‘… as long as they ain’t free, I ain’t free’

Jun 8, 2016 at 10:08 am
‘… as long as they ain’t free, I ain’t free’

Muhammad Ali was always more than a story. If you were a young black child in the West End, you were likely to be connected in some way. Through family or friends, he was more than some person on the news. He was a favored son from our streets, our neighborhood, one of us.

In the times I spent scuttling along the Shawnee Parkway, North Longworth Avenue and Herman Street, my mom’s and uncle’s stories of Ali as a kid from their neighborhood filled our home, accented by my father’s admiration of him and boxing, in general. Ali never left his hometown behind. It is for that reason that he is more than a story to us, and why we are united in our mourning this week.

He respected his people. He shared his success with us, and he stood with us as we struggled through Civil Rights in the ‘60s. He put himself in front of the world, and he showed us all what was possible with belief and opportunity.

Ali was Louisville projected onto the world stage. He had swagger and bravado, and he was a humanitarian in a spirit that is much like our hometown at its best. His presence was magical. Knowing that he grew up where I did intensified the wonder felt when I’d see him around the city. Looking at him was looking at all of the possibility in the world.

It is nice, then, to see the tributes from around the world, with people appreciating Ali, not only for his social-justice beliefs, but also for his unabashed blackness. He was never ashamed of his skin, or where he was from. He made us proud of both.

The media shout-outs, tweets and Facebook posts calling back to “The Greatest” or “Ali, bomaye,” show the long reach of his legacy in all the years since he left the ring. He was a hometown kid who made a life on a giant stage, and he never forgot that after all the medals, the accolades and the adoration that he was still a black kid from the Lou.

The funny thing is, many of the tributes will always seem a tiny bit off if you are a Louisvillian reading them. That is because Ali and this place, especially the West End, are inextricable. To know him is to know where he was from.

As I sit here making a tribute of my own, I can’t separate that the beginning of his story is like that of so many kids from the West End. His legacy touched many who got their start against the backdrop of Shawnee and Chickasaw. I can’t ignore that his ability to stay connected to his home is a lesson to any of us who have grown and moved away from the West End, or even left the city altogether.

There is potential and greatness still in these places, and there are many kids yet to be celebrated coming from the exact same streets that are routinely denigrated in our media and in daily conversations about Louisville. The only difference between a kid on Grand Avenue today and a kid on Grand Avenue in the 1950s is that someone gave Ali a chance, and he took it.

It is our duty to carry his legacy forward, and lift up someone else.

We’re a culture of couch critics, and many of us have done little in the defense of someone else’s rights. With the loss of our greatest champion, we need that to change. We must reflect on how we can help someone else.

As Muhammad Ali aged, his bravado was tempered by his illness; but his conviction to be good, and to fight for good, was not. He fought his entire life — from winning his Olympic medal, through his status as a conscientious objector, through his illness and until his final breath in that Arizona hospital, when his heart beat 30 extra minutes after all other signs of life had ceased. He was, to his core, a fighter.

His family stood with him in many of those fights and will, no doubt, continue to do so. Now his fight is passed to the rest of us. My personal commitment to his legacy is that I will continue to volunteer where I am needed, as I’ve always done, and I promise to always use my mouth, my voice and my pages to fight when needed, and to speak up in the defense of those who can’t always speak loud enough for themselves.