When I heard the news that Muhammad Ali was in critical condition earlier this week, my first thought was about the passing of one of recent American history’s truly great men. Soon thereafter, my mind turned to what our collective reaction to it might look like. This year, sadly, we’ve had more than our fair share of opportunities to see how it typically plays out as we mourn the loss of beloved public figures, David Bowie and Prince being perhaps the most notable examples. Whenever a celebrity or significant political figure dies, a few things happen: There is, of course, the predictable and instantaneous explosion of grief on social media. But shortly thereafter comes the meta response, wherein we begin to react to the reactions, to police the grieving of others, weeding out those whose expressions are deemed authentic, and those that are mere performative attention-seeking.
“Oh, you love Merle Haggard now? Name five of his songs” goes a variation on one joke motif. In part that’s because it’s so easy to personalize the story of a beloved figure’s death, and to siphon off some of that good grief shine. Posting for likes when a celebrity dies is like trying to hook up at a wedding: Love is in the air, and everyone’s inhibitions are low.
*event happens* but how does this affect Me, the Protagonist of Reality
— ballin alex furlin (@thefurlinator) April 17, 2014
The conventional wisdom is that making someone else’s death about yourself is tacky, and it certainly can be, but maybe processing a celebrity’s death through our own personal experience isn’t illegitimate, because how the hell else are we supposed to understand it? Few of us knew Prince or Ali personally, but we definitely knew ourselves at each point in our own lives while we were in the process of knowing about theirs.
Much has been written this year about this process, and you may or may not find the arguments on either side persuasive. I find myself of late leaning toward a more laissez faire approach when it comes to letting people process the news the way that they see fit, at least generally speaking. So what if you only knew a handful of David Bowie songs and his passing rendered you bereft? How does that affect my ostensibly more authentic grief?
But Ali’s death has pointed up a divide in our respective mourning that is somewhat different. There is, in this case, actually a right and wrong way to grieve for the boxing great. In fact, there are vast swaths of people out there who have no right to do so in the first place.
One common reaction I’ve seen today has been entreaties to refrain from “politicizing” his death, the go-to response from people, typically on the right, who are made uncomfortable by the messy facts of reality encroaching upon their fairy tale view of the world.
Ah, yes, please do not politicize Ali’s death, due to his famous disdain for politicizing things in life. pic.twitter.com/Z1wDmnNglx
— Luke O’Neil (normal) (@lukeoneil47) June 4, 2016
If ever there were a man’s life that deserved to be politicized it is Ali’s. To suggest otherwise is to completely, and willfully, misread everything that the man stood for.
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?” he famously said when he refused to be drafted during the Vietnam War. Being a great athlete isn’t what made him a hero. There are many of those. Being the most famous one in the world telling the US military and its bullshit war to go fuck itself is what made him a hero.
“No, I am not going ten thousand miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would put my prestige in jeopardy and could cause me to lose millions of dollars which should accrue to me as the champion.”
“But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is right here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality…”
Does that sound like the words of a man who wouldn’t want his death politicized?
When you saw #Ali you didn’t see color you didn’t see religion you saw a gentle man who was a strong fighter,a Champion you could believe in
— Chris Myers (@The_ChrisMyers) June 4, 2016
Similarly, when it comes to the death of significant black figures in history, there is a predictable effort to respectability-launder their reputations. You hear this all the time from the worse white people you know whenever Martin Luther King’s legacy, and how he would have hypothetically reacted to the events of the day, is tossed out like some revisionist white-washed historical fan fiction. This tweet above is the perfect example of that.
If Ali wasn’t black. If he wasn’t religious, then no one is. If that makes you uncomfortable, you do not know Ali. Your mourning privileges are revoked.
The same can be said, unsurprisingly, of corrosive hypocritical shit heads like Donald Trump, a man, I don’t need to remind you, who has proposed banning Muslims from entering the country, and tossed around the idea of a registration system for people of that particular faith.
As many have pointed out, Trump, who eulogized Ali in a tweet last night, is completely, and utterly full of shit.
— andrew kaczynski (@BuzzFeedAndrew) June 4, 2016
The fact is, many of the people mourning Ali online today would be the very same ones invoking his name with invective were he in his prime. You see this every time an athlete deigns to say anything even remotely political, which is why so few of them do. If you’ve ever found yourself reacting to an athlete speaking out by saying “Shut up and play” then mourning Muhammad Ali is not for you. You may kindly take a seat in the back. The same goes for those who refuse to acknowledge an individual’s preferred identity. How many people are there who stubbornly insist on still referring to Caitlyn Jenner as Bruce who are saddened about Ali’s death? Fifty years ago they’d be the ones still calling him Cassius Clay out of spite.
But time has a way of softening the edges on even the most political among us. Antonin fucking Scalia of all people was afforded the de rigueur posthumous respect in death this year, and he was a nightmare bog demon from the extra racist section of hell.
Ali may have been an affable and grandfatherly figure in his old age, and so it’s somewhat natural to default to our most recent memories of him when reflecting on his passing. But to erase the man he truly was, the thoroughly political man, the thoroughly black man, the thoroughly Muslim man, the draft-resisting hero, isn’t just to misread the meaning of his life, it’s to pretend that it didn’t even happen.