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“Muhammad Ali was from Kentucky.”
These five words have been the quickest way for me to shut down anyone who’s ever teased or chided me about being from Kentucky, about my slight drawl and being “country,” asking whether I wore shoes or owned horses or if the grass is really blue. I tell them that, and they’ve got nothing to say. To invoke the name of arguably the greatest athlete who ever lived, and inform that person that he was born and raised in the very same town they were just trying to denigrate—my hometown—well, what is there there left to say?
I’ve lived in three major metropolitan areas since leaving Kentucky after undergrad in 1997. When I tell people where I’m from, I usually get two very different responses. The first is genuine interest, either because that person has never met someone from Kentucky, or they’ve never met a Black person from Kentucky before—and that’s a whole other thread of conversation. But more often than not I will find I get a subtle dismissal of my work as a writer and artist because of where I was born. That whole New Testament-ish “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” vibe. Only in this case, Nazareth is Louisville, I ain’t Jesus, and the answer, as it was in the first century, is still yes.
Much good has come out of Kentucky. And one of the best things to come out of there was a young boxer named Cassius Clay—who later changed his name to Muhammad Ali after converting to Islam. He figured out how to free himself from the piercing gaze of white people who, in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, just couldn’t stand that this bold, confident, mouthy—he wasn’t called the “Louisville Lip” for nothing—Black man was acting impervious to their idea of what made a “good negro.”
Ali was the living embodiment of “Black Is Beautiful” and it was more than the pronouncement of his prettiness that proved that. His graceful moves in the ring were beautiful. His willingness to sacrifice every earthly trapping for what he believed in was beautiful—Ali was a conscientious objector of the Vietnam War. And while the going narrative in the upcoming weeks will likely be that he was transcendent, the truth is, while he transcended many things, he never transcended race—nor do I suspect he wanted to. And that, oh man, is so beautiful!
Ali was a Black man. Unapologetically so. Arguably, the blackest man of his era when it comes to his unrepentant stance on issues that directly affected Black people. He famously proclaimed, “I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me,”
But what makes him even more of a hero to me, if that is even possible, is the fact that he was a Black man from the west end of Louisville, who was fearless and fearsome all at the same time. He was everything that those of us born and raised in that city on the river knew we were deep down. He was country and calculated. He was Broadway and the Belvedere and brilliant.
Of course he’d lived in other places, but Ali never forgot Kentucky. He built the Muhammad Ali Center, a museum and cultural center, in 2005 on the Louisville riverfront not just to showcase his illustrious career but also to set free the greatness in future generations of black and brown boys and girls in the city.
And I felt that deeply. Because Ali taught this little brown girl from Kentucky the benefits and challenges of being Black and excellent and proud of both. He showed me what speaking truth to power begets (“I am the greatest”) when hard work is added to the mix (“Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion”). He taught me that all the success and money and fame in the world means absolutely nothing if one doesn’t turn around and use that success, money, and fame to uplift others; to serve others. He was the consummate philanthropist whether he was making a kid’s day by surprising him with an arm wrestling-match on Candid Camera
or pouring money back into Black communities in his hometown and across the country. Ali taught me that it’s okay to be loud with your gifts but to let your service speak for itself. He once said, “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth.” From his example, I know that it is my duty to reach back a hand to pull someone else up who’s toiling on the arduous journey to mental freedom, purpose-driven living, and self-actualization.
The memory is clear. I was a little girl of maybe 11 or 12. After church on Sundays, my parents would drive me and my little brother through Shawnee and Chickasaw parks in Louisville. We’d stop and get an ice-cream cone from our favorite drive-up spot directly across the street from the park. All the cool teenagers and college students would be hanging out on their cars, laughing and enjoying the afternoon. I remember wishing that I had the latest door-knocker earrings like the girl in the Guess jeans leaning against the ’85 Caprice or a pair of British Knights, like the dude flexing outside the Honda Civic hatchback with the big box woofer in the trunk. But the most lasting impression of that time had nothing to do with teenagers listening to Lisa Lisa and Levert in the park. It was when my Dad would drive to my grandmother’s house not too far from there and on the way, would point to the a small shotgun-style house with beautiful landscaping and say proudly, “that’s where Ali grew up.”
That’s where Ali grew up.
To this day, these words fuel me, catapult me even, toward my currently evolving destiny. Those words told me that I could be anything I wanted. That anything was possible. Not DESPITE being a brown girl from Louisville, Kentucky but BECAUSE of it.
Well done, Muhammad Ali. Well done.
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