On Muhammad Ali's Complicated Contradictions, And How He Changed Boxing | Connecticut Public Radio

On Muhammad Ali's Complicated Contradictions, And How He Changed Boxing

Jun 10, 2016
Originally published on July 1, 2016 11:30 am

The death of Muhammad Ali — one of the world's greatest boxers — has come with a wave of tributes and memorials. We've been taken back to his most triumphant fights and were reminded of just how handsome he was. (I mean, did we ever really forget?)

But being triumphant was complicated and eventually fatal for Ali, a complex man whose intersecting identities and defiant personality made him that much more fascinating.

Gene sat down with Gautham Nagesh, writer and founder of StiffJab, a boxing and mixed-martial-arts magazine based in Detroit, to talk about all this.

Ali was famously convicted of draft evasion for refusing to be inducted into the armed forces during the Vietnam war because of his religion. He was then banned from boxing for three years. Can you contextualize what people were expecting from Ali when he came back to regain his title in 1974?

The context is really important. When Ali was stripped of his title and banned from boxing when he refused to go to Vietnam, public sentiment was very strongly against him. A term like "draft dodger" was thrown around back then — there were a lot of people it was applied to. But he was the heavyweight champion of the world. And he was also a stark contrast to someone like Joe Louis, who was presented as really patriotic. That's what they were offering to Ali. They wanted him to be sort of a mascot for the army the same way Ted Williams and other celebrities have been in the past. But he wasn't willing to play that role. So he was really vilified. There weren't that many people thinking of his fighting style or whether or not he was gonna be back. There were a lot of people who were, quite frankly, thinking, "Good riddance."

How did Ali separate himself from different black fighters and the mainstream at the time?

Ali was a separatist for most of his career. He was not an integrationist, which put him directly at odds with both a lot of the Civil Rights leaders at the time and also the mainstream American public...who were falling in love with the idea of an integrated society. But Ali was allied with the Nation of Islam. He was definitely as he called it, trying to be a new kind of black man, not one that was confined by the stereotypes that black people had been held to previously, especially fighters.

Floyd Patterson was — it's an offensive term — but what they called the "good Negro." He was really a hard working, morally upright, conscientious, publically focused civil rights man. [He] tried to do everything right, really just trying to exemplify and be a model for people of his race. He lost the title to Sonny Liston who back then was sort of this "Bigger Thomas" figure, portrayed an ex-convict with ties to the Mafia, really portrayed as a sinister black man, which is an image that was very familiar with and embraced — especially by the white public.

Ali was trying to be something completely different than that, and his primary concern was how he appealed to people of his own race. And I think that's the big difference. Ali was a black man who was not concerned with what white America thought of him. He was worried about what he could do for his own people and that didn't make him popular at the time. But I think that's why today he is so important to everyone, but especially African-American people.

People often talk about Ali's beef with Joe Frazier. Was Ali's antagonism some kind of political statement?

One of the things that I think is fair to criticize about [Ali] is the way he treated Joe Frazier. Joe Frazier in many ways came from a much harder, more traditional African-American environment than Muhammad Ali. Muhammad Ali was a middle class kid from Louisville. He had it better off than most fighters in that era. Joe Frazier was from South Carolina. He was from crippling poverty, growing up in sharecropper country. He was very much emblematic of what the African-American experience was for Southern blacks in the early twentieth century and so he hadn't done anything to really merit that sort of criticism.

That was the psychological warfare that Ali used to engage in, and it wasn't always sort of with this grand political master plan. And Frazier was really bitter about it I think until he passed away because he felt that...he was a real black man, that Ali treated sort of treated him like a tool of the establishment, when nothing can be further from the truth.

What does Ali's career help us understand about black folks and sports in America?

There can only be one. Whether we're talking about TV, politics, sports, there can only be traditionally one black person who we as an American public can embrace. And whoever's up against them, we throw shade at them, we don't hold them in the same esteem for whatever reason. We have space in our minds and hearts for both John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. But we don't view black athletes the same way. That's one of the complicated realities of race and fandom in this country is that they are tied up in complicated ways.

How has Ali changed boxing?

