On the morning of the 4th of June 2016, while in Paris, I logged on to Twitter and learnt that Muhammad Ali, the greatest sportsperson to have ever graced this earth had passed away. A couple of hours later, I left the Philip Chatrier Stadium dejected after seeing Serena Williams fail in her bid to defend her French Open crown. In short, within a period of 24 hours, two of my heroes lost their battles. Ali lost his long running battle with Parkinson while Serena Williams lost her French Open crown to Garbine Muguruza.
As I reflected on Ali’s death and Serena’s loss, I noticed a number of similarities between these two remarkable athletes. Both are Olympic Champions, both have faces which are recognisable around the world, both can be regarded as the greatest in their sports, both dominated their sports for a very long time, both belonged to religious organisations which can be considered outside of mainstream America (Nation of Islam and later Sunni Islam for Ali and Jehovah Witness in Serena’s case). But it was their relationship with White America that really got me thinking. Both are black icons whose blackness at the peak of their sporting prowess troubled White America.
Before continuing, I’d like to state that I am not trying to equate Serena Williams achievements with those of Ali’s. While Serena is arguably the greatest female tennis player of all times, Muhammad Ali was the greatest sportsperson that ever lived and his influence on and off the boxing ring paved the way for athletes like Serena Williams.
Muhammad Ali had a very significant influence on Serena right from when she was a child. Her father, Richard Williams relocated his family from the comfortable confines of Long Beach California to Compton, an area notorious for poverty, gangs and drugs. Richard Williams made this move so as to give Serena and her sister Venus a fighter’s mentality. In justifying the move, he said, “What led me to Compton was my belief that the greatest champions came out of the ghetto. I had studied sports successes like Muhammad Ali and great thinkers like Malcolm X. I saw where they came from.” Serena also regards Muhammad Ali as her role model, “I love Muhammad Ali. I love what he stood for. That is my ultimate role model. You can’t get better than that,” She once said.
Ali and Serena are both unashamedly black. Ali was proud of his black heritage and never shied away from expressing this sentiment. As a disciple of the Honourable Elijah Muhammad, Ali learnt the doctrine of black racial pride, a concept expounded by Marcus Garvey. This was at a time when White America expressly preached the inferiority of the black race. Serena Williams is also proud of her race. During a visit to Ghana, Serena went to the Cape Coast Slave Castle, a place where slaves where warehoused before they were shipped to America as slaves. Writing on the experience, she said, “I came away thinking I was part of the strongest race in human history.”
Ali and Serena have not forgotten their African roots. Ali was a pan-African and he gave speeches in a number of African countries such as Nigeria, Ghana, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Egypt. He called Africans his true people. Serena is also in touch with her African roots. She built a school in Kenya and Uganda and has visited Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa. While writing about her first visit to the continent, she said the visit, “Put me in full mind of my heritage and my responsibility to that heritage.”
Besides being proud of their black heritage, they are both sources of pride to the black world. Ali’s eloquence is rebutting the prevailing narrative made by white supremacist about the inferiority of the black race gave black people around the world the rhetorical ammunition to denounce the unfounded racist theories. Black folks around the world appropriated his victory as their own partly because Ali never denied his roots. In the documentary “When we were Kings”, a documentary about Ali’s fight against George Foreman in then Zaire, there is a scene where Ali is walking on the streets of Kinshasa and as he interacts with the people, some children run around him while others jump up and down. This scene was repeated in other countries that Ali visited in Africa with people surrounding him shouting “Ali, Ali, Ali.”
Serena Williams is also a source of pride to the black race. The vanilla part of the world may not appreciate her uniqueness, however, in the chocolate part of the world, she reigns as Queen. Whenever she wins a Grand Slam title, black people from Abuja to Abidjan to Atlanta raise their heads up in pride as if their own sister has won a Grand Slam.
