I couldn’t figure out why I was having such difficulty finding words to convey my thoughts about Ali, why it’s taken me so long when I’m no stranger to loss— loss of loved ones, friends, colleagues. Why has this experience been so decidedly different?
Perhaps the zenith of manhood, the very pinnacle of manhood, is that point at which a man renders other men tearful— the mere thought of your name reduces other men to silent thoughtful tears. Not any one deed, not any one accomplishment, no station in life, success or wealth, but the sum total of his manhood, his principles, his sustained convictions over decades of life and life’s challenges render him a man to all, to all people’s of the world, all races and tribes, all nationalities, all religions and faiths— a man.
In this age and in this world of so few positive, empowering images of a man, a Black man, all one needs do is revisit the era of Ali to see one and witness what it meant to be one.
Defiant, determined, uncompromising, he stood on faith and principles, staring down injustice, the hate of a nation, the contempt of media, politicians, celebrities, clergymen, and a government far more threatening, far more adversarial than any nemesis he had ever faced in the ring. He was our modern day David teaching us how to address Goliath in faith not fear.
“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” was the perfect metaphor, but the message of the metaphor was lost somewhere along the way and has come to mean ‘float like a butterfly OR sting like a bee.’ Today, we are inundated with “butterflies” just as there is no shortage of “bees” but those who have learned the way, the tao of Ali, that perfect marriage and blend of equal parts “butterfly” and “bee,” humility and resolve, are few and far between.
Those young men lost in the one dimensional silhouette of bravado and the momentary high of violence, are convinced that their physicality and masculinity make them a “man” as they find themselves unable to craft and contour the language to their advantage and meaning. Ali was rapping before rappers rapped and never once alluded to the style of his automobile or the shape of his woman. Muhammed Ali mastered language, communication, human nature, the human condition, so accessible, so creative, artistic, so skilled that he tamed the most powerful nation on earth without a single swing, a single blow. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”
It finally occurred to me that Ali as a man was a philosopher, a dancer, an artist, and like Warhol Basquiat, Pollack or Picasso, was recognizable by a single name because his words were at once simplistic and complex like a Basquiat or Picasso, his footwork etched a Pollack on the canvas of combat and tapped complex rhythms like the Nicholas and Hines brothers, his hand work was sometimes graceful, sometimes quick and unpredictable like Miles or Diz, and his swing always hit hard like Basie and Ellington. Ali was what I most aspire to be, an artist and a man— he was quintessentially both. He was beauty and the beast, powerful and elegant.
What I learned most from Ali is that the true measure of a man cannot be gauged or determined while riding high on the euphoria of success, notoriety and power, but as we emerge from the dark place and lonely times of adversity. It is in those times that we have been quieted, humbled, softened sufficiently for God to shape us and to forge us, to hammer out a new man, a stronger, more substantive man. It is on the other side of adversity that a more perfect man comes forth, with a new story and perfect testimony, perfectly capable of doing God’s will and perfectly willing and dedicated to glorify His name. Now, I can dry my eyes. Peace! M