One time when I was in the fourth grade, we were reading a unit in social studies on life in the middle east. I vaguely remember something about a kid named Ali in a dusty town. The pictures in the book were mostly yellows and browns. He was going about stereotypical middle eastern things. Herding the goats, helping his father, Muhammad load stuff on their camel to take to market, that sort of thing. The early ‘70s weren’t an enlightened time and the textbook was from the early ‘60s, so it was even worse.
Sometimes I’m amazed that I turned out normal at all.
Anyway, when we were about halfway through the book the teacher interrupted us. “Huh, Muhammad, and Ali. That’s the same name as that n****** boxer”.
Now, I don’t think he was using n****** as a slur, at least not deliberately. He was of the age where that was just the term you used for people of African descent. As a kid I remember feeling a bit weird about it though. You know how as a kid you’ll see or hear something and know it’s not right but don’t quite yet have the intellectual wherewithal to put it together or express why? That’s where I was. Muhammad Ali was a hero. It just didn’t seem right somehow to have someone I respected, the teacher, call him a n******. Anyway the class had a bit of a discussion about Muhammad Ali’s record, the upcoming fights and such. I didn’t like boxing then, and I still actively dislike it now so I didn’t take part. Soon enough the teacher got us back on topic and we finished the story. But his casual use of the term n****** stuck with me. I’d of course heard it before from others but this time it got me to thinking.
A few weeks later the Sears Christmas Wish Book arrived. As kids we always loved to look through the Wish Book, at all the cool toys and other stuff. A few days after it arrived I was thumbing through it and came across the page of Santa Suits. Now, understand that at that point I was under no illusion that Santa was real. I understood it was just a “Nice old man in a red suit”, as they so eloquently put in in Miracle on 34th Street. As I looked at the page I noticed something odd though. On the left they showed the fanciest suit. Slightly furry red with longer white fur trim at the collar and cuffs, well stuffed, a great beard, even came with a big red furry bag. Next to it was one that was not quite as nice. Then the next one even less and didn’t include the bag. This continued across the page to the far right side where they showed the cheapest santa suit. It was pathetic. Essentially a set of red long underwear and a hat. No bag,, no padding, not even a beard. As I looked at it I realized something else. The cheapest suit was worn by the only black model.
Like a lot of kids of that era I had grown up with the Six O’Clock News playing in the background during dinner. It’s mixture of local news, weather, the Viet Nam War and Civil Rights protests blending with our stories of what happened at school and my folks shop. Like a lot of kids, national and world stories didn’t impact me so I just let them pass. But suddenly something gelled. The santa suit, the news reports of protests. What I’d read and heard about Dr. Martin Luther King, and finally my teacher’s casual use of the word n****** all came together.
I suddenly recognized that part of the world was very ugly. Not all of it. Not even most of it. But there were parts, some groups of people, that would do things just because. Because of your colour. Because of your religion. Because of things that weren’t your fault. I also realized that sometimes things were the way they were because people hadn’t stopped to think of what it did to others. That bothered me even more.
This was when I stopped just accepting what I was told. I started questioning, asking WHY about all sorts of things. Demanding reasons and evidence for things I saw and that people said. So in an indirect way Muhammad Ali, by what he did in the years before and then after, by being more than a boxer, helped to enlighten me. To wake me up to the things in the world that needed to be better.
Well Done Sir. Rest in Peace.