Twenty-sixteen has been a rough year for Black celebs. Natalie Cole, Maurice White, Denise Matthews, Phife Dawg, Afeni Shakur, Prince, and now Muhammad Ali have all passed on. But for those legends who have managed to “crossover” to become mainstream icons, one thing continues to be said about their life: they transcended race.
Almost as soon as Prince died, folks rushed to discus how his music broke boundaries and defied classification. And while it might have been difficult to assign a badass musician who loved heels and flamboyant clothes into a specific genre, Prince was never anything but Black. Despite his need to keep his private like ultra private, Prince regularly engaged with Black media, he regularly mentored up and coming Black musicians, and he supported Black causes like the Black Lives Matter movement. Still, after he died writers, pundits, and commentators claimed Prince” transcended” race, as if he could somehow outgrow his Black skin.
Now, many are saying Muhammad Ali–the same many who refused to fight in the Vietnam War because ‘no VietCong ever called [him] a nigger–has also “transcended race.”
When you saw #Ali you didn't see color you didn't see religion you saw a gentle man who was a strong fighter,a Champion you could believe in
— Chris Myers (@The_ChrisMyers) June 4, 2016
“Muhammad Ali transcended race—”
Bish, where? pic.twitter.com/0vJRtG3S92
— Cynthia F. (@cynfinite) June 4, 2016
Considering Ali was outspoken, not only about his religion and his opposition to things like the war, but he was also extremely pro-Black and spoke–often–about empowering his community.
His defiance, his constant proclamations about his “beauty,” and his willingness to speak out against America’s racism made Ali a controversial figure. Like Malcolm X, who introduced Ali to Islam, it took decades before Ali became a mainstream hero and not just a brash, bold Black man.
“I came back to Louisville after the Olympics with my shiny gold medal. Went into a luncheonette where Black folks couldn’t eat. Thought I’d put them on the spot. I sat down and asked for a meal. The Olympic champion wearing his gold medal. They said, ‘We don’t serve niggers here.’ I said, ‘That’s okay, I don’t eat ’em.’ But they put me out in the street. So I went down to the river, the Ohio River, and threw my gold medal in it.” – Muhammad Ali
Ali’s unconditional love for Black folks aside, if people were actually able to transcend race, then more white folks would be doing it. But funny enough, that hasn’t happened yet.