Skip to content

In the fight for black freedom

Review of Redemption Song by Nirmal Shekar, Frontline, August 1999

AS we approach the end of an eventful century – one that has, in many ways, transformed our basic presumptions about life and living – in every sphere of human activity there is bound to be a critical review of the last 100 years and all sorts of attempts, some scholarly, others less so, to isolate the dominant figures of the period.

Who is the greatest political leader of the twentieth century? Who is the No.1 scientist? Who is the most influential writer?

Surely, none of these questions can be settled without a debate.

The one area of human activity where the debate on the most influential figure of the century is hardly a debate is sport. This is rather strange. For sport is one activity that gives rise to endless arguments about who is the best. Given the emotional u ndercurrents that characterise most debates, objectivity is elusive and seldom do we see a scientific attempt to arrive at a valuable critical judgment.

In the event, it is quite remarkable that there is hardly any suspense as to who will be the majority choice as the most influential sportsperson of the century. Time magazine was so sure about the identity of the person that it did not even think it necessary to wait till the end of the year to feature Muhammad Ali as the sportsperson of the century.

As we have witnessed in the second half of this century, the mass media can churn out instant fame and celebrity can reach an extraordinary level of intensity. But we also know how ephemeral fame can be. Yesterday’s hero may be a has-been, if not a nobod y, today. In this context, the unquestioned No.1 status that Ali enjoys as the century’s dominant sports personality is a truly extraordinary phenomenon. From the poverty-stricken villages of sub-Saharan Africa to the glitzy tree-lined avenues of Beverly Hills in Los Angeles, from the over-crowded, narrow-cobbled lanes of Calcutta to steamy sweat-stained inner-city gyms in Chicago, Manhattan and London, Muhammad Ali is a name that is instantly recognised.

How? And why? In a crowded, often cataclysmic, but always eventful century, how is it that a single sportsperson who dominated the world of heavyweight boxing in the 1960s and 1970s has come to enjoy the sort of fame that has eluded some of the greatest political leaders, scientists and artists of the twentieth century?

As a sportswriter, I have seen this question answered in vastly different ways by several eminent members of my tribe from time to time. But as an Ali fan who idolised the great man from my days in school in the 1960s for reasons that went way beyond the handsome heavyweight’s prowess in the ring, this reviewer must admit that the most satisfactory answer to the question is to be found, at last, in Mike Marqusee’s compact masterpiece.

The thing about sports books is that they are quite often just that – sports books. They don’t aspire to greater heights. They are researched for, written, and often read in a narrow context. And the worst part is that most of them are filled with hyperb ole and you are so full of the view through rose-tinted glasses that you choose to put them aside before you are halfway through.

If one had not been aware of the author’s excellent credentials as an American-born but England-based writer in the mould of C.L.R. James, a discerning and elegant cricket writer, an illuminating thinker on the politics of sport, the first question that would have come to mind would be: why another book about Ali? Isn’t he the most-written-about sportsperson of the century? What can anyone say about Ali that has not already been said? But the moment one saw Mike Marqusee’s name (he has contributed value d articles to Frontline) on the impressive jacket of the hardback, one was curious about what was in store. For, Marqusee is a writer who sees deeper than most, peeling away the layers and getting to the core.

So, it turns out, Redemption Song is much more than a book about Muhammad Ali. It is a masterly recollection of the revolutionary events of the 1960s in Black America with Ali as the central figure, as influential a hero of his era as such figures as Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King.

It is a tribute to Marqusee’s scholarly wisdom and powers of reflection that he has managed to lift Ali – it was about time someone did that and put Ali’s status as the pre-eminent sportsperson of the century in the right perspective – out of the narrow context of boxing and sport and place him in a larger plateau where his influence as a rebel-hero of the most politically significant decade of the second half of this century is clearly manifest. “Ali wasn’t just a symbol of emerging black pride, he was the source of it,” wrote John Schulian. And Marqusee traces the arduous route that a young man called Cassius Clay took – the formidable challenges he faced and overcame, staring adversity in its face without blinking – in the 1960s and 1970s to earn th e sort of distinction that Schulian wrote about.

Sport, even a dangerous body contact sport such as boxing, is quite often not much more than a trivial pursuit. It has little relevance outside of the playfield, the boxing ring or cricket pitch or the tennis court.

