Humans are a funny lot. Love you one day, loath you the next, love you the day after. Sometimes it takes longer than a day but eventually things come full circle. Take Vietnam for instance…once a formidable enemy, now a friend. Russia, once a sinister adversary, now a partner….depending on the day of course. Cuba, once a….well you get the picture.
Remember when we reviled Muhammad Ali? Well, most of us did. White people anyway. Even Black folk some. (The great Jackie Robinson was critical of Ali). But what an about face now, the most beloved man in America. His death on June 3rd has us all gushing about the man.
His story is quite extraordinary really.
I need not tell you about Ali. You already know of his remarkable life, his peaks and valleys, triumphs and defeats. Many have written about him in the days since his death. I’ve counted dozens in this newspaper alone. Mine is a bit more personal.
I came from a time when we followed the yellow line. We were fed the American dream; commies were bad (“I’d rather be dead than red”), we’re winning the Vietnam war, eat Oscar Meyer wieners and buy a Chevy, and Cassius Clay was un-American.
We had political leaders and the media to deliver us these edicts.
Cassius Clay was loud, full of bravado, braggadocio, and self-praise, just to name a few. I mean, who the hell did he think he was? The truth is…he thought he was the greatest. And he lived right into that notion, a self-fulfilled prophecy, if you will.
As a kid, when I read the newspaper, it was the sports page and the comics. As for the comics, I was into Peanuts, Nancy (with her stubble-headed beau Sluggo), Dondi (with black marbles for eyes), Beetle Bailey (with the Sarge), Dick Tracy (with his magnetic space coupe) and Joe Palooka, with his blonde hair and square-jaw grin.
Ham Fisher was a successful cartoonist who penned Joe Palooka in the 1940s, intending the sports hero to be humble with a character of integrity. This was important in facing the Nazi threat. Fisher’s Palooka was a gentle bear of a boxer, the All American Man, who really didn’t dig the violence of the fight game…but had to, you know, to make a living and defend America.
Fisher committed suicide in 1955 and his assistant, Moe Leff, took over for four years. About the time Cassius Clay entered our consciousness, Tony DiPreta was drawing Joe Palooka from scripts written by Morris Weiss.
When Clay burst onto the scene after the 1960 Olympics in Rome, with his medals and his mouth, Weiss wasted no time in adding a bad guy to the Joe Palooka line up…in one Basher Bray, a Black boxer.
Weiss didn’t even try to disguise the similitude of Cassius Clay and Basher Bray. Bray was everything Palooka wasn’t and visa versa. I felt a subtle feeding of bias and judgment and maybe some racism every day through Weiss’ Basher Bray.
As for the sports page, writers dissed Clay. He kept his hands tauntingly low, led with the right, boasted maniacally with the round in which he would deliver the devastation. So the sports and news media just reinforced what I was already digesting from Weiss.
When Clay became Ali (and demanded to be only called Ali), that was just more evidence of arrogance. He became everyone’s pariah. Then a refusal to military induction was the last straw. We wanted heads to roll…and it should be Clay’s….ah,…..Ali’s. And Weiss made sure of it. Basher Bray became more execrated.
It’s easy to gather evidence when you think ill of someone, and Ali provided plenty of fodder. He demanded that the world take notice of him. You could not escape that mouth…the world’s largest and loudest, at a time when athlete humility was still in fashion.
As Ali fought the good fight…no, not Liston, Norton and Frazier…but the US government, I came to realize that he had an enormous amount of courage. He was so persuasive in his confidence. And of course, that was the conundrum.
Ali wasn’t afraid of the army or ‘Nam, and he wasn’t afraid of White America and their armed media. He certainly wasn’t afraid of Lyndon Johnson or J. Edgar Hoover. He just stood his ground unabated.
At this time, in the comfortably White Garden City neighborhood of Monroeville, a Pittsburgh suburb, life was self-contained and complete….until the quietude was shattered by the Lesesnes…the first Black family who dared to move into my neighborhood.