Boxing suffers I think directly as a result of Ali. I think a generation of people saw Ali, they grew up with him as their hero, they saw him do these impossible things, and then they were unapologetically exposed to the consequences. It was just a culture suddenly having to accept that this is the cost of this violence as a spectacle that we consume. The thing that is staggering about Ali is that....he was out there, interacting with people, and also forcing them to deal with the reality of his condition.

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GENE DEMBY (HOST): Hey, y'all, this is CODE SWITCH from NPR, race and identity, remixed. I'm Gene Demby. Normally, our episodes come out on Wednesdays, as you know. But there's something the team's been chewing on for the last few days that we felt like we really needed to hash out a little bit. And it's about Muhammad Ali. The heavyweight boxing champion and cultural icon died last week, and there was a wave of really moving, heartfelt tributes to him.

Like a lot of you, we inhaled many of those tributes and remembrances. But some of us really felt like something was missing from a lot of what we were hearing and reading. The Ali we remember was getting lost, so we wanted to jump in the studio and talk about that. With me here, I've got some folks from the CODE SWITCH team - correspondent Karen Grigsby Bates. What's good, KGB?


DEMBY: Our producer, Walter Ray Watson.


DEMBY: And our editor, Alicia Montgomery.


DEMBY: So, KGB, you did a radio story about this.

BATES: I did.

DEMBY: What was missing for you in the coverage of Ali's death?

BATES: Ali's ferocity. You know, anybody who grew up seeing him on television, speaking - even in newsreels now, you can pull it up on YouTube - he took, as the old folks like to say, no tea for the fever.


He spoke truth to power. He was not worried about who was going to be discomforted by it or put off by it. And it had consequences. I mean, real, like, not able to feed yourself kind of consequences for him. And he did it anyway. And I think part of why he did it - I've heard him say this before - is that, you know, it wasn't 'cause he was stupid and fearless. It wasn't 'cause he didn't know what the consequences might be. He said, well, yeah, I was scared, but, you know, you do it anyway 'cause you have to. I'm a man.

DEMBY: So, Karen, you feel like that was missing from all the tributes that you were seeing for Ali?

BATES: Yeah. These were nice eulogies, whether they were sports eulogies or humanitarian eulogies or I met Ali in the grocery store one day and he was nice to my toddler and told him to mind his mama eulogies. But, you know, there are all of those floating around. But they were not the eulogies that were - that pointed out his very incisive observations about the bifurcated society that we live in and the racial oppression many black Americans lived under when he was growing up.

WATSON: This is Walter. And I'd agree with that, Karen. The thing that I was missing this week in terms of tributes, in terms of acknowledgment, is that his identity seems to be certainly muted because, when I was growing up, he was strongly seeing as this black leader. He was...

DEMBY: We should say that you're a boomer. You're...

WATSON: Yes, let's acknowledge the obvious with my gray beard.

BATES: It really comes through on radio.

WATSON: It really doesn't.


BATES: Step-sniping children.

WATSON: Yes, I would have to say that growing up in the 1960s, as I did, and growing up in Chicago, Muhammad Ali was larger than life, not just because of his rhyming schemes, but because he was this athlete. He was this celebrity in the black community, in our black community, in our black household, who really spoke out for his convictions. And his identity was strongly black, was strongly masculine and was also tied up in militancy and being a black Muslim. And in Chicago, that meant a lot of strong things. It made him singularly someone to contend with, someone to, if not look up to, certainly someone that you couldn't ignore.

BATES: Well, you know, I'm not a baby boomer. I'm a child of the '70s, which makes me just a little bit younger than Walter.


But for me, when I was growing up, Ali was part of this generation of sort of new black leaders, you know? You had the '60s and you had Martin Luther King, Jr., on the wall in a lot of black kitchens and households. But one of the things that was fresh and new about Muhammad Ali was he was not about making people comfortable with him. He was not into being humble or apologizing for being a proud black man. And not just proud, but somebody who knew that he was the best in a field. And there was no sort of stepping back away from kind of the confidence that he projected just to make people feel more at ease.

And I thought, for me anyway and for my family, that was - having that kind of hero was a revelation, the idea that you could be your self and your black self and still be, you know, somebody who was a leading figure in the public eye. So, I mean, that kind of strength that he projected was something that was really important when I was growing up.