But boxing in America this century has a relevance that goes way beyond the ring. For the African-American descendants of slaves who faced cruel discrimination well into the post-War years – in fact, they still do – black champions, especially heavyweigh t champions, were a great source of pride. Then again, until Ali came along, most great black heavyweight champions, including Joe Louis and Floyd Patterson, were perfect role models in the mould that the white man had chosen for them.

All that changed, of course, on the unforgettable evening of February 25, 1964 when Clay beat Sonny Liston to become the heavyweight champion of the world and then, the next morning, told the media that he had joined Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam.”I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I am free to be what I want,” said Ali. It was the sort of declaration of independence that no black sportsperson had ever attempted until the moment.

And Marqusee, as he takes us on an enlightening journey through the political minefield of the 1960s and the decade’s dominant cultural influences in the context of the black man’s fight for equality in racist United States, never loses sight of the symb olic meaning of those words: “I don’t have to be what you want me to be.” Isolated and pilloried first for becoming a Muslim and changing his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali and later for refusing to fight in Vietnam, Ali never lost faith in his o wn ability to overcome the odds – in the ring and outside.

What he achieved in the roped-in square was significant as he danced on twinkling feet to bring up the sort of victories that saw him become the outstanding boxer of the century. But the punches Ali had to deal with outside the ring were an altogether di fferent sort and it took extraordinary courage and conviction to deal with them and emerge unscathed.

Physically, of course, Ali did not come out of it all without a scar, as we now know. For the great man suffers from Parkinson’s syndrome, the brutal effects of the disease evident on a memorable day at Atlanta in 1996 when the Ali lit the Olympic flame with his hands shaking and was embraced by the whole of America – not just black America – as a hero. By then the boundaries of black freedom had shifted a little in the so-called Land of the Free, although even today it is not easy to flag down a passin g cab outside the Grand Central in New York past 10 in the evening if the colour of your skin is black.

The 1960s, of course, formed an altogether different era. The rising tide of black protests against discrimination, the great protest marches and the agitational activities against the Vietnam War in virtually every American college campus, a cultural re volution led by such men of genius as Bob Dylan – it was an extraordinary decade in American history. Then again, so was it elsewhere in the world, not the least in Africa. Marqusee appropriately highlights the contributions of Patrice Lumumba and Kwame Nkrumah to the freedom struggle in the continent from which Ali’s ancestors were herded out in slave ships.

This is another significant achievement of this book – placing the struggle for black freedom and equality in the U.S., and Ali’s role in that epochal movement, in an international context. For the key to Ali’s appeal beyond the boundaries of the U.S. la y in the fact that millions of people in Asia and Africa and Latin America could identify with what he stood for in his own country. “Ali’s evolution in the Sixties paralleled a broader evolution in black (and white) opinion. His assertion of his persona l prerogatives led him to embrace a universal cause. Like Malcolm, he emerged from the cocoon of nationalism to spread his wings as an internationalist,” writes Marqusee.

If Ali had simply said that he did not want to fight in Vietnam because doing so would mean going against his religious beliefs, he would have hardly become a universal hero. Instead, Ali memorably proclaimed, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.” What he meant was that a black victim of white racism in the U.S. did not think it necessary – or morally right – to fight a brown victim of white American racism in his own country to suit the whims of Washington and swear by its perverted idea of free dom in the world.

In the end, Ali won, even as the army sent out by the most powerful state on earth had to retreat from the land of the brave men and women with whom the champion said he did not have a quarrel – “them Vietcong”. In the 1960s and 1970s, every Ali victory, in the ring and outside, was a major step forward for the blacks in the U.S. And African American sports heroes have come a long way from the days when Ali was reviled as a traitor in his own country. Nevertheless, the success symbolised by the likes of Michael Jordan and a handful of other top basketball, baseball and American football stars should not blind us to the ground reality of the condition of the mass of blacks in the U.S. today. “The advancement of blacks in big money sports has gone hand i n hand with the impoverishment of the communities they come from. The escalating rewards at the highest levels – epitomised by Michael Jordan – have made black sports stars ever less representative of the black community as a whole, 45 per cent of which lives below the poverty line,” writes Marqusee.

In a larger historical perspective, what was witnessed in the 1960s was merely a battle, for the war itself is still on. But it was the most significant battle of the century, and Ali was one of its most influential heroes. In telling this inspiring and moving tale against the backdrop of large political and cultural developments, this book is a pure one-off. We strongly recommend it to a wide range of readers.