Though he was my personal hero, I never got the chance to meet Muhammad Ali in person. But I met him countless times in my heart, at the intersection between my hope and anguish.
I am proud that my young son has inherited from me a total and unconditional, starry-eyed adulation of this larger-than-life man. We are currently reading together Running with the Champ, the biography written by Ali's longtime friend Tim Shanahan.
Despite the organized violence of his profession, he radiated more about peace, tolerance, and the nonviolent resolution of conflict than anything else. What a paradox. What a man. And then I open today's papers, and I see the real estate devoted to a public pariah angling for the presidency, a symbol of inherited wealth, moral decay, and the actual radiation of violence. If one wanted to construct a persona in every aspect opposite to the magnanimity and grandeur of Muhammad Ali, one would inevitably end up with Donald J. Trump. Though I hate to invoke his sordid name in this context, Ali v. Trump, it seems to me, is a vision of today's Titanic battle for the American soul. How far have we drifted? And what road will we choose?
We like to tell ourselves that history is like a pendulum and that, as Martin Luther King posited, its long arc bends toward justice. I hope so. But some days I am not so sure. And this is one of them. So here I am back at the crossroads. Fumbling to find the right words for a man who never failed to find the right words, he returns to me again in spirit, here where the paths of hope and despair cross. We face this choice, in a sense, every day, as calamities - local and global, great and small - present themselves. When we speak of our heroes, perhaps what they most represent is a source of vision in those bleak considerations.
Ali, for his part, faced the soul-crushing humiliation of Jim Crow America, and came out flailing his scrawny young fists in defiance over a stolen bike. Decades later, as a pudgy white suburban kid, I sought to emulate my hero by joining a youth boxing league, where I flailed my own young fists, not against an obvious external adversary like Jim Crow, but rather in a more internal struggle against the cognitive dissonance between a budding progressive sensibility and my own white privilege.
Ali's young fists were the same fists that went on to win him first Olympic glory and later professional supremacy in the ring. We all know what happened next. First came his extraordinary act of courage to shake off the oppressive naming convention of his African-American birth and adopt a new name reflective not only of his self-chosen faith but of a vision of an Afrocentric homecoming to the part of the world that African peoples inhabited before they were stolen, brutalized, and slaughtered.
If this were not already a clear enough signal that he was not prepared to enjoy fame and fortune at the expense of his moral clarity, he went on to defy the selective service system in terms that were both personal and universal. Providing (as was his gift) that single phrase, "No VietCong...", he flawlessly encompassed a larger vision of how black America could and, morally, must draw a line as freed slaves who would no longer blindly go where their master dictates, but instead pursue self-determination as a sovereign people.
It's common knowledge what a pivotal time a boxer's 'prime' represents in the history of their career. And it's one thing to say Ali gave up three years of his career as a conscientious objector. It's another thing altogether that these three years were unquestionably those of his prime. That is to say, however great we think him to have been, we never even got to see him at his best in the ring. Instead, we saw him at his best - and our best I imagine - in life.
The passing of Prince some weeks ago filled me with the despair that comes from feeling that a measure of life's potential has not been fully realized. One imagines with Prince what artistry he was still destined to share. But with Ali, I feel no such sense of frustration. It would be hard to imagine a life more majestic, fulfilled, and life-affirming than his. This is particularly so when we realize that those most precious prime years of the world's greatest fighter's life were spent in the service of peace. May Muhammad Ali rest in the very peace he sought to increase.
If ever there were a time for a state funeral, it's now.