DEMBY: One of the things that jumped out to me - one of the essays that stuck with me the most in this last week was by Gillian White at The Atlantic. And she wrote this essay about her father. Ali was like this north star of black masculinity. And he was just really - he just, like, said what it was. He was like I'm beautiful. I'm pretty, you know, I'm - he said he was the best, right? He backed it up. He just was really, really arrogant and cocky. He was this figure that a lot of people - black or otherwise - hadn't seen in public life. He was unapologetic about being black and being great, right?

But what's fascinating about her essay was that she was saying her grandfather - her father's father, who grew up at a time when black men got lynched for being mouthy, for talking back, for being uppity - her grandfather saw Ali as sort of a threat, as a threat to black progress. But he had a very different memory of, you know, the kind of things that happened to black men who stepped out of line. He saw Ali as this counterproductive figure.

And so it's one of those things that I think gets flattened in the remembrances of Ali and even the remembrances of people who are their contemporaries - Malcolm X, Martin Luther King. When we talk about them now, everybody - you know, you talk to old folks now - everybody was in the March on Washington, right?


There's, like, a less of a sense of the fact that, like, these people were divisive, even among black folks, you know, and that everybody wasn't on the same page when it came to them. So we didn't hear a lot about that divisiveness. For example, Karen, he had that beef with Joe Frazier, which was loaded with all sorts of complicated black interracial politics. So can you fill us in a little bit for anybody who doesn't know about that story and what went down between the two of them?

BATES: In his first Frazier fight, you know, he's doing what he did for all of his other fights, you know, with Liston, with everybody. He's just talking trash. It's schoolyard playground stuff - blah blah blah blah blah. I mean, he didn't get into your momma's so ugly but just about. And what he did with Frazier was sort of hop on his looks, you know? So you have Ali, who's this really panther-sleek, very gorgeous man. Even people who didn't like him would say, yeah he's a good-looking guy. OK, I'll give him that.

DEMBY: And he would tell you that.

BATES: Yeah, and he would tell you that. Frazier was big in a different way. He wasn't sleek. He was sort of hulking. He had a beard at a time when a lot of men weren't wearing beards. He was darker than Ali. And Ali decided to taunt him by saying, oh, Joe Frazier, I'm going to do this. And, you know, he's a gorilla. I'm going to get that gorilla and put him back in the zoo, you know, which is kind of astonishing when you think about it because when you think about insults black people hate most, one of the things they hate most is being likened to anything simian because it makes us less human.

And I'm saying us, but I should confess here, I have a soft spot in my heart for gorillas, chimpanzees, monkeys or whatever, much to my family's horror. So when Ali did this to Frazier back in the day, it was not received kindly by Frazier. It really got under his skin. He was talking about his color. You know, he was talking about the fact that he was a gorilla. And we haven't heard very much about that. But it was a really ugly episode in Ali's history that hasn't been focused on very much because it's so embarrassing.

DEMBY: Right, and we have a clip of one of those exchanges between Ali and Frazier.


MUHAMMAD ALI (BOXER): But the fools still think that that chump Joe Frazier can beat me because he went the distance twice and he ended up on a (unintelligible). I'm going to give him a real whoopin'. And I wrote a poem. Some of you heard of it. But this is a little conscience. I got a little gorilla here. This is his conscience. I keep it right in my pocket everywhere I go right there. And I wrote him a short poem. It says it will be a killer and a thriller and a chiller when I get the gorilla in Manila.


BATES: And you see how the crowd is just lapping it up there.

DEMBY: Right, and you can understand why Frazier never forgave him for that. I mean, it wasn't just the gorilla stuff. Ali called Frazier an Uncle Tom, all that stuff, right? And that was sort of the thing with Ali, like, as Ali became this bigger - this symbol of black pride and, you know, black separatism - sort of anti-establishment sentiment.

But as Ali became the person who exemplified that for people, then the people he fought became the avatars of all that stuff that wasn't that, right? So first Sonny Liston was, like, the good negro, right? He was the negro who was going to put Ali in his place. But Frazier, you know, Frazier's life is defined as, like, Ali's foil. So if Ali is...

BATES: Mr. New Blackness.

