There’s not a lot of reason to talk about Malcolm X on a sports site. But today is his birthday, he is one of my favorite historical figures and I’ve been reading a book that details his relationship with another of my favorite historical figures: Muhammad Ali. And there’s always a reason to talk about Muhammad Ali, especially on a sports site.
First, let me start off by saying Blood Brothers is one of the best books I’ve read in recent memory. As the book’s subtitle says, the book details “the fatal friendship between Muhammad Ali and Malcom X,”and authors Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith do a masterful job of weaving what starts out as two parallel biographies into one comprehensive, intertwined story of race politics, religious politics, social expectations of athletes and brotherhood. Really, it is amazing. The book sheds more light on the multifacetedness of both individuals than any account I’ve previously read. I cannot recommend it enough times.
But what has really stood out for me in the accounts of Ali is the depth of his “double consciousness,” as DuBois called it, what was — and still is — essentially a survival mechanism of Black men (in particular) in this country. For athletes, those stakes are incredibly high, as the athletes’ livelihood is, in some cases, almost directly tied to his likability and marketability. The book really exposes the idea that Cassius Clay had to minimize any political thoughts he had, any sense of being “a race man,” as he would later call himself, any semblance of intelligent thought about anything other than the braggadocio that accompanied his ring persona or risk his career. We’ve seen it throughout the decades, as notable athlete after notable athlete has remained silent about social and political policies that oppressed people who looked like them. Most recently, ESPN’s “O.J.: Made in America” attempts to shed light on the extent to which racial pressures in and around Los Angeles and across the country may have contributed to Simpson’s own unraveling.
In the era of Black Lives Matter, its hard not to recognize the emphasis Malcolm X, and later Muhammad Ali, put on this same idea. Many often contort the teachings of Malcolm X as anti-White, hateful and incendiary. But in reality, Malcolm was not anti-White, but pro-Black and pro-the idea of holding anyone who would challenge the notion that Black Lives Mattered accountable. Today we find ourselves, some 50 years later, still facing many of the same challenges as a nation that we faced at the height of Malcolm’s life. On the 62 year anniversary of Brown vs. the Board of Education, a study was released detailing just how bad school segregation still is, in 2016. We find folks offended by the Black Lives Matter chants decrying them as anti-White, hateful and incendiary. We find athletes still sometimes conflicted about whether they can use their voices and their platforms to effect any real change, without fear of losing everything they’ve worked so hard for.
As Smith and Roberts say, Clay was often reduced by the media, promoters and managers to the role of Stepn Fetchit — the clown, the jester. Many athletes today, especially college athletes, still find their voices silenced, fearful that if they speak out, they will lose their meal tickets. On the 91st anniversary of Malcolm X’s birth, even with the first Black president of the country preparing to step down after his second elected term, we still find the state of race relations in the country not much better off than it was when Malcom died. And we still find many of our biggest athletes athletes shaped by — and sometimes crumbling under — the conditions herein.