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Gotta See Muhammad Ali

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Gotta See Muhammad Ali

Some things are too important to miss.
Cornel  West
Cornel West More by this author
Sep 05, 2010 at 10:00 AM

My father brought me to Harvard for my first year of college. When we flew to Boston, it was my first plane trip. When we drove to Cambridge, it was my first look at the oldest university in the country. I had seen it only in books. The college dated back to 1636, and some of the buildings looked it. The place was imposing.

My father said, “Far as Harvard goes, the competition will be rough, but you’ll do fine. God gave you a good mind. We don’t care if you make all A’s. Three C’s and a D will keep you here. Know this, son—you’re loved and respected by the people who know you best, the people who raised you. Just remember that I’m more concerned with the kind of person you are than the kind of grades you get.”

After a few days at the Holiday Inn on Massachusetts Avenue, Dad said that it was time for him to go. We hugged, and he was gone.

Alone. For the first time. Me on one coast, my family on the other. More excited than scared, I hit the books like a madman.

Then Harvard said, “We know you’re a terrific cross-country runner. We want you to go out for the team.”

I said, “I didn’t come here to run. I came here to read. Came here to learn. I’m through with running.”

Scholarship said, “We’re paying part of your college costs, but you have to work.”

I said, “I’m used to working. Work don’t scare me none.”

Work meant cleaning the toilets two hours a day freshman year—we called it dorm crew—and delivering mail at Mather House in later years. No problem. I loved campus. Loved the library. Had never seen anything like it. The stacks went up to the ceiling and I was ready to climb on up to the very top.

On campus, there were some marvelous students—such as Sylvester Monroe and Karl Strom—who gave me a sense of family and home. In my dorm room, I hung two pictures on the wall: Malcolm X and Albert Einstein.

“How come those two?” asked my roommate James Brown—not the singer but the extraordinary brother who would become an outstanding national sportscaster. Beautiful brother.

“Well,” I said, “Einstein’s probably the baddest scientist of the past hundred years and Malcolm inspires me.”

“Aren’t you more of a Martin man?” asked James.

“I am, but one doesn’t cancel out the other. I’m loving them both, just the way both of them loved us.”

“Talking about a lovin’ brother,” said James, “Muhammad Ali is talking on campus tomorrow.”

“What?” I didn’t know.

“You been too busy cleaning those toilets.”

“What time is he talking?”

“Noon,” said James.

“That’s toilet-cleaning time.”

“Well, I know Valerie’s going,” said James, referring to a girl I was crazy about. “Once the Champ gets a look at Valerie, you will be out of the picture.”

“That’s another reason for me to go,” I said. “I got to protect Valerie.”
James laughed and left.

I couldn’t sleep that night. I had to see the Champ. I viewed Ali as the athletic equivalent of Dr. King. He had big love for his people. He had big courage. He thought beyond narrow nationalism and conventional views of patriotism. Mainly, he represented his own view of integrity. He did what he had to do. He spoke the unvarnished truth. When he said that no North Vietnamese had ever called him a nigger, that made sense. When he said he had nothing against the North Vietnamese people, that made even more sense. He had reached the pinnacle of celebrity in the paradigm of American sports, and then turned that paradigm on its head. He converted to Islam out of conviction. Even devout Christians like my dad loved Ali for his guts and honesty, not to mention his skill. I had to see this brother in person. Like Richard Pryor, and Dizzy Gillespie, he was a free black man of the highest order.

That meant lying. So I lied. I told my supervisor that I’d do my noontime toilet-cleaning. Except that I didn’t. I took the bucket and mop and hid it in my room while I went down to see Ali. The man was magnificent. His mind was razor-sharp and you best believe his razzle-dazzle poetry brought down the house.

Back at the dorm, my supervisor spotted me.

“Been looking around,” he said, “and it seems like you didn’t do what you said you would.”

I hemmed and hawed.

“Ali?” he asked.

“Ali,” I answered.

“I understand.”

Under my breath, I said, “Thank you, Jesus.”

About Author
Cornel  West
Educator and philosopher Dr. Cornel West is the Class of 1943 University Professor of Religion and African American Studies at Princeton University. Known as one of America’s most gifted, provocative, and important public intellectuals, Dr. We Continue reading