BLACK REAL PEOPLE
Temecula, CA – Back in the day when Fingerlights and Dippin' Dots were on local kids' minds, I was one-half of the duo nicknamed 'The Dukes of T-Town'. The other half was a mover-shaker who was a huge Muhammad Ali fan, once buying a 3D metal engraved portrait of the Louisville Lip to hang in the upstairs office game room from one of those traveling vendors that hit the industrial area of Diaz Rd.
Upon seeing this, well, you guessed it, the senior Duke had a tale to tell, since I had also come from the country's 4th most segregated city [according to MSN recently]. So as he finished hanging the piece up and stepped back to admire the portrait, I said,
“I remember watching Ali knock out kids when he was 12 on a show called Tomorrow's Champions on Channel 3 back in the day. Also my mother taught at the same elementary school he went to, Phillis Wheatley*. Did you know his name wasn't always Muhammad Ali?”
At the last comment, AJ being a Muslim, pulled out a chair for me at the conference table before hollering down the stairs, “Cancel my one o'clock!!”
“My mother didn't actually teach Ali, but she was a neighbor to the teacher who did, so he saw me around the school and knew who I was because of her. He first fought on this local TV show, Tomorrow's Champions, for a few years, gaining a reputation locally, before the Olympics where he won the gold. Everybody in Louisville loved him, everyone, and that says a lot being that Louisville was and still is socially segregated for many people [though this was way before the MSN stat came out].”
“There was another boxer who some said would have given Cassius, his Christian name, a run for his boxing fame, but he died saving a child from drowning in the Ohio River, drowning himself. He lived in my neighborhood. His name was Rudell Stitch. If I remember right, Ali went to his funeral too. They knew each other.”
“When Ali beat Liston you would have thought that a black president had been elected, except everyone was out in the streets and driving around honking cars. I hadn't seen anything like that until the first [since 1945 or so] game between Uof K and Uof L when Louisville beat Kentucky in basketball. The tee shirt I got from that game had a red cardinal picking up a blue bobcat by the tail and shoving a basketball partway up his ass. You had to look at it twice to catch the joke, but that was the fun part. People from Kentucky are a bit twisted in their sense of humor.”
We both laughed.
“He became a Muslim, a Black Muslim [a separate designation from the ME Muslims but adopted into the fold many years later], changed his name, and denounced the [Vietnam] War almost all in the same breath, it seemed at the time. People were stunned. I mean, he could have had a life (in the service) like Elvis. No one questioned the War before that, not that people were lining up to fight like World War II either.”
“Did he lose fans?”
“Some at first, but then the government took away his title and put him in jail. People were pissed about that. People saw that as racist. And like a big family, you can talk about your cousin but someone outside the clan doesn't have that right. Remember Ferris Bueller's sister?”
“But Ali was bigger than the government. He came back. Twice, like the guy who started General Motors. That's the reason two of his biggest fights, Rumble In The Jungle** and Thriller In Manila weren't fought here where real people could enjoy them. The government has been enjoying the people's meal for a long time. I just hope I'm around to see the waiter bring the check.”
“Hell, without Ali, it would be Howard who? And just recently [00s] I saw where they were giving him credit for actually inventing the music genre of rap. That was something I didn't even think about but I could definitely see it. He talked shit, and he backed it up. When his mouth wrote a check, he cashed it for you. He was so cool. To see you being such a fan and spending $100 on this, that's cool as shit too. I knew there was a reason why I always liked you.”
“You know the world may remember him for his mouth, or his rhymes, or 'floating like a butterfly and stinging like bee' but there are two personal incidents that I will always remember.”
AJ's eyes grew wider.
“Remember me saying that my mother taught at his elementary school?”
“Well because of that, though we never hung out, Ali knew my face and would give me a head nod on the times we crossed paths. I did know some of his cousins personally, his girl cousins, but I never ran with him. He was older than me and when he first won the championship I didn't run across him much after that. But there was one time I did.”
“I don't remember how old I was but I was down at my cousin Wiley's house and for some reason I had gone, or we had gone over to this Ma&Pa store on Greenwood (Ave), a few blocks from my cousin's house. It was winter but not too cold and we were just chilling beside the chain-link fence there in the front to the side of the store. Along the front of the store stood three kids, probably family, various ages.”
“This black Caddy pulls up and out hops Cassius. He was probably getting some stuff for his mom. He was like Elvis in that respect. Now he was Champion at this time, just Champion by a year or two. Everybody knew him. He walks up the concrete walk, sees me and does a head nod (I returned it) and then proceeds to head for the front door. The littlest of the three kids, all of them in their winter coats, a boy with his coat opened, steps out and says, “C'mon Champ” and starts to spar with Ali. They did this for about a minute, and Ali was in a hurry, you could tell. But he still stopped. I never forgot it. That's why everyone in Louisville loved him. Like Jesus, he loved kids [young people].”
“What was the other time?” asked AJ.
“That time was with another cousin, Kenny, the only cousin I named in Memoirs.”
“Also this time didn't involve Ali, per se. It involved his dad, Cassius, Sr. You see when son got famous, Pops dressed the part. One Friday night, the night I could go out [alone], me and Kenny are sitting in Joe's Palm Room. It was the spot in Louisville so the place was packed, two or three deep along the bar including those sitting down. The jazz was playing, I'm nursing a Cubre Libre, which is a rum drink, and we both spotted Cassius Sr. come in. You couldn't miss him. He was tall, also handsome, and dressed in a super sharp black suit, and matching hat. The suit had a black attached cape with a red velvet interior. I looked at Kenny and he looked at me.” We both wondered what this would be a precursor to, but for the answer to that, you'll have to visit Joe's and talk to the oldest and luckiest fart you see there. However, it's Louisville, you could get lucky. I did [Chapters 13-15, Memoirs].
“There was one other thing. When you saw Ali in person, you knew why he was the Champ. He was the Micheal Jordan of Boxing. He looked good, he was great, and he had these long arms. He had reach on a lot of guys. He looked the way Neal Adams, a DC artist, drew Superman. Except he was black. That was the only difference in [body] looks.”
(*- First published African-American female poet, very comely too, and who Obama might have picked had he not out-sourced his hoodwork to High 'Em High Hillary. Phoning it in from a statue down the street. **- used as reference for Ben Stiller joke in Tropic Thunder. Thanks to those who supplied the photographs. Blessings to you both.)