Another thing that Serena and Ali have in common is that in their prime, they were under the intense gaze of white America. White America has always had an expectation of how it wants Black America to behave. For one to be “accepted” in mainstream society, very often, one has to be submissive, blind to racial injustice and grateful for the chance to live the so-called American Dream. Ali and Serena refuse to be defined by mores of White America. Ali tore the rulebook with his brashness and arrogance. He had the audacity to call himself the Greatest, challenge the racial status quo and question America’s involvement in the Vietnamese war. Serena refuses to be pigeonholed by White America and from time to time speaks up on racial issues. When White America tell her that her black body is not acceptable, Serena responds by doing a photo shoot wearing clothes that accentuates every curve of her black body which White America finds objectionable. Their refusal to “know their place” resulted in the scrutiny of their every move by White America. Ali was under surveillance by the FBI and a hostile White Media while Serena has been in the crosshairs of the white dominated mainstream media ever since she turned professional.
Even though they used their sporting prowess to bring glory to America, when they stepped out of the sporting field, they were treated as outsiders. Shortly after Ali won an Olympic Gold medal at the 1960 Olympic, he went into a restaurant to eat and was kicked out because he had the wrong skin colour. Serena, a four times Olympic Gold medallist was jeered during a match in Indian Wells. In describing the incident, her father wrote, “Being black in a traditionally white sport, we had often been met with criticism and condemnation…. We had put a black tennis player on the podium of Olympic victory, but when she came down, she was still just another nigger.”
Ali and Serena have faced situations where they had to go into battle with opponents only to see White America rally behind the opposition. Despite Serena being the dominant American tennis player, when she faces an opponent, very often the US media throws its objectivity aside and pitches its tent with the opposing players, who are predominately white. An observant follower of Serena should have become accustomed to reading headlines like, “Serena To Fall Short at the Australian Open”; “How Maria Sharapova can beat Serena Williams”; “10 Reasons Serena Will Never See the Mountain Top Again.” Whenever Serena is defeated, the White media eagerly anticipate the emergence of the next Great White Hope (irrespective of the colour of the opponent) with names such as Victoria Azarenka, Sloane Stephens, Eugene Bouchard and now Garbine Muguruza tagged as the “next it girl”.
Ali participated in a black dominated sport and during his fights, White America would rally behind his opponents hoping that a “next Great White Hope” would emerge to silence the “Louisville Lip” forever. Sportswriters took turn to name Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Floyd Patterson and Ken Norton as the “next it man.” In his autobiography, “The Greatest: My Story”, Ali recounted an incident where he lost a match against Ken Norton. As he was getting out of the ring, he noted the joy of the crowd in seeing him lose. Ali wrote, “Only this morning Norton was a nigger like me. But tonight he’s the Great White Hope.”
As the white media puts finishing touches to Ali’s obituary, Serena’s tennis obituary is also being drafted by sports journalists following her loss. At the time of his death, Ali and Serena were viewed differently by White America. In the last 35 years since Ali’s retirement and subsequent illness, he has morphed to become one of the most loved figures in White America, while Serena who is still in her prime is as polarizing as ever. With Ali now gone, it is likely that he will be immortalised. Why the asymmetric treatment? White America has a long history of vilifying its black revolutionary icons when they are in their prime and considered a threat to the existing status quo only to venerate them once the black revolutionary is old, frail or dead. White America revels in building monuments for dead black icons, even though it refuses to listen to them when they are alive. When Martin Luther King was alive, he was a hate figure, but upon his death, White America recreated him in its own image by posthumously converting him from a revolutionary thinker into a daydreamer. In Nelson Mandela’s case, he was a hate figure when he was in his prime and his name was once included in the US terrorist list, but when he was old and frail, White America stripped him of his revolutionary gown and converted him to a photogenic poser who helped feed the egos of American celebrities who trooped to South Africa in droves to take pictures with him.
With Ali’s death, we are witnessing the early stage of the deodorisation, beatification and whitewashing of Muhammad Ali. Chris Meyers, a sports commentator wrote on a tweet” 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.” Other commentators now suggest that Ali transcended race while the mainstream media refrains from broadcasting footage of Ali’s uncomfortable statements on racism.
Can Ali’s immortalisation in death by White America provide an insight into how Serena might be treated in the future? At the moment, Serena continues to be a vilified figure in White America, but if we are to follow historical trends, Serena might one day become the acceptable face of White America once she hangs her tennis racquet and hands over her crown to the next Great White Hope.