When I was a small girl growing up in a small town my big dreams would sometimes cause big conflict. I was shy yet had a big mouth when it came to voicing my opinions on right and wrong. I felt everything very deeply.
My grandpa was my sounding board, my confidante, my closest family friend. He listened. My grandmother loved up on me as well but he had a patience for my sensitivities and quirkiness that I value more and more as the years go by.
I am not sure if I announced it at the time (my mom, cousin and aunts periodically recall things I said so I need to ask them) but I decided my life would be dedicated to changing the world when I was around 8 years old. I was clear about becoming a poet, traveling the world and even though I didn’t have the language for it — fighting injustice. I didn’t have a lot of personal role models for the paths I was choosing but I had Muhammad Ali.
I remember the surge of pride that would come over the elders when Muhammad Ali was on the television screen. Muhammad Ali was important for everyone but especially for Black people. He represented freedom, self-love and success.Muhammad Ali understood oppression, racism and colonization. He was walking courage. Every Ali moment, whether a match, appearance or interview was followed by stories of struggle and overcome. I loved hearing them. He inspired truth telling.
Now, I don’t remember my mother being into sports and the only time she squealed, screamed and jumped over a sporting event was watching Muhammad Ali. He inspired full on self-expression.
I read a lot as a child. I absorbed stories about Paul Robeson, Harriet Tubman and Will Pickett. They resonated with me and shaped my life choices but my living, breathing hero? Muhammad Ali. His fight, his audacity and the power of his word. He wasn’t scared.
By the time I was 11 years old I had mastered the art of day dreaming as a way to cope with my sadness and frustration with the world. Combine that with the impatience of youth, it’s no surprise that I spent the entire 7th grade suicidal and teary eyed. I couldn’t figure out how to kill myself without hurting my grandparents so I decided to stay alive. I would visualize myself having conversations with Muhammad Ali and imagine what he would say to me. My young mind was overly active, my emotions super intense and desires as big as the sky. By eighth grade I was walking lighter and ran for student body president. When I thought of great orators only two came to mind: Martin Luther King and Muhammad Ali. I unknowingly began using affirmations at 13 when I told myself I was a great speaker — — over and over again. I would hear Ali’s voice saying: I am the greatest. My speech brought the house down, I won the election and the rest is history.
Muhammad Ali’s ascension sparks a unique kind of mourning within me. He lived a life doing what he loved. He was a boxer but so much more to so many people. As I sit on my bed this morning I can see the Muhammad Ali magnet on my file cabinet and the painting of him on my desk. He was my screen saver during a hard time in recent years. I realize that there has always been a Muhammad Ali picture or quote close to me at all times. Back in the 90s while living in Washington, DC I remember a friend of mine being fascinated by my love for Muhammad Ali. “He’s no Harriet Tubman,” she joked with me because we had a mutual affection for Aunt Harriet. The funny thing is that years later the day after his death I realize he is, he was…as significant to our history.
Raising my glass of green juice to you this morning oh great one. Freedom fighter, liberator of people, humanity at work — you walked an exemplary journey. Thank you for loving us.