…or the incessant need for *PWIs to make black icons “safer”
Throughout my lifetime, there are three things that have continued to remain a permanent mainstay in society:
Politicians are the masters of manipulation.
It’s always darkest before dawn.
When an iconic black activist dies, mainstream media rush in to distort said activists image and make them “safe for consumption.”
The latter has happened yet again in the wake of boxing great and activist (yes, he was indeed an activist) Muhammed Ali passing away on Friday. Gone due to septic shock after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. Publications like TIME and the Daily Mail all the way over to TV personalities like Chris Myers couldn’t wait to erase Ali’s blackness, a fundamental pillar that made up part of Ali’s identity.
To gloss over Ali’s blackness — the thing he spent almost his whole life and his entire career fighting to protect — just so you can admire the man that he wasn’t, isn’t just disrespectful, it’s dishonest. Let’s also not forget he was a Muslim too and one of the few celebrities to state his support for Palestinian people living under occupation unequivocally. To put it flatly, your attempts at erasure of all the above say more about you than it does about Ali and that should be fairly axiomatic to everyone but alas: it isn’t.
Something that binds together the intellectually dishonest eulogies that I’ve seen published and posted on social media: is a particular phrase: “transcended race.”. I won’t waste time beating around the bush on this one, folks. If a person of colour — in this case, a black man — is deemed to have “transcended [their] race,” this is a backhanded way of saying “he/she wasn’t like the rest of the blacks.” The context in which “transcended race” is typically used implies that the many micro and macro aggressive stereotypes about black people, which are rooted in white supremacist rhetoric, are wholly true and immutable. Thus, someone like Muhammed Ali becomes their “special snowflake,” and is constantly quoted out of context to derail any conversations black people might be having about how we go about addressing the systemic injustices that we face on a daily basis. Let’s call it MLK’s Law.
As I mentioned earlier, this behaviour should be immediately recognisable to everyone. Why? Because it’s happened before. Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Maya Angelou, Nelson Mandela, Harriet Tubman, Prince, Bob Marley, and Nina Simone amongst many others have either had their revolutionary words and deeds whitewashed in favour for a “safer” image or said words and deeds contorted to fit a patently racist ideology. The Institute of Race Relations calls it ‘The cuddliflication of Black Revolutionaries’.
Lest we forget it was Ali who said:
‘“I ain’t draft dodging. I ain’t burning no flag. I ain’t running to Canada. I’m staying right here. You want to send me to jail? Fine, you go right ahead. I’ve been in jail for 400 years. I could be there for 4 or 5 more, but I ain’t going no 10,000 miles to help murder and kill other poor people. If I want to die, I’ll die right here, right now, fightin’ you, if I want to die. You my enemy, not no Chinese, no Vietcong, no Japanese. You my opposer when I want freedom. You my opposer when I want justice. You my opposer when I want equality. Want me to go somewhere and fight for you? You won’t even stand up for me right here in America, for my rights and my religious beliefs. You won’t even stand up for my right here at home. “’
As I’ve gotten older, it becomes harder to ignore that when it comes to blackness, the dominant white society would rather either fabricate reasons to hate you or rewrite your story to make themselves more comfortable. This leads me to ask these people and institutions the following questions:
Why is the idea of someone standing up to have his or her agency and humanity respected (which would include their race, their gender identity, their religious beliefs et al) considered dangerous?
Why would Ali standing up for himself and for black people be something that you’d want to omit from your memory of him so that you can feel comfortable admiring him?
Furthermore, why would you expend so much energy trying to obfuscate someone’s attention when that energy could have been used to understand that person and their walk of life better?
Are you that afraid of black people that us simply loving ourselves, loving our blackness, and loving each other’s blackness affronts you so?
To those that complain about Ali’s life being “made into a race thing:” could it be any more obvious that you haven’t been paying much attention to Ali’s life? You could have saved time and energy by simply saying what you mean: “Ali’s political stances make me uncomfortable.”
You could have started there but you chose to perform conspicuous intellectual acrobatics so grand, it would put Cirque du Soliel out of business. I don’t see why taking someone’s entire life and manufacturing a plastic, tame version of said person’s life story just so you can relate should be tolerated, much less commissioned. Ali wasn’t a fictional character or some mythological creature. Doing any of this distorts the memory of one of the greatest human beings the world has ever known. Be honest, it is also a Freudian slip: you find blackness repugnant.
Some of those paying homage to Muhammed Ali in the wake of his death were the same people showing callous regard for black lives matter activists, for Islam and for those killed unjustly at the hands of police. Ali’s death and the subsequent groundswell of global mourning is merely a brief respite from the usual anti-black and Islamophobic ideologies said people espouse every day. One day, I hope we’ll get to a point where society stops perpetuating the selective admiration of black people. Clearly, that day wasn’t yesterday and isn’t today so the struggle continues.
*PWI – Predominantly White Institutions
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‘Black On Both Sides Of The Pond’ is a new bi-monthly column by Joseph Guthrie An analytical critique of pop culture & the intersections therein by a guy who has lived in both the USA and the UK
Joseph Guthrie is a UK based musician, and writer. Originally from south London, most of his education was set in central Florida (United States). His nomadic life has seen him return to the UK in 2010 and when he’s not tending to the IT infrastructure of a major printing company, he’s the lead vocalist for the band Ships Down and is Nothing Ain’t Nice recording artist. He also contributes to music blog Sampleface.
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