I remember people getting out of the swimming pool when this scrawny kid, Tom Lesesne (rhymes with insane) would jump in. And if they weren’t jumping out of the pool, they were chasing him out of the swim club. (Fortunately, or not, his house was right outside the pool grounds).
Wow, he could scale a chain link fence like nobody I’d ever seen. Fast! I mean really fast!
Tom’s parents were quite naive about it all. They thought they were moving from an urban life to a suburban one…and because they were buying a nice house (unfortunately, better than the neighbors), things would be rosy. His dad, Tom Sr., an auto body worker, paid pool dues so Tom could swim the summer with the neighborhood kids, like me.
When Tom went home crying after his first bout with White bullies, his dad was incensed, stormed the pool, and threatened to kick anyone’s ass if they harassed his boy again. And of course, they did. But Tom never shared his experiences with his parents again. I surmise that he wanted to spare them the anger.
Tom held his own at first because the kids that fought him were his own age. Eventually, older kids descended upon him. That’s when the running started. (The silver lining in all of this was that this proved to be a foundation to his high school track career). He sat in the front of the school bus (unlike public transportation) so he could jump off the bus first and run (fast, really fast) home. His survival demanded it.
Tom’s school-teacher mom, whose idea it was to move to the suburbs, was a boxing fan. Eleanora Lesesne coaxed Tom to emulate Muhammad Ali. Tom didn’t copy the punches of Ali, he copied the speed, the quick hands and the fast feet. He danced around adversaries and kept out of their reach, doing so with a continuous bright white grin and a nervous laugh, which seemed to be half fear and half amusement. I marveled. I didn’t have the courage (nor the brawn) to defend him… just to befriend him. Like Ali, he inspired me with his courage.
As Ali continued his greatest fight, all the way to the Supreme Court, he began to speak more truths…like the absurd immorality of Vietnam and that jaundiced war, and the xenophobia and racism of this country. This freed up more Blacks to brave the suburbs. It helped that Whites, afraid of having Black neighbors, sold their homes in spades just to get out, paving the way for more Blacks to move in, scaring more Whites to flee, so more Blacks could…..well you get the picture.
Despite the fact that Tom now had some fellow brothers to hang with, his parents asked my parents if Tom could stay overnight when they went out of town to a funeral. Tom and I were in a rock band together (oh, the stories I could tell) and we served together in the Sea Cadets (oh, the stories I could tell).
That night, we got into a bit of trouble (a drunk pulled out a 38 special and threatened to blow our heads off). We got home late, a bit shaken, and were rocked by the news from my father of the murder of Martin Luther King.
We sat in silence, endless silence…stunned. There was a profound sadness for my friend. I could not make out where he was. I saw him holding back the tears. I said nothing. All I could do was dwell in the moment, awkwardly, with some weird sense of guilt.
I came to discard the Morris Weiss’ view of Bray and Clay. I came to embrace Muhammad Ali, in a way I embraced the fortitudinous Martin Luther King. Ali may have lost prime fighting years, championship years, but he gained peace of mind, and more importantly…peace of heart.
Transformational people come along every so often and change the world, one man (or woman) at a time. Dr. King was such a man, so was Ghandi, and so was John Lennon. And then there was Ali, a boxer…the least likely human to transform lives…the planet really.
Perhaps Muhammad Ali was more Joe Palooka than Basher Bray. If only Weiss could have seen that then. If only we all had. Weiss died just a few years ago at the age of 98. Maybe, eventually, he too saw the real Clay.
Tom Lesesne still has that same continuous bright white grin and nervous laugh, and we are still friends 50 years later.
Transformed people are not concerned about looking good or being liked. They have a larger purpose that occupies their space…like altering the world by bringing some sense of truth to it.
Ali once proudly declared: “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.”
We did. Humans are funny that way.
Lee Kann is a film/radio/concert producer, and a writer Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org