“I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize, but get used to me. Black, confident, cocky. My name, not yours. My religion, not yours. My goals, my own. Get used to me.” -Muhammad Ali
In 1964, Muhammad Ali converted to the Muslim faith and changed his name. Given the name Cassius Clay at birth, he took another and reclaimed himself. In a 1964 NBC interview, you can see him declare “I am no longer Clay. I am no longer a slave.”
Last week, this American icon who fearlessly spoke against injustice here and in the rest of the world died at the age of 74. Shortly after, Tennessee Rep. Martin Daniel from Knoxville-sponsor of legislation to defund the diversity office at University of Tennessee – Knoxville and another bill defending hate speech on public campuses-tweeted criticism about Muhammed Ali and repeatedly called him Cassius Clay. The lawmaker deleted his rant, but not before it was captured in screen shots.
There is a lot wrong with Rep. Daniel’s comments about Muhammed Ali. His choice to defiantly ignore reality and refer to this man by a name he has not had for over 50 years reflects something bigger than Rep. Daniels. It represents the American habit of diminishing and erasing people of color, their stories and their lived realities to support the myths of the dominant narrative.
This erasure and whitewashing comes in many forms.
Today, textbooks describe the Atlantic slave trade as bringing “millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations” in chapters about immigration.
These books also describe people in ancient, thriving native civilizations as savages while ignoring the stories of Chinese immigrants who built railroads and the internment of Japanese citizens during World War II. We hear stories of a mild-mannered seamstress, too tired to go to the back of the bus, instead of stories of a powerful woman activist taking part in an organized struggle for her freedom.
Our society observes national holidays based on mythological discoveries and healthy relationships between Pilgrims and indigenous people ignoring the violence and destruction that prevailed. U.S. postage stamps beam with images of Americans once vilified, surveilled and jailed by the same government. Flags celebrating the institution of slavery still fly high and monuments to slaveholders stand.
Tributes for the living and obituaries for the dead describe people’s accomplishments as proof that they transcended race, as if race were something to overcome. Instead, the barriers to overcome are those grounded in racialized and discriminatory systems.
Our collective imagination conjures stories of black male “super-predators,” “radicalized Muslim teenagers” and “criminal immigrants” who are only to be feared, justifying any means to contain and control them. These stories are crafted to ignore, dehumanize, and degrade people who do not meet the requirement of whiteness.
Muhammad Ali insisted on being seen and heard.
He demanded that he and others be recognized as full human beings. He called out an America that had failed to meet its promises. He took a different name to declare his freedom. Even in death, there are those who would take it away-further proof the free and equal United States of America in so many tales still does not exist for everyone.
Terri A. Johnson is the Executive Director of the Center for New Community.