Someone I Never Actually Met

When I heard that Muhammad Ali had died and I listened to his chronology, I realized that his Parkinson’s was diagnosed before my kids were even born. They don’t remember Ali as I do. When I was a little kid, there were two big celebrities whose names swirled around me on a weekly, if not daily, basis: Marilyn Monroe and Cassius Clay. It wasn’t until 1964 that the Beatles eclipsed these names. For me, the name Cassius Clay itself was memorable, as was his personality and his reputation. He was a bit of a P.T. Barnum, bellowing and insisting upon attention and admiration. He was talented, and he knew it. He was handsome, and he knew it. He had the “IT” factor, and he knew it. He was also willing to stand up for himself and didn’t hold himself back, furthering civil rights by engendering in my generation the notion that OF COURSE all people should be equal. He did that with his expectations.

Then he converted, changed his name, and avoided the draft–and stirred up even more attention for himself. At that point, he tested the sympathies of middle-aged middle America. But for my generation, he showed that you don’t have to accept things just because the government says it is so. You can fight against what you feel is wrong. He showed that some things are worth fighting for. Whether you agreed or not with his political stance, it was impossible not to recognize that he was a FORCE and a TEACHER. We were young. We were blank slates. We learned so much from him.

Until very recently, my kids didn’t know any of this. The only thing they knew was that Muhammad Ali was a big name, an ex-champion, and had a vague illness.

If we don’t teach the history, how will they know that Ali’s importance didn’t lie in his boxing skills? How will future generations understand that teachers can come in unusual packages?

As a student of history, I am sensitive to history as an entity–its identity, its reputation, and its existence. Think of history as a person that you care about. I worry about the welfare of history–maybe that’s what I am saying.

The most important role of history, of course, is to remind us  of the effects of our action and inaction–and to understand the process. As George Santayana so famously said: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. We don’t want to keep making the same mistakes over and over again.

Even through grad school (where I was working on a master’s in history before I switched to English and creative writing) and my teaching career, I saw that history was sometimes maligned or misunderstood, but had its place in the world.

I’m not so sure anymore.

I could look up a lot of statistics, but I’m writing this on Sunday afternoon and it’s inching up toward 115 degrees. It was 115 yesterday. My air conditioning can only cool my house just so much. I am fogged up with migraine aura from the heat and the thick particles of crud in the air. All I can say is I suspect that we are leaving history in the dust as we move on toward our brave new technologically driven world.

Tangent over. Back to Ali. When my kids were little, a baby in my family was born, and she was related to Ali. We were almost kin. This was exciting news. Just so you know, I am also almost kin to George Burns (“God” and Gracie’s husband) and Anton van Leeuwenhoek (microscope inventor). Anyway, Ali was gracious and generous to the new baby.

I never thought Ali would cross my path again, but I was wrong.

A couple of years ago, my son visited the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center at Barrows Neurological Institute here in Phoenix where he received a diagnosis that had eluded us for years. There he was diagnosed with a rare movement disorder called Myoclonus Dystonia. The gardener and I had been taking him to doctors since he was nine months old, trying to figure out the source of his tic. Thanks to Ali’s donations and guidance, the center at Barrows (St. Joseph’s) is world class. When my son and I walked the hall, looking at all the photos of Ali, he said, “That’s our relative!” Hah, yeah, sort of. Pretty cool.

RIP, Teacher.


On a related note about the importance of making a place for history, did you watch the new Roots mini-series? Did you see the original version? If you were old enough when the first series aired and if you lived in the United States, I’m pretty sure you watched it. Although its story is fictional, it’s based on a historical novel by Alex Haley that is grounded in historical research and based on his own ancestor. So the TV series is a wonderful teaching tool.  But if you weren’t around for that show, have you done your reading or is the history of African Americans one that you watch only in current events on your computer screen?

Did you watch the new Roots? I still haven’t found anybody else who has watched the new one. I hope you did. Even if you saw the first one, the new one has some new perspectives. For instance, Kunta Kinte, the first main character of the story, is a Mandinka warrior, not a simple villager. I like this because it gives the story and its characters a powerful guiding force throughout, and instills a sense of pride, as well. There are events, though, where I wondered if they pushed too far. If you watched it, I’d love to know what you thought about that last gunshot near the end. If you respond, please write a warning about a plot reveal!

In other news, we have the first blossom of a new hibiscus bush!


Filed under #AmWriting, Arizona, Books, Family history, Flora, Garden, and Landscape, History, Inspiration, Novel, Vintage American culture

42 responses to “Someone I Never Actually Met

  1. I was young when Cassius Clay came into his own. It was hard for me to form an opinion because he could be contentious. It was only after he was Ali that I could see the true person he was. He has/had a training camp about 2 hours from my area and locally people love him. He was kind and generous and very helpful to young boxers coming up. There are so many athletes who do not give back but he did and he gave back to all no matter what your race was. Great post.

