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The Complete Muhammad Ali

The Complete Muhammad Ali

by Ishmael Reed
The Complete Muhammad Ali

The Complete Muhammad Ali

by Ishmael Reed


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Including material and photographs not included in most of the 100 other books about the champion, Ishmael Reed’s The Complete Muhammad Ali is more than just a biography—it is a fascinating portrait of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st. An honest, balanced portrayal of Ali, the book includes voices that have been omitted from other books. It charts Ali’s evolution from Black Nationalism to a universalism, but does not discount the Nation of Islam and Black Nationalism’s important influence on his intellectual development. Filipino American author Emil Guillermo speaks about how “The Thrilla’ In Manila” brought the Philippines into the 20th century. Fans of Muhammad Ali, boxing fans, and those interested in modern African American history and the Nation of Islam will be fascinated by this biography by an accomplished American author.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781771860406
Publisher: Baraka Books
Publication date: 07/15/2015
Pages: 448
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Ishmael Reed is a prize-winning essayist, novelist, poet, and playwright and the author of numerous books, including Barack Obama and the Jim Crow Media and Going Too Far. He taught at the University of California–Berkeley for 35 years, as well as at Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth. He lives in Oakland, California.

Read an Excerpt

The Complete Muhammad Ali

By Ishmael Reed

Baraka Books

Copyright © 2015 Ishmael Reed
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-77186-048-2


Though slight in size, one might consider Elijah Muhammad to be one bad black man. We used to call such men "Bad Niggers." We usually think of the Bad Nigger as a sort of illiterate brute whose archetype can be found in the works of Charles Chesnutt, Richard Wright, and Chester Himes, and books on the list of Holloway House authors. Fearless and unable to be disciplined by "Nigger Breakers," whose tasks are described in The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, he's the character in the movie "Mandingo" who, when captured, says to his tormentors who have placed the noose around his neck, "After you hang my ass, you can kiss it." The black cowboy, Cherokee Bill, when asked to say his last words before being hanged, said, "I didn't come here to make a speech, I came here to die." It could be Sojourner Truth who, when heckled by some racist suffragettes, said, "Ain't I a woman!" It could be Shirley Chisholm, who had the audacity to run for president. But there is another type of Bad Nigger: the black person who asks too many questions. The man whose birth name was Elijah Poole was such a person.

Every black person who is endowed with an exceptional curiosity conducts an internal dialectic, which in some cases can lead to early death, depression, ostracism, or even murder. Black women intellectuals get lupus, breast cancer, and ovarian cancer, and the males get diabetes, hypertension, and other stress-related diseases. Irate and often angry about the effects of white supremacy, from the daily annoying examples (micro-aggressions) to lynching and massacres, they find themselves either speaking out no matter the consequences, or they bear it, keeping such rage in storage.

Malcolm X is one of those who was not comfortable with the status quo. Poet and publisher Haki Madhubuti is correct to say that Malcolm X could have waited out Elijah Muhammad, his mentor, had he kept his criticisms to himself, retreated from the public arena, and become an Imam of an Orthodox Mosque. Martin Luther King, Jr. could have become a big shot in the National Baptist hierarchy, spending as much time at a Lexus dealer's showroom as preparing sermons. He'd have gained a large belly from too many fried chicken dinners. However, as with Ali, Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammad, Jackie Robinson, and others, his internal dialectic probably began at an early age. He looked around at the society in which he had been by chance deposited and saw things that puzzled him.

For Muhammad Ali and me, the defining moment was when we were told that we that we couldn't drink from a "white only" water fountain. Ali was six years old. The water fountain incident for me was my "Baltimore moment," based upon a poem written by Countee Cullen; all that Cullen could remember from his trip to Baltimore was being called a "nigger." I recall my mother dragging me away from the fountain before the water reached my lips. She was an attractive young woman with many well-bred suitors; she was a high school graduate. She was always clean and well -dressed in public, yet there were unkempt whites that day on Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga; they could drink from the water fountain and my mother couldn't. This puzzled me.

The water fountain incident wasn't the only puzzling aspect of America for Cassius Clay, the youngster. When he was five years old he questioned his father. He asked, "Daddy, I go to the grocery and the grocery man is white. I go to the drugstore and the drugstore man is white. The bus driver's white. What do colored people do?"

Elijah Muhammad's questioning led him to break with the Christianity that some would say had been whipped into the newly arrived Africans, some of whom were worshippers of Allah and some of whom were forced to denounce their African spirits.

Elijah Muhammad was also devoted to an unpopular, misunderstood religion. The Detroit police, like many of the nation's police departments, assigned themselves to this day to monitor cultural and political trends among blacks and Muslims. They wrongly called the Nation of Islam a "voodoo cult," which as a result of distortions by Hollywood and popular culture is people sticking pins in dolls, drinking blood, frenetic free -form dancing to the accompaniment of mad drumming and the rest. The kind of culture depicted in such films as "I Walked With a Zombie," "The Skeleton Key," and "Ritual," three movies which confuse African religion with Western witchcraft. In 2013, a television series called "Grimm" continued this stereotype. Such ignorance of the faiths of others is not surprising in a country where the Christian majority doesn't have information about that religion quite nailed; a country where one in four Americans think that the sun goes around the Earth according to a report carried by National Public Radio on February 14, 2014.