DEMBY: ...Mr., like, Unapologetic Blackness, you know, Frazier, whether he wanted to be or not, became the avatar for all the people who wanted someone to shut up Ali. And so Frazier spent the rest of his life just really, really embittered by the fact that Ali sort of called him a sellout, especially the implication that Frazier was a traitor to his race. And so, you know, as a Philly dude, I know a lot more about Frazier because, you know, he moved to Philly when he was, like, 15. He trained in Philly.

He had this really complicated relationship with black people in the city. You know, at one hand, he was beloved 'cause he was a local hero. But he wasn't nearly as beloved as Ali was. And, you know, there was a statue of Rocky - a fictional white heavyweight champion - before there was, like, any sort of tribute to Joe Frazier, who was one of the most important heavyweights of the 20th century. And later, you know, Ali would walk some of the stuff back. Saying some of this stuff to get under Joe Frazier's skin was crossing the line. We have a clip of that, too.


DICK CAVETT (THE DICK CAVETT SHOW): I'll tell you, it's something we haven't mentioned here. During that film, you distinctly - well, there was reference to your calling him Clay. And, you know - we all know how that...

ALI: He just says to agitate me, he's a good - he's a nice man. He'd say that because it used to make me mad, but it don't no more.

CAVETT: Oh, it doesn't?

ALI: See the press - now, everybody calls me Ali. The press call me Ali. You call me Ali. The Ku Klux Klan even calls me Ali.


So now, you know, a brother still calling me Clay, he really ain't no Uncle Tom. He's just doing that to make me mad. And I don't pay no attention to it no more. Like, things that I used to do to make him mad, he's admitted it don't get to him no more. I've got things that make other people - he's catching on to a few things, so I've got to come from another angle.


So he don't make me mad calling me Clay. See, 'cause he knows what it is. He just don't want to say that openly.

JOE FRAZIER (BOXER): You sound good. I want to give you an A for that.

ALI: Can't make me mad. I don't call - I don't get mad at you for that.

BATES: We should point out that interview with - came from "The Dick Cavett Show." And Dick Cavett was kind of the precursor to Charlie Rose. And he was a huge Ali fan.

WATSON: He was, but, you know, the thing that happens, no matter who was hosting that show, is that this conversation between this interlocutor and Ali and Frazier, I think Frazier is in the background there.

BATES: Yeah.

WATSON: It happens in a way that they can't all answer for the way the rest of us feel around this name-calling, around being called Clay. You know, so many years - decades later, it's still wrong. It still hurts. And similarly - and I mean, down to the bone it cuts, you know, for Frazier to have been called gorilla. For any black man to be disrespected and seemingly taunted as an Uncle Tom, you know, it's not the role that they see themselves in. And certainly - I'm not speaking for everybody but certainly speaking for myself - watching, hearing these things and knowing how maiming, how hurtful that kind of labeling can be, we get stuck on that. And we never forget it, or we never forgive it.

MONTGOMERY: I've just got to say something here. It's like, Muhammad Ali was a boxer.

DEMBY: Sure.

MONTGOMERY: And one of the things that was so great about Muhammad Ali was that he didn't, you know, he didn't feel like he had to watch out for people's feelings or be the nice guy all the blasted time. And that was just the thing that made him so attractive, you know, as a black hero.

He did not have to be the sort of traditional race man. He wasn't Jackie Robinson. He was about telling people about how great he was and how awesome he was. And, you know, some of us - it would be nice to be free to do that sometimes.

DEMBY: True, I mean - and speaking about Jackie Robinson - Jackie Robinson was a critic of Ali when Ali decided he wasn't going to serve in Vietnam. Jackie Robinson - who, like a lot of black folks from the previous generation, fought in World War II - was like this is an opportunity for you to go out there and, you know, and boost morale and all the stuff like that. And Ali, you know, there was this...

MONTGOMERY: And Ali had none of that.

DEMBY: Yeah, he was not feeling that at all. That idea that Frazier, for the rest of his life, was deeply embittered by Ali. When you would see Frazier interviewed later in his life...


DEMBY: ...He would say - when they would ask them about Ali, he would sort of say really mean stuff about him. He would say, you know, you see him shaking? - I did that to him, right? He would be like, I gave them that brain...

