Muhammad Ali and Celebrity Culture


The death of Muhammad Ali this week once again focused attention on the cultural work of remembering a celebrity. Undoubtedly, if Ali had been a great boxer and nothing more, remembrance would have been less substantial than it was. He was, after all, a man whose heyday preceded the Internet and cable television. What gave the legend of ‘The Greatest’ its substance is Ali’s record of outspoken political activism, especially his opposition to the Vietnam War. Celebrities with pet causes are not very hard to find in America, but in Ali’s case it was not posturing. It was an intelligent, sophisticated stance that connected the racism of Jim Crow with the racism of a murderous foreign policy, and that came with the willingness to make real sacrifices. When he refused to fight in Vietnam, he did not flee to Canada: he stayed and took the punishment, and gave up some of the best years of his athletic career. Dr. King (or Gandhi) could not have asked for more.

It was extraordinary, but simultaneously, it was not so. While is tempting to regard celebrities – athletes in particular – as freaks, they are products and emblems of their historical moment. Ali was a part of the trajectory of the racial politics of America after the Second World War, following in the wake of Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays. He was more publicly angry than them, and famously less modest, marking a crucial transition of ‘mood’ within a wider civil rights movement that brought us the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. The shift from tight-lipped forbearance (not deference) to undisguised anger and self-praise in the public sphere coincided with the willingness to connect the dots between racism in America, which obviously involved black Americans, and racism in foreign policy, which in the imperial world was a white man’s domain. Many whites who tolerated Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights activism recoiled when he began to speak out against the Vietnam War: he had gone beyond the permissible boundaries of the ongoing American conversation about race. But looked at in another way, it reflected a permission that came from blackness itself: a transgression that was enabled, even incited, by a culture – and not just black culture – that had discovered the excitement and moral legitimacy of rebellion but not yet found a sophisticated method of containment. It made for a brief moment when black Americans (and not just athletes) could stand on the international stage and clench their fists like John Carlos and Tommie Smith, provided they were willing to pay a price.

The price paid enhanced, rather than diminished, their status as public figures. The place of public sacrifice to the making of blackness in the Civil Rights era was not immediately evident to white observers. Hannah Arendt, for instance, reacted with outrage to black parents who exposed their children to tear gas and police dogs on the streets of southern cities. It had to be explained to her that the parents were neither callous nor cowardly, but engaged in a coherent moral strategy. To her credit, she came to understand what moved parents to put children in harm's way, beginning with the recognition that they were already in harm's way. Whereas the idea of the sacrificing parents was hardly new to the self-image of a beleaguered minority, the publicly demonstrated willingness to risk losing what was most precious supported the claim on public space itself, and made for a new, public, racial substance.

For men, the visible combination of sacrifice and transgression disrupted a long-established line between childhood and adulthood in the American construction of race. The infantilization of the black male – the phenomenon of grey-haired men being addressed as ‘boy’ by whites young enough to be their sons – was an old strategy of racial intimidation, with its immediate roots in the terrorism that overtook the South after the Tilden-Hayes Compromise of 1877 ended the Reconstruction. Even older roots can be found in the soil of the plantation presided over by the paternal slave-owner, where to be (publicly) the slave and the (unacknowledged) child of the white man could be literally the same thing. It was the interruption of this existential childish (or more generously, childlike) condition by the Reconstruction, with its spectacle of adult black men engaged in the public life of citizenship, that spurred the terror of the Klan. The black man was a political and sexual rival, but a ‘boy’ was either harmless or perverse, or dead, even when he intruded into the public eye.

The possibility that black Americans had internalized their infantilization proved to be a raw nerve for writers of the post-World-War-II period, as evidenced by the controversy over Richard Wright’s novel Native Son. Wright’s Bigger Thomas – a nightmarish genie in bottle of violence – may have been deserving of sympathy, but he was also emotionally, intellectually and morally stunted. In a series of commentaries on the book that effectively destroyed their friendships with the author, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin both took Wright to task for perpetuating a racist construction of the black man-child, especially in an era when colonial subjects from India to Senegal were becoming citizens not only of their nation-states, but of the world. Wright had, of course, intended his famous protagonist to exemplify the damage done by racism and the explosive threat that damaged men posed to society, and it is as difficult to deny the psychological truth of Bigger Thomas as it is to deny that of Raskolnikov. Ellison and Baldwin, however, argued that it was an incomplete truth, and that Bigger, with his inarticulate violence, had been locked by his author into a particularly pernicious ghetto, in which the signifiers of adulthood – reason, wit, politics, art, agency, the awareness that home is located in a world of justice and injustice – were absent and impossible.