During the 1930s court appearances held in Detroit, male members of the Nation got into scuffles with the police, whom they accused of disrespecting their women. All of these images — images based upon superstition — arose in the public's mind when Ali announced that he had joined the Nation of Islam.

Yet when the issue of Muhammad Speaks (the official journal of the Nation of Islam) appeared after the assassination of JFK, carrying the headline "We Mourn Our Leader," some black intellectuals dismissed Elijah Muhammad as a "pork chop," with all of the connotations that this food would carry in black folklore. The FBI had succeeded in sowing tension between the minister and Malcolm X just as they promoted conflict between Maulana Karenga's "Us" organization and the Black Panther Party. The late Joe Walker, with whom I used to write for a Buffalo newspaper, and who followed Malcolm X to New York from Buffalo to work for Muhammad Speaks, told me before his death that he got into trouble with the Chicago followers of Elijah Muhammad because he was deemed too partial to Malcolm X.

All that some of the younger people whom I interviewed knew about Elijah Muhammad was that he was a charlatan and an adulterer. This was a man who not only refused to obey the Selective Service laws of the 1940s, but called for the victory of the country's enemy. While Ali escaped long-term imprisonment, Elijah Muhammad, who is depicted in Hollywood movies as a buffoon, went to prison for five years.

In 1943, I was sent to the Federal Penitentiary in Milan, Michigan, for nothing other than to be kept out of the public and from teaching my people the truth during the war between America, Germany, and Japan. (Message to the Blackman in America, E. Muhammad, 1965)

Did Elijah Muhammad incite an uprising against "the white devils," under whose charge he existed during this time?

"No," he writes. "In August, 1946, I was released on what the institution called 'good time' for being a model prisoner who was obedient to the prison rules and laws" (Muhammad, 1965).

He emerged with an interest in agricultural business (Jesus Muhammad, 2002) and built nationwide businesses whose development were sometimes thwarted by whites both in and out of government, from the right and the left. They were further affected by government infiltrators who sought to sabotage the Nation's business enterprises and by petty criminals from within, those who, unlike Elijah Muhammad, lacked a long-term vision.

The NOI exposed the hypocrisy of a system which criticizes blacks for their dependency yet attempts to frustrate their efforts to acquire assets. Capitalism has been hostile to blacks since Reconstruction when the newly-emancipated slaves were encouraged to place their assets, which totaled a billion dollars, in a Freedman's Savings Bank; the bank failed because it was operated by missionaries who had little knowledge of banking. The government was supposed to guarantee the savings but reneged on the promise. Last year, two banks, Wells Fargo and Bank of America, were penalized for steering subprime loans to blacks and browns. Some loan officers were said to have called blacks "mud people," and loans aimed at them "ghetto loans." The attitude toward blacks held by the capitalist system hasn't changed in over one hundred years, and because of racism blacks have been deprived of entitlements such as the GI Bill.

The biographers of Ali have every right to point out the flaws and the racism of the Nation of Islam (even though the sports writers among them work for newspapers with segregated newsrooms which, in their coverage, segregate blacks to the crime pages or the why-can't-they-get-it-together pages). However, wouldn't a true conservative condemn the government's wiretapping and surveillance of a group that posed no threat to National Security?

And so while Elijah Muhammad has been cast as a hater, arguments that present blacks as subhuman have gained respectability in The New Republic and Commentary magazines, the voices of Neo-Con America, which find themselves in the company of the Pioneer Fund — a foundation with a history of sympathizing with Nazism — in their agreement about the intellectual inferiority of blacks. The Pioneer Fund was founded by Wickliffe P. Draper, a Nazi sympathizer.

According to Wikipedia, "In August 1935, Draper traveled to Berlin to attend the International Congress for the Scientific Investigation of Population Problems. Presiding over the conference was Wilhelm Frick, the German Minister of the Interior. At the conference, Draper's travel companion, Dr. Clarence Campbell, delivered an oration that concluded with the words: 'The difference between the Jew and the Aryan is as insurmountable [sic] as that between black and white ... Germany has set a pattern which other nations must follow ... To that great leader, Adolf Hitler!'"

Statements that smack of "scientific racism" have become so normal that very few of the chattering and intellectual classes make an attempt to oppose them. The Bell Curve (1994) holds that blacks are inferior, intellectually, to whites. Written by Scots-Irish-American Charles Murray, it received high praise from the media. It argued that blacks, as a rule, had lower IQs than whites. Unlike Yacubism, which depicted whites as evil and was adopted, but eventually abandoned by Elijah Muhammad, Murray's "research" influenced public policy and powerful politicians.

During the week of March 13, 2014, Paul Ryan, a possible presidential candidate, announced his conversion to the philosophy of Charles Murray's hypothesis that blacks are inferior, intellectually, to whites. He used Murray's discredited ideas to explain what he referred to as a culture of laziness in the Inner City. The Southern Poverty Law Center reported, "Moreover, there is a disturbing dynamic at play. At the same time that the number of extremist groups is dropping, there is more mainstream acceptance of radical-right ideas."

