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Another View of Ali – ‘Redemption Song’ Reviewed

By Playthell Benjamin, The Black World Today, 1999

It was hard to imagine that I could learn anything new about Muhammad Ali. After all, we are the same age and I have been an avid fan since he burst upon the sports scene like a breath of fresh air in the early sixties. In fact, my earliest memory of Ali is a smiling golden brown gladiator, struttin’ his stuff among the ancient ruins of Rome after winning the gold medal as a light heavyweight boxer in the 1960 Olympics. His name at that time was Cassius Clay, a name which had a Romanesque ring and seemed at home in the eternal city. Right off I admired his self-confident bravado and infectious charm, two attributes which he would later employ to win the admiration of people the world over.

Almost forty years have passed since then and, like many of my generation, I have followed his career with interest. I even came to know him personally and visited him at his home in LA. And I have been an avid reader of the endless stream of copy that has been written in celebration of his uniquely American success story. Hence I thought I had heard it all. But after reading Redemption Song all I can say is: not so. Mike Marqusee, a transplanted American living in Britain, is a genuine intellectual who has managed to wade through the rivers of ink devoted to his subject and come up with a fresh take on the saga of Muhammad Ali.

One of the ways he accomplishes this is to place Ali squarely in the tradition of protest and struggle that characterizes the movement against white supremacy and colonialism waged by the far flung black Atlantic community of Africa, Europe and the Americas, a geographic and cultural entity created by the slave trade and the new world plantation system based on enslavement of Africans. In making his case for the importance of Muhammad Ali, the boxer, as a key figure in the struggle for Afro-American freedom and modernity, Marqusee quotes sources that range from Shakespeare to Mandela, Bob Dylan to Frederick Douglass.

One of the unique features of this book is the care that the author takes to place Ali within the context of the historical era in which he rose to personal greatness, and place him squarely in a tradition of struggle that encompasses the Trinidadian Marxist C.L.R. James, the Christian preacher, Martin Luther King and the Muslim minister Malcolm X. Marqusee is as comfortable talking about the contradictions in modern African leaders as he is critiquing white racism in Britain and the US. He makes the reader aware of the fact that the persecution directed against outspoken black intellectuals and artists, such as Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson, is the same order of persecution that was mobilized against Muhammad Ali. This was especially true of the torrent of invective aimed at assassinating the character of Ali that flowed from the pens of white American intellectuals, sports writers and news commentators after he announced his membership in the Nation of Islam. This cry of condemnation was also taken up by some members of the black establishment. However many readers will be surprised to learn that Dr. Martin Luther King and Jackie Robinson came to Ali’s defense, just as Dr. Du Bois came to the defense of world heavyweight champ Jack Johnson earlier in this century.

However, to the great disappointment of the author- unlike James, Dubois and Robeson, Ali has mellowed with time and has been “appropriated” by the American elite and made into a symbol of American greatness. “In 1977, Ali sat for an Andy Warhol portrait, thus joining Marilyn and Elvis among the artist’s gallery of American ‘icons’….In retrospect, the Warhol portrait marks the moment of symbolic appropriation, the transition of Ali from a divisive to a consensual figure. In Warhol’s iconography, Ali became one among an infinite series of celebrity images.“

Yet Marqusee also convincingly argues that Ali’s life represents a new and humane model of what a citizen of the world should be. “His example of personal moral witness, of border-crossing solidarity, belongs not to sixties nostalgia,” Marqusee writes, “but to the common future of humanity.“ By comparison, the much celebrated mega-star Michael Jordan is seen as an instrument of global American corporate power. “Nothing could be further from the ethos of Muhammad Ali than the no-risk business acumen ofJordan….Jordan has become the embodiment of the social Darwinism of the NewWorld Order.” Marqusee puts his finger on something here, because this perception of Michael is widely held by progressive folks. That’s why many -the present writer included – were delighted that Ali, not Jordan, was chosen as the “Sportsman of the Century” by the editors of Sports Illustrated magazine at a recent program held in Madison Square Garden.