BATES: The Parkinson's, yeah.

WATSON: Referring to the Parkinson's?

DEMBY: When Ali famously lit the Olympic torch in '96, Frazier made some joke that was really poorly received at the time. But that was how embittered he was, right? And that was sort of the thing that Frazier, for the rest of his life, was this dude who had managed to get some respect but was never beloved in that way. And so...

BATES: And it's kind of like, post traumatic stress almost, you know, that Ali says these things to him. And in the case of the Cavett interview, I think part of the reason Frazier didn't engage is like, I am not talking about this stuff with you in front of white people. Are you crazy? And so when he has a chance to engage sometimes, if it's in an arena like that, he's not going to do it because, race man that he was, he thought that was injurious to the race to sort of be hashing that stuff out in front of them. And I don't know that Ali got that at that point.

DEMBY: So Ali was complicated and his blackness was complicated because blackness is complicated. And when we come back from the break, we're going to talk about what happens when we don't talk about all that stuff. Stick with us. We'll be right back. This is CODE SWITCH.


You are listening to the CODE SWITCH podcast. So before the break, we were talking about all these ways in which Muhammad Ali was a very divisive figure in his time and how that is sort of not the way we're remembering him now. And Muhammad Ali, beloved, global icon, was actually not America's sweetheart when he first arrived on the scene, right, Karen?

BATES: Yeah, that's correct, despite this staggering string of accomplishments for somebody so young. He won the Olympic gold medal in Rome in 1960. In 1964, he beat Sonny Liston and astonished the world. People still haven't recovered from that. Almost immediately right afterwards, he announced that he had joined the Nation of Islam. He was changing his name. For a brief period, he went to being called Cassius X, and then Elijah Muhammad himself named him Muhammad Ali, which offended a whole bunch of Americans, black and white. It's like, what is it with this crazy name?

DEMBY: His mama named him Cassius. I'm going to call him Cassius.

MONTGOMERY: (Laughter).

BATES: Cassius Marcellus Clay, and his brother was Rudolph Valentino Clay, if you can imagine.


BATES: In 1967, he became globally famous again for indicating he would not be drafted. He would be a conscientious objector to the war in Vietnam, and got all kinds of hate mail, death threats and that sort of thing for having declared this. And it's legal to be a CO, but you wouldn't know that from the reaction around the country when he did this.

DEMBY: He's the heavyweight champion of the world, and he's a black separatist and he's refusing to go to fight in an increasingly unpopular war. So he was...

BATES: Especially for him, Gene, because he was going to be fighting other people of color. That was the - you know, that was thing. He didn't believe in waging war as a member of the Nation, but also didn't believe in waging war - him, brown him - on other brown people, for, basically, white people, for the white American government.

DEMBY: So one of the problems as we bring up Muhammad Ali's divisiveness, like, the really fascinating stuff - and it happens a lot with the way we talk about all sorts of icons and heroes - but when they're either gone or too old or too sick to challenge the way they're remembered, then, you know, we end up in this place. We flatten them. We dehumanize them. Think about the way that Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King become Santa Claus figures, right? They don't become - they're no longer polarizing or dangerous as they were in their lives. They're just these beloved figures with a hundred percent approval ratings, and that robs us of the full picture of their humanity and what made them so important and notable to begin with.

MONTGOMERY: Well, I mean - this is Alicia Montgomery. And I'm going to just push back against that a little bit because, you know, this is what happens to heroes. It's not what - just what happens to black heroes.

DEMBY: Sure.

MONTGOMERY: And, you know, there was a time when someone who had Muhammad Ali's history, you know, won. I mean, won. Some of the things that he said about white people in his prime and his youth, it could've gotten him killed. It got a lot of people killed. But this idea that, you know, 20 years later, he could be on a cereal box or in a kids cartoon and, you know, invited to the White House. And 30 years later, he can light the Olympic torch. And decades later, he can be sort of this universally loved figure. This is something that happens to people in history all the time. The first three paragraphs of their obit are about all the great things that they did and not about all the mess that they made in their lives getting there. So I think that you could see this is as sort of a sign of progress, that as a black person, you get sort of the same hero's treatment in the United States now that, you know, a lot of so-called great white men got for centuries.

