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The Unbound Man

What I learned from the defiant joy of Muhammad Ali

I haven't always been comfortable being black. Proud? Definitely. I have always cherished my heritage and I have never wished away my hue. But it used to be a defensive, insecure kind of pride, one that was always conscious of the stereotypes that people saw when they looked at me, one that always took pleasure in subverting racist expectations. It was a sort of woundedness — not antiblackness or self-hatred itself, but an adjacent territory of that narrow and oppressive spiritual province. It was self-love, but of a sclerotic and arid sort, with no joy in it at all. It was a reactionary pride that bound me, perversely, to white supremacy, because it defined itself in relation to it.

Muhammad Ali showed me another way. He was free, and he knew he was free, and he wanted everyone to know he knew it. "I know where I'm going and I know the truth, and I don't have to be what you want me to be. I'm free to be what I want," he said, speaking publicly for the first time since upsetting Sonny Liston. He was still Cassius Clay then, but he soon would not be. Ali gloried in his ability to define himself, and he grasped that task with both hands, in the ring and outside of it. Just as he named himself, he decided who he was and forced everyone to accept it by sheer force of will.

Of course, it's easier to be loud when people have to listen to you, easier to talk when you can back it up with your fists. But even having a lot to lose can be a sort of prison, and it would have been easy for Ali to allow his wealth and fame itself to cage him, for luxury to soften and silence him. But he did not even allow that to circumscribe what he said. He put all that he had on the line when he refused to go to Vietnam to fight.

The American government did not need Ali to fight. There was no chance they would have sent an icon like him to the front lines. His life would not have been endangered by allowing himself to be drafted. But he would not allow himself to be used as propaganda on behalf of a war he believed was unjust. And he didn't dodge the consequences, didn't try to slip that blow, so assured in his sense of self that he allowed them to take boxing away from him, without knowing whether he would ever get it back.

And with this true freedom — the freedom that comes when you bind yourself to what's right without heeding the consequences — came joy. Ali never let anyone snatch his joy away, burned with an elation so radiant that it was itself defiance. And out of that reservoir, filled with something more satisfying and permanent than happiness, rose the strength to love himself and his people.

This is what I learned from young Ali. I learned the peace that comes with loving yourself for who you are, not for who you are not, and the defiant joy that accompanies fighting the right battles, even when you aren't sure you’ll win. From older Ali, I learned a deeper version of this lesson. I learned how to fight the battles that you know you will lose. Being black in America means being drafted into both kinds of battles. It’s been said that Americans only started to embrace Ali again when they were no longer threatened by him, when they were no longer afraid of the way he spoke with his fists and the way he punched with his words. If that's why they loved him, because they thought he had been changed, that he had been caged as his body, like all bodies, began to decay, they were wrong. Because even as his hands began to shake and his voice deserted him, Ali’s joy and dignity remained. He remained unbound.