Ali, who was more a contemporary of Ellison and Baldwin than of Wright, added those signs of manhood and public wholeness to the subjectivity of the black American celebrity. Indeed, he made them constitutive of celebrity. The combination of adulthood and the overt violence of the boxer was potent stuff, and this potency can in no way be separated from Ali’s famous sex appeal. It was threatening (and thrilling) not so much because Ali was exceptional, as because he was in the vanguard of a wider rejection of the ghetto of children. Indeed, it can be argued that the systematic destruction of the various Black Power movements in the late sixties and seventies by the agencies of the state, in which extra-legal violence was freely used, was aimed at defeating this breakout and restoring the boundaries of Bigger Thomas’ world, transgression of which was merely criminal: a police matter.

It would, of course, be inaccurate to say that the restoration has been complete. But the fact that we find Ali’s political bent to be extraordinary suggests that there has been a real rollback. Black American celebrities are far more common today than they were when Ali made his inflammatory remarks about Vietnam. Remarks about a country that has literally been set on fire should be inflammatory; it is soothing rhetoric that is outrageous in such circumstances. But for the most part, we have stepped back from the fiery stuff, Black Lives Matter notwithstanding. The apparent step backwards has not been towards the stoicism of a Jackie Robinson or even Nichelle Nichols, but in the direction of the pouting narcissism of Kanye West, in which self-love is totally disconnected from solidarity. It is connected, instead, to consumerism: what one buys and shows off, what one’s name is used to sell, and one’s own marketed image. It is connected, in spite of the content of rap lyrics, to a fundamentally inarticulate image of the petulant man-child who needs a mother – or a record company – to manage his petulance.

It is essential that this critique not slip into a dishonest or hypocritical rant about ‘the black celebrity’ today, particularly when the critic is located outside or on the margins of the black American experience. In 1986, when Chrissie Hynde excoriated Janet Jackson’s generation of R&B musicians for having become the Pepsi Generation (‘How much did you get for your soul?’), the validity of the observation wilted before the irony of a white commercial artist scolding black artists for being, well, commercial. Today, there can be little doubt that regardless of color, celebrity status – and the public voice it potentially carries – is far better contained by the marketplace than it was contained by any counter-authority in the 1960s. But since color can hardly be disregarded when it comes to worldwide distributions of power and resources, any context that appears to operate ‘regardless of color’ is deceptive: it has been actively, politically neutralized. Its horizon has shrunk so dramatically that the world of injustice in which Ali fought and spoke, and that remained somewhat visible during the boycott of apartheid South Africa, is now quite invisible to those who seem to exist entirely in the public eye.

The stultifying effect of that containment is quite stark if we look beyond the American setting towards places where the corporate annexation of mass culture is relatively new. Sachin Tendulkar, for instance, is nearly a perfect example of iconic insularity. He had the good fortune of being one of the handful of modern athletes who have inhabited a level of ‘greatness’ that can come only from fortuitous cultural circumstances. Midway into his career in the 1990s, he was already celebrated – and not just in India – as the greatest batsman since Don Bradman, and certainly he had more media exposure and adulation than Bradman did in the 1930s. But Tendulkar’s generation of Indian cricket stars – wealthier, more famous and more in the public eye than any previous lot of Indian athletes – were also extraordinarily buttoned up, even when they took their shirts off and ran victory laps around the stadium. They had nothing to say that went beyond platitudes, even about sport itself. They seemed incapable of anger or organization. Literally the products of economic liberalization, they were either privileged by the status quo or aspired to privilege; they lived in the world but hid from it in moneyed enclosures.

It helped that they were mostly middle-class, upper-caste and Hindu, but even those came from less secure social locations were generally uninterested in provocation. The exceptions, like Vinod Kambli, received no quarter from the gods, and their provocation was rendered as juvenile misbehavior. Unlike their predecessors, who at least occasionally spoke their minds, Indian athletes who emerged after 1991 were superbly contained, to the extent that sacrifice became not only incomprehensible but meaningless. They were guarded men in every sense of the term. They knew better than to rock the gravy boat, comprising their sponsors, their boards and their government (which had become indistinguishable). They had, effectively, adopted the position of good children, to be seen but not heard except in jingles and propaganda. As men who saw, heard and spoke no evil, they were no less mutilated, and castrated, than Bigger Thomas or Vinod Kambli.

Ali was the product of a cruder arrangement of control, in which rebellion was both more imaginable and more compatible with celebrity status and public life. Its hallmark was an assertive wholeness of eyes, ears, brain and tongue: a breaking out into the world, not a zealous guarding of privacy. (We hear constantly how Tendulkar has had to protect his privacy.)  Ali had to be put in jail, not in a mansion, and jail made him stronger. Now the mansion is containment enough. Outside the mansion, there is nothing except paparazzi: no politics, no pain, no joy. The public stage that was once experienced as liberation is now experienced as layers of containment, compliance and conformity. We have, in a sense, gone from one pole of extraordinary subjectivity, signified by rebelliousness and adulthood, to another, signified by docility disguised as dignity.

June 6, 2016