Muhammad Ali wasn't just the greatest boxer ever, he was my father. I remember when I was around seven years old, he would come into my room and sit on the side of my bed and tuck me in before leaving for his big match. He had a tightly cropped afro and the smell of his cologne would fill the room. His bright face would come close to me and he'd whisper, "I'm gonna whoop that sucka just for you and then I'll be back in time to cook you some eggs and toast in the morning." I always laughed.
I'd try and stay awake to watch my father fight but the bouts were late and I never did quite make it. My dad was everything I wanted to be; strong, funny, confident, and most of all responsible. The morning after his match he would always come into my room in his black and gold bathrobe on and whip the sheets off my bed and pull me by my feet, "Young man, your breakfast is ready! I whipped that chump and then whipped you up some eggs!"
The smell of cooked food filled my nostrils and I would sit up scratching my eyes full of delight that between the world, the media, the fans and fighting, dad hadn't forgotten his promise to me. "You betta hurry or I'm gon' eatum all!" Then he'd slide out of my room, down the hall to wake my siblings, his big voice filling the entire house.
But then I'd wake up...in my raggedy bunk-bed, in a hot room that I shared with my older brother, in the funk of the ghetto...without a father.
Oh, I had that dream a few times. And I know I'm not alone.
In a world where sports stars are no more than chattel property branded by owners who don't want them showing up uninvited to 'private parties', Muhammad Ali was a gadfly. If sneakers had been a thing back then, he would've certainly had a brand of his own with the logo being the famous photo of him in ring with mouth open, and hand gesturing Sonny Liston to get up. And if his sneaker had been so popular as to have an entire generation enthralled, and the media asked him a controversial question could ruin his sneaker sales; a question about Trump, about immigration, about Black Lives Matter, best believe he would've spoken his truth irrespective of the consequences..
He would've known that his fame and accolades while acknowledged by mainstream America after an undeniable string of physical feats, was drawn from and by his experience as a black man living in a tumultuous American landscape. Because of that he would've felt a moral obligation to every black boy with a boxing mitt, to speak on their behalf. To hell with rubber and cowhide and thread.
It wasn't his fighting record, it was his record of fighting that made him great. And just when white America would have an excuse to hate him, he would make them smile. He was a man and a gentleman; a rugged intellectual, if you will.
And he is the last one. The last of the greatest generation of blacks to walk the earth thus far; a generation of men and women who envisioned a promising future but were willing to sacrifice their present so that people like me could see it.
By the 1980s he was a walking statue. A breathing masterpiece of art. An in-the-flesh sign of a time that had long since past. He was evidence on two feet. Evidence that black people could be articulate in their own tongue; that we could communicate effectively and have deep, insightful opinions without a European education.
In the annals of time when they speak about the greatest African Americans that ever lived, he's on that short list right next to Obama, King, Tubman and Douglass.
Whether facing the government, dominating men in the ring or making googly eyes at children, he was what every black aspires to be...accepted, but on terms defined by him. He was a rebel-doer who never took his angst too far, but also never gave in to commercialism and pop-culture.
He was my father, and a father to all black men who never had one.
Mr. Ali, we looked to you to find what we didn't know existed; integrity, masculinity, compassion and charm wrapped in a ball of handsomeness. And we're still trying to emulate that today.
Thank you, and God bless you.
See you in the stars,