    • Yes, I think he mellowed a lot as he got older (and not just from the illness). He did a lot of good for a lot of people. As a kid I was amazed by him. And then when he converted and was a “draft dodger” my father talked very negatively about him. My father didn’t like anybody who was such a contentious “rabble rouser.” I think that was emblematic of middle class, mainly white, America at the time.

  2. My late husband disliked Mohammad Ali as much as I liked and was intrigued by him. I find it difficult to think of this towering figure, Ali, without remembering Bob’s withering opinion. Ah well, Bob is gone now, and so is Mohammad Ali. It’s the irony of history that we often learn more about people and get to “know” them better when they are no longer here. An interesting blog post, Luanne, as always. I loved the hibiscus blossom, such a wonderful shade of pink, and I plan to rent the new Roots from my local video library.

    • My dad really didn’t like him after he “dodged” the draft and converted. He thought he was an attention seeker. So true what you say about “knowing” people better after they are gone. I’m so glad you plan to watch the show. Please let me know what you think!

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  4. What a fascinating post, Luanne–so many twists and connections. Your personal sort of relationship with Ali is interesting, and how fortunate for your son to have finally received a diagnosis, which was made possible in part from Ali’s donations. I love these sort of connections.

    My husband and I did watch the new Roots. I also liked that in this new version they updated and made more accurate the African part of the story, that there were towns and cities in West Africa and trade routes. Kunta Kinte was not only a warrior, but he was also a horseman. And when he says that jumping the broom is something from white slaveholders, not Africans, but his wife still wants to do it, it puts a different perspective on customs and traditions.

    Beautiful flower! 🙂

    • Yes, the horsemanship!!! So important! I love that they included the African part of the story, but sometimes it seemed a pretty broad brush. For instance, the broom jumping. My reaction when Kunta kinte says that it’s not an African custom was to think, how does he know? That statement treats Africa as a monolith, which it is not. Didn’t you think that? He could know it wasn’t a Mandinka custom, but not that it doesn’t come from somewhere else in Africa. American slaves came from more than one location in Africa . . . .
      Tell me PLOT REVEAL WARNING!!! what you thought about the gunshot at the end . . . . Did you think he could really get away with that? That seemed very unrealistic to me. And what did you think about the hanging of the spy? Could that/did that really happen like that?
      What the story gets across SO WELL is how the plantation was a little barony, off to itself, with its own legal system, at least as regards not just slaves, but all people of African descent.

      • I think much of it was painted broadly, and I did wonder a few times if that would really happen. But still, it’s a mini-series, not a documentary, so I’m OK with a bit of drama. Kunta seemed the type of man who would make generalized statements though. 🙂 SPOILER ALERT–So I’m glad you described what you meant by the gun shot. Our recording cut off what I assume was a few seconds before the very, very end, and I thought maybe there was some random gunshot then. NO, I don’t think he could have gotten away with that gunshot. Well, put it this way, I would think they would have rushed off much more quickly than they seemed to be doing. I also wondered that about the spy. In the midst of war, who knows? I don’t think she would have been killed though if she had been arrested. I also wondered about allowing a free black man to just hang around like that would have been permitted. He wasn’t even working, so it seemed odd to me.

        I don’t really remember the original “Roots” very well, but I guess in that version there were white characters who were there to make white viewers not feel so uneasy. I liked that even the slaveholders who seemed “nice” were still shown to be complicit because they condoned the system (except the spy).

        • It was interesting in how it had a lot more characters (to my memory), whereas this version seems to expand certain parts more (even a bit draggy sometimes, I’m afraid). But it might have felt like freedom after what must have been constraints on the original version (as you point out about white characters).

          • I don’t remember the original well enough. I know we would have watched it “live,” whereas we recorded this and fast forwarded through the commercials.

  5. I am too young to relate to all that you wrote, but I certainly recognize Ali’s leadership and influence.

    I watched the original Roots, and have recorded the new one, but not watched it yet. I think it will be a few weekends before we can all take a day to binge. (Pride parade, parents coming, that sort of thing.)

    • Yeah, you’re an old soul in a young body! I can’t wait to hear what you think about the new Roots. Maybe you will post about it . . . . I watched 4 episodes in 5 evenings–not too bad. I will say that it was too violent for Slupe. I tried watching it in her room, but she did not like the violent sounds of slavery, let me tell you. Have fun with your (his?) parents! and at the Pride parade!

  6. I enjoyed reading your thoughts about Muhammad Ali. I too remember him in the news when I was young — along with Elvis, Castro, and De Gaulle. All these men confounded the establishment.

    Muhammad Ali was true to himself and generous. I liked that he chose to live in West Michigan for many years. It made me feel that he and I had something in common, loving the land and the big lake.

    How touching that he was generous to your mutual little relative and that he also gave money and influence for neurological studies in AZ that ultimately helped your son.

    It’s interesting to see how one who confounded the establishment became so beloved by so many.

    • Actually who wouldn’t love the land and the big lake (and the small lakes), but I do know what you mean.
      I think you know who that “little” relative is and that she became a very talented athlete (similar to your own relative).
      Elvis I heard less about. Castro, yes. DeGaulle, somewhat.

  7. Great tribute. I love the various intersections you point out in your post, Luanne. Ali and greatness. Synonymous.

    • Rudri, haha, I had to look up “synonymous”!!! Thanks for teaching me a new word! Hope all is well and that you’re not . . . too . . . hot. Ick.

  8. I’m usually not impressed by cockiness and trash talk. I agree that Ali was a force and like us all had his good and bad qualities. Looking back I wonder if abandoning everything considered old-school was a good thing. Along with his stand against “Christian” war (he said he could only fight Muslim ones) he left a bunch of out-of-wedlock kids in his freedom wake, but after all he was just a man caught up in the sexual revolution.

    Snoop Dog boycotted the new Roots saying he was sick of rehashing all that white men did to black men. Not sure what I think, but want to point out that there were a decent amount of free blacks and Native Americans who kept slaves and that the most brutal slave trade was the Muslim slave trade where they castrated the boys they took (leading to a huge death rate). I just read the other day that there’s more slaves now than ever.

    Christians in the western world were the first to abolish slavery and in the US my relatives fought and died to free slaves. A study of the men who went to war shows (as in the movie Glory) that many young men felt ambivalent about slavery but over the course of the war became more radicalized in their belief that slavery must end. I think that’s a thing that shouldn’t be lost to history. There are no perfect races as there are no perfect people.

    Sorry for this long comment, but you gave us so much to respond to–you are a great blog teacher!


    • Yes, Ali was a flawed human being, for sure, as well as quite a role model. As he got a little older (even before his illness was diagnosed) he seemed to soften. He did a lot for others over the years.
      I read that about Snoop Dogg and also reactions from others about his comments. It’s really interesting. I like the notion that Roland Martin put forth that Snoop Dogg could use his money to make the kind of movies he is talking about that showcase the success of African Americans today. He is right that if we only view African Americans as victims, we are doing a terrible disservice. But we also can’t ignore our history. Many young people have no idea anymore about American slavery except the idea of it. I used to love to teach Julius Lester’s book To Be a Slave with all its story fragments from actual ex-slaves. The quantity of authentic voices in that book makes a real impact on young readers.
      Regarding your points about slavery in general. My husband is also a student of history and pointed out that slavery is still prevalent in Africa and many other places around the world. Look at these countries and #s of people in slavery today: And what we do we think ISIS is doing besides killing people? Taking slaves. And Boko Haram. In many cases they are taking captive Christians and turning them into (supposedly or what they choose to call) Muslims. Let’s face it, there are a ton of terrible things that go on in the world around us. The countries mentioned in the article are spread throughout Asia, Africa, and what used to be the USSR (which I believe is Europe). But, of course, we also need to look to our own smaller world and learn enough to understand why things are the way they are now and how they got that way. The theory where our DNa is changed by trauma and passed on to descendants is so apropos for contemporary Americans who are descended from American slaves. So because something is in the past, we can’t forget about it. Where we are comes naturally from the past–and to think that even our bodies hold the memories!
      Your statement (“There are no perfect races as there are no perfect people.”) is so true. But the institution of slavery is inherently evil, which is why it should be rooted out whenever possible.

      • Agreed! The Bible says: ‘The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation.’ I understand why some African Americans still resent what happened to past generations, but in my experience nursing a sense of victimhood for too long is unproductive (and probably can affect the DNA). I know my family had trauma for generations that we are only now coming out from under. On a personal level it seems that forgiveness and moving forward work better than constantly replaying the past. There must be a balance in the teaching of history. Not everyone in the past was a villain just because they were white, or black, or German or Jewish–I think that’s a very simplistic notion of the past which in this time of Social Studies being taught instead of real history is a prevalent one. It’s sad that it has to come down to a battle between the races (and sexes) when often times things happen because of basic human nature. Oh, what a messy world!

        • It’s so messy. I started reading a book on Dietrich Bonhoeffer at a truck stop and had to go after one chapter ;). Do you know who he is? I want to go back and get the book! A contradiction and a hero. A pastor who plotted twice to kill Hitler.

          • Yes! I’ve read his book The Cost of Discipleship. The book was extremely intense for me. At the time I read it I was really afraid of God’s will–and the cost to me of following! He was super brave.

  9. I hope the heat isn’t making you suffer too much, Luanne – I get headaches in the heat too 🙁
    I love this tribute to Ali. What a great man he was. I remember him well from my childhood and we all thought he was fantastic (particularly because we hid conscientious objectors under our house at the time – but don’t tell anyone) 😉

  10. A man you couldn’t help but admire in the end, whatever you might have thought along the way. His last 10 years must have been a struggle.
    I do find history depressing, Luanne. If you look back through some of the conversations in the comments… well, it’s mostly glum isn