Kenneth L. Hardin: Spirit of Muhammad Ali lives in me

Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 9, 2022

I’m not Muslim nor do I practice the peaceful religion of Islam. That didn’t stop a senior woman, who didn’t look like me or my grandma, from rudely accosting me with a ridiculous assertion at the city’s indoor pickleball court a few years ago. Soon after I had won a seat in one of the high back chairs, this little ball of elderly venom said, “Well I guess you’ll be having us saying Muslim prayers at Council meetings and forcing Sharia Law on us now.”

I don’t give in to adult bullying or peer pressure nor do I allow anyone to pick those whom I admire. I would much rather sit with the broken and misshapen than with all the seemingly perfect people in this city. I miss the perfectly imperfect Muhammad Ali. In a way, I am Muhammad Ali. No, I’m nowhere near the pugilistic “Greatest” as he continually proclaimed, but I feel like he resides in me. He was a flawed man, but one of integrity, humility, and genuine love for his people and all people. His unapologetic pride in his culture, his willingness to stand up to bigotry and hate without flinching, and the way he demanded respect from those, who tried to position him as less than a man, resonates with me. There are so few people currently who possess those strong attributes. Today, we have nothing but a lot of Black pretenders to the throne. I’m a fan of Air Jordan, but I don’t want to be like Mike. I want to be Ali.

I thought I knew everything there was about the G.O.A.T. until I watched a four-part PBS documentary on his life. I experienced every range of emotions possible as I went on this cinematic journey. I used to silently mock those who would clap at the end of movies, but I was openly shedding tears and applauding many times. Not only did you get an in depth look into Ali’s life, but you also received a history lesson. It effectively captured the people who made up the turbulent 1960s, and you felt as if you were a part of that gritty era. I loved that homage was paid to the man without making him seem like he was without failures or faults. Although he was flawed, Ali had a strong redemptive spirit that made you overlook his shortcomings. I saw someone searching for his identity for most of his life. I poked through his intense bravado driven persona to recognize someone who was trying to assert his manhood in a time when he wasn’t supposed to be the kind of man he was. I found a deep connection in all that because for years, I was lost and in search of my own identity.

The evolution of Ali going from the most hated man in this country to the most beloved in his later life was both frustrating and refreshing. America hated the pre-Parkinson’s non shaking version. When Ali moved from the sociopolitical religious offerings to the love for the teachings of true Islam, he found his authentic self and real voice. Even when he was performing and parroting words not of his own, it was clear he had love in his heart for everyone. Although he was immersed in activism and asserting his right to be a Black man free of oppression, he didn’t have that level of hate in his heart. I too refuse to love those who hate and seek to oppress and brutalize me. That turn the other cheek nonsense has weakened the overall strength of the Black community, killed cultural pride, and stalled progress, but it doesn’t result in me having hate in my heart for anyone.

Ali’s biggest contribution to me personally, to his people and to the world was his willingness to stand for something without fear of reprisals or repercussions. That strong character representation is absent from our society today, and more of a rarity among skinfolk. I don’t know many that look like me who would make the sacrifice Ali did in support of a cause. He knew there would be harsh repercussions but didn’t falter or wilt under the pressure. We have Black so-called leaders today who melt like a soft stick of butter on a hot stove if they’re tasked with speaking out on an inequity, injustice or for the disenfranchised.

Ali was hated for demanding the same freedoms others here receive at birth, but eventually became a symbol of the love this country should stand for. This shows both the hypocrisy of this country and the reality that hate has longevity. I’ve tried to live an Ali-like life. I’ve been heavily criticized and condemned because I’ve refused to apologize for my unwavering approach to calling out hate. Like Ali, I’m undeterred and unafraid.

Kenneth L. (Kenny) Hardin is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists.