Payback by Joy King #6 – Thug Lovin’ (Thug 4) by Wahida Clark #7 – When I Get Where I’m Going by Cheryl Robinson #8 – Casting the First Stone by Kimberla Lawson Roby #9 – The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth by Zane
#10 – Covenant: A Thriller by Brandon Massey
#11 – Diary Of A Street Diva by Ashley and JaQuavis
#12 – Don’t Ever Tell by Brandon Massey
#13 – For colored girls who have considered suicide by Ntozake Shange
#14 – For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree
#15 – Homemade Loves by J. California Cooper
#16 – The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper
#17 – Player Haters by Carl Weber
#18 – Purple Panties: An Eroticanoir.com Anthology by Sidney Molare
#19 – Stackin’ Paper by Joy King
#20 – Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey
#21 – The Upper Room by Mary Monroe
#22 Thug Matrimony by Wahida Clark
#23 – Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark
#24 – Married Men by Carl Weber
#25 – I Dreamt I Was in Heaven – The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter
#1 – Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable #2 – Confessions of a Video Vixen by Karrine Steffans #3 – Dear G-Spot: Straight Talk About Sex and Love by Zane #4 – Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny by Hill Harper #5 – Peace from Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You’re Going Through by Iyanla Vanzant #6 – Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey #7 – The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight #8 – The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing #9 – The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson
#10 – John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History by Ahati N. N. Toure
#11 – Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley
#12 –The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
#13 – The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell
#14 – The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore
#15 – Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can’t Commit by RM Johnson
#16 – Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins
#17 – Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell
#18 – A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle
#19 – John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard
#20 – Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris
#21 – Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice
#22 – 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino #23 – Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul by Tom Lagana #24 – 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields
#25 – Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class by Lisa B. Thompson
* * * * *
By Jack Johnson
African American historian Gerald Early refers to Jack Johnson (18781946), the first African American heavyweight champion of the world, as the first African-American pop culture icon. Johnson is a seminal and iconic figure in the history of race and sport in America. My Life and Battles is the translation of a memoir by Johnson that was published in French, has never before been translated, and is virtually unknown.
It covers Johnsons colorful life, both inside and outside the ring, up to and including his famous defeat of Jim Jeffries in Reno, Nevada, on July 4, 1910, in one of the iconic ring battles of the early twentieth century. In addition to the fights themselves the memoir recounts, among many other things, Johnsons brief and amusing career as a local politician and provides portraits of some of the most famous boxers of the 19001915 era.
Johnson comments explicitly on race and the color line in boxing and in American society at large in ways that he probably would not have in a publication destined for an American reading public. The text constitutes genuinely new, previously unavailable material and will be of great interest for the many readers intrigued by Jack Johnson.
In addition to providing information about Johnsons life, it is a fascinating exercise in self-mythologizing that provides substantial insights into how Johnson perceived himself and wished to be perceived by others. Johnsons personal voice comes through clearlybrash, clever, theatrical, and invariably charming. The memoir makes it easy to see how and why Johnson served as an important role model for Muhammad Ali and why so many have compared the two. With a foreword by Geoffrey C. Ward. Translated from the French by Christopher Rivers
* * * * *
By Geoffrey C. Ward
Johnson (18781946), boxing’s first black heavyweight champion, was a lightning rod for controversy in early 20th-century America. Even many of his fellow African-Americans resented his unapologetic dominance of the ring and steady succession of white girlfriends and wives, viewing his behavior as a setback to race relations.
Ward (A First-Class Temperament) depicts the fear and resentment Johnson spurred in white Americans in voluminous detail that may startle modern readers in its frankness. Contemporary journalists regularly referred to Johnson as a “nigger” and openly advocated his pummeling at white hands, though ample quotations from supporters in the Negro press balance the perspective.
Ward first documents the obstacles the boxing world threw in Johnson’s path (including prolonged refusals by top white boxers to fight against him), and then probes the government’s prosecution of the champ under the Mann Act (which banned the interstate transport of females for “immoral purposes”) for taking his girlfriends across state lines. Ward brings his award-winning biographical skills to this sympathetic portrayal, which practically bursts with his researchat times almost every page has its own footnote. Though the narrative drags slightly in Johnson’s declining years, the champion’s stubborn, uncompromising personality never lets up. Even readers who don’t consider this a knockout will concede Ward a victory on points. Photos Publishers Weekly
* * * * *
By Charles C. Mann
Im a big fan of Charles Manns previous book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, in which he provides a sweeping and provocative examination of North and South America prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus. Its exhaustively researched but so wonderfully written that its anything but exhausting to read. With his follow-up, 1493, Mann has taken it to a new, truly global level. Building on the groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby (author of The Columbian Exchange and, Im proud to say, a fellow Nantucketer), Mann has written nothing less than the story of our world: how a planet of what were once several autonomous continents is quickly becoming a single, globalized entity.
Mann not only talked to countless scientists and researchers; he visited the places he writes about, and as a consequence, the book has a marvelously wide-ranging yet personal feel as we follow Mann from one far-flung corner of the world to the next. And always, the prose is masterful. In telling the improbable story of how Spanish and Chinese cultures collided in the Philippines in the sixteenth century, he takes us to the island of Mindoro whose southern coast consists of a number of small bays, one next to another like tooth marks in an apple. We learn how the spread of malaria, the potato, tobacco, guano, rubber plants, and sugar cane have disrupted and convulsed the planet and will continue to do so until we are finally living on one integrated or at least close-to-integrated Earth. Whether or not the human instigators of all this remarkable change will survive the process they helped to initiate more than five hundred years ago remains, Mann suggests in this monumental and revelatory book, an open question.
* * * * *
By Pauline Maier
A notable historian of the early republic, Maier devoted a decade to studying the immense documentation of the ratification of the Constitution. Scholars might approach her books footnotes first, but history fans who delve into her narrative will meet delegates to the state conventions whom most history books, absorbed with the Founders, have relegated to obscurity. Yet, prominent in their local counties and towns, they influenced a conventions decision to accept or reject the Constitution. Their biographies and democratic credentials emerge in Maiers accounts of their elections to a convention, the political attitudes they carried to the conclave, and their declamations from the floor. The latter expressed opponents objections to provisions of the Constitution, some of which seem anachronistic (election regulation raised hackles) and some of which are thoroughly contemporary (the power to tax individuals directly). Ripostes from proponents, the Federalists, animate the great detail Maier provides, as does her recounting how one state conventions verdict affected anothers. Displaying the grudging grassroots blessing the Constitution originally received, Maier eruditely yet accessibly revives a neglected but critical passage in American history.Booklist
* * * * *
From The World and Africa, 1965
* * * * *
* * * * *
If you like this page consider making a donation
online through PayPal
* * * * *
Browse all issues
* * * * *
* * * * *
* * * * *
* * * * *
updated 1 October 2007
Related files: The Defeat of the Great Black Hope Clines Reflects on Clemente, Stargell, and the Team of Color Unforgivable Blackness Dick Tiger Pediatrician Eliseo Rosario Dreams Like Roberto Clemente