Many liberals and progressives failed to see that Republicans made gains in 2014 because of resentment against a black president held by older white voters, who have shown again that they are willing to make any sacrifice in order to uphold white supremacy, even if it means voting for those who would reduce their Social Security payments. Ryan's possible rival for the Republican nomination is Rand Paul, who, according to The Times, hangs out with people who regard Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth as a hero. He hired a man who called himself "The Southern Avenger"; when he was exposed, Rand at first defended him, but after pressure had him fired. In 2014, he wrote the introduction to a book authored by a Confederate sympathizer. So while white right wing ideas can enter the mainstream, those of blacks have a marginal effect. Are racists confined to "Jack Daniels racists" like those who place themselves before cameras at Tea Party rallies? For Accuracy In Reporting claims that scientific racist thought can be found in The New York Times.

The Yacub myth was circulated by the Nation of Islam, which was headquartered in Chicago, as if to compete with white racists over which group was the most superior:

Before the making of the white race, we never had their type of evil people. The Black Man was never under an evil rule. Evil rule was never practiced among the Black People before the making of an evil world by Yakub. We never saw or experienced a civilization like the white man's civilization. We never had an unalike people among us before the white race was made. We were all alike especially in color.

The new man, the white man, came from us, but he is different from us. After Yakub grated his man (white man) from us, his man became a new man to us. We are not a part of the white man. The white man just looks like a human being, and he is a human being, but he is not kin to us at all. You say, 'I cannot understand how that is, Mr. Muhammad.' This is true. After the white man was grafted completely out of the germ of the Black Man, the White man was made into a new man different from the Black Man, from whom he was grafted. The white man became a new person altogether and his very nature is new to us. They do not have the same nature as we have. The white man is different by nature than the Black Man and the white man has made many things new. (E. Muhammad, 2002).

In the NOI's mythology, Yacub was a black scientist who launched evil upon the world by inventing white people. Though Ali's biographers assert that the NOI had not abandoned the doctrine of Yacubism, the theory that whites were created by a black scientist to do evil in the world was abandoned in 1974, when Elijah Muhammad told Final Call editor Askia Muhammad not to refer to whites as devils anymore. He did not believe in causing trouble for whites and even his enemies agree that he delivered thousands of blacks from lives of prostitution, criminality, and substance abuse. Yet while Martin Luther King, Jr. has a holiday named for him, Elijah Muhammad is still denounced by Ali biographers, writers who never bothered to explore the reasons for his appeal. So what is the difference between the attitudes of millions of whites (the mainstream) about blacks, and those of Elijah Muhammad about whites prior to the 1970s?

Even when it comes to racism, just as there is a double standard to which blacks and whites are held in other areas of society, there is a double standard that applies to white racists and black racists, a double standard that I wrote about in (January 23, 1999).

When asked about why whites were more successful, materially, than blacks, a writer for the Irish American National Review, who had just recently been naturalized at the time of his C-Span appearance, said that maybe "the answer would be found soon in genetics and biology."

History has shown that most whites, by action and deeds, are separatists and, unlike the black separatists, have the arms and political power to enforce their separatism. Evidence supplied by books like Sundown Towns by James Loewen, about the many cities and towns in the United States where it was and still is a bad idea for blacks and sometimes Chinese and Jews to be seen after dark, shows that whites are the most persistent of American separatists, even when quoting Martin Luther King to criticize black separatism. Another book that indicts the decades-long effort of many whites to prevent blacks from moving into their neighborhoods is As Long As They Don't Move Next Door by Stephen Grant Meyer. While black separatists are criticized by Ali's white biographers, white separatists get to make it to key positions in the country's political, social, and cultural life.

So studied is white separatism that some whites are able to practice white separatism in predominately black neighborhoods. At one time, most of the whites entering my neighborhood came to buy drugs. The criminals did sales in broad daylight and attracted whites from the suburbs who either walked or drove up to their drug house. Beginning in the late 2000s, most of the whites were renters, refugees from San Francisco who had been priced out of that city. Industries that once occupied the neighborhood now house condos. The Wonder Bread factory has been replaced by a condo dwelling called Bakery Lofts.

This neighborhood was once black until the banks decided to issue subprime loans to those who were eligible for conventional loans, typical of the kind of predatory relationship the American financial system has had with blacks since Reconstruction. Taught to fear blacks by the media and their education, the new white arrivals patrol the remaining blacks with a kind of citizens' patrol. The most popular protection devices are pit bulls, which have become known as "fuzzy guns" or "four-legged Zimmermans," which is how Tennessee Reed refers to them in a poem.

Though the newly arrived Latinos, Asian Americans, and some African-born residents get along, most of the white regentrifiers do not mingle with the black neighbors and avoid eye contact with them.


Excerpted from The Complete Muhammad Ali by Ishmael Reed. Copyright © 2015 Ishmael Reed. Excerpted by permission of Baraka Books.
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