BATES: I think great white men might also have some of their - some of their mess in the first graph of the obituary, because we've gotten more sophisticated about that. You know, when Bill Clinton dies, it's going to say William Jefferson Clinton, the 42nd president of the United States. And the only other president - the only other president to have been impeached while in office, died today whenever, whenever. So - the complicated - the stuff that made him messy, you know, and complicated is going to be up front in the obit, even though most of the obit may be laudatory because we have gotten more sophisticated about that. And we understand, at least in principle, that prominent people have complicated lives, are complicated people.

WATSON: Yes, I agree with that. There's a certain amount of character that gets singed or certainly attached to deeds, not so - not so nice things that we prefer not to remember. But certainly when you're telling the story, when you're trying to sell magazines or certainly memberships on websites, you have to have something more than he was a great guy. And I think that complication, at least in these early days of the death of Muhammad Ali, we're not really hearing a great deal about that. And it's not even so much what Muhammad Ali did that may or may not have been a misstep. It's just that what made him so dynamic is hard to compress and make digestible in 30 seconds or less, as I'm having trouble doing right now.

MONTGOMERY: (Laughter).

BATES: I'll tell you the other thing you hardly ever hear a word about is that he was a babe magnet, and he did not resist. He did not just say no to this. He really enjoyed himself between wives, and even when he had wives. And we've heard nothing - virtually nothing - about that, although everybody will tell you, you know, once the recorder's off - oh, yeah, yeah, he was a ladies' man.

WATSON: But in fairness, in fairness - I'm jumping in here. In fairness, we're having this conversation before the funeral. And I think just by virtue of that fact, you're not going to hear a great deal about his babe magnet-ness.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

BATES: You'll hear about his other children who show up at the funeral.

MONTGOMERY: Well, (laughter).

WATSON: But that would be at the funeral.

BATES: I'm quite serious.

WATSON: I know you are.

MONTGOMERY: I feel you. I feel you, Karen. But one, Muhammad Ali, he was a boxer. He wasn't a statesman. What he did, you know, with women who were not his wife never interfered with, you know, the running of the country. The other thing is, you know, this was 30 - his -magnet days, his whatever kind of behavior he had - this was many, many, many years ago. And one of the luxuries of living a long life is you get to say that was youthful indiscretion. If I had known then what I knew now, I would've respected da-da-da-da-da-da. (ph). I'm like, can we give Muhammad Ali just kind of the - you know, remember what he did over the course of his life.

And so a person isn't just the loud things they said or the brash way they behaved or some of the things that they messed up on when they were in their prime. They're also the person - they also have to be allowed to be the person who grew from that. And I think that what we hear when we don't hear all that messiness is kind of a respect for the person who he grew into.

DEMBY: Well, and all I'll say about that is, I do think that when we deify people that way, especially when we talk about, you know prominent black people, prominent black figures and people of color, they become cudgels for people who don't like the way people are protesting today, who don't like their politics. And those prominent figures become a way of wagging your finger at young people like, say, Black Lives Matter and saying, well, you know, Martin Luther King never would've done it that way. Martin Luther King never would've gotten angry or told black people that they should get angry or made anyone uncomfortable.

And, of course, he did, right? Like, Martin Luther King did those things. Nelson Mandela did those things. That was why they were so polarizing. That was why they were so provocative. That's why they changed things. The same thing was true for Muhammad Ali. People say, well, back in the day, there wasn't this internal internecine fighting between civil rights groups and, you know, there was no...

BATES: Oh, yes, there was.

MONTGOMERY: Yeah, of course there was.

DEMBY: Of course there was, right? But because these things get flattened out, right, if the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King was just this dude who oversaw this unbroken string of moral victories, right, if Muhammad Ali is just this dude who was righteous and upstanding then he becomes a cudgel that people who are - in our time, who get to be fully complicated today, right? You know, someone who is not necessarily doing anything political. Someone like Cam Newton, right, who inflames a lot of passions, right, because he's a black dude who's unapologetic about being...

MONTGOMERY: The Panthers quarterback, yeah.

BATES: Who's a direct descendent of Ali.

DEMBY: Absolutely.

BATES: You know, when you see Ali dancing around the ring, holding his fists up, going, I am the greatest, and then you switch to Cam in the end zone, you know, doing his little dance, it's like, hey, I did it again, people.

DEMBY: What is Cam Newton but the - I mean, Ali is the predecessor to the Dab, that's all that is.

MONTGOMERY: I'm sorry, but that's - that, you know, that's a little limiting to Muhammad Ali.

DEMBY: Of course it is.

MONTGOMERY: No disrespect to Cam Newton.

BATES: It's just one aspect.

MONTGOMERY: But, you know...

BATES: The sort of joy in having done this and in being able to crow about it a little bit.

DEMBY: So we've got to move to this really quickly, but, one of the things I do keep seeing in tributes to Ali - and I'm sure we've all seen these - is this idea that Ali transcended race.

BATES: (Groaning).

DEMBY: Yeah.

BATES: (Groaning).

As Marge Simpson would say, (imitating Marge Simpson's groan).

DEMBY: (Laughter). That was really good. That was a really good Marge Simpson.

BATES: I get a lot of practice at home.


DEMBY: So KGB, you groaned. What do you think - I mean, what are people saying when they say that Ali or anyone transcended race?

BATES: Well, I think that, you know, that means that the person has been deracinated to the point that white people feel comfortable embracing them.

MONTGOMERY: Deracinated?

WATSON: What are you saying? That he's bleached?

BATES: Not physically, obviously. But, you know, they're not going to put their arms around the Muhammad Ali that we heard, you know, say, you know, you white boys call me a draft dodger yet you're running off to Canada. I'm not going anywhere. That's not the cuddly Ali they can embrace. But the later, older, calmer, more diplomatic, more the long-view Ali, that they can do because it doesn't call up their own transgressions.

WATSON: I agree with that. I agree that the whole business of saying that he transcended is something that even our president actually looks - you know, gives a side eye to because even in his remarks, he quotes Ali saying this, I am America. I am the part you won't recognize, but get used to me. Black, cocky, confident. My name, not yours. My religion, not yours. My goals, my own. Get used to me.

You know, that was a way, even in this whole period of glancing by that and making him a more cuddly figure, that not everybody recognizes, but even president 44 did.

MONTGOMERY: I don't know how you guys are going to talk about Ali in your homes or your lives, but it's like this conversation that we're having shows that you can say somebody transcended race, but, you know, just because they're sort of a Weekly Reader version of who Muhammad Ali was, it does not mean that the rest of the historical Ali - the part that's complicated, the part that's in your face - is unavailable to the rest of us. I mean, if you - I grew up in a house where this kind of, you know, understanding black history and all the complications of black history was very important.

And so I didn't get just the Weekly Reader version of who these folks were in history, and we don't have to. We're not limited anymore by these conversations that would just give you one version of a person. Somebody over here, somebody in the white community and what we call the mainstream media, can have this kind of blank, bleached version of Muhammad Ali, but we don't all have to embrace that. And to say that, you know, when people use the term transcended race, we don't all have to, you know - we can have our complicated Ali and they can have sort of their cuddly statesman, and I don't see those two things as interfering with each other.

BATES: And we should also say that anybody that wants to know any of those facets, more facets, you know, this is why Al Gore invented the internet.


DEMBY: All right. So that's all we can squeeze into this episode.


MONTGOMERY: (Laughter).

DEMBY: We got more. You all...


I'm Gene Demby. I'm here with Alicia Montgomery. Thank you, Alicia.

MONTGOMERY: Thank you.

DEMBY: I'm here with Walter Ray Watson. Thank you, Walter.

WATSON: Pleasure.

DEMBY: And KGB, Karen Grisby Bates, thank you for rocking with us.

BATES: Anytime.

DEMBY: Our producer, who you just heard, is Walter Ray Watson. Our editors are Alicia Montgomery, who you also just heard, and Tasneem Raja. We had production assistance from Carrie Thompson (ph). You can catch us on Twitter at @nprcodeswitch. That's N-P-R-C-O-D-E-S-W-I-T-C-H. Where's my spelling bee medal? Subscribe and download this podcast everywhere podcasts can found. Thanks for rocking with us on CODE SWITCH for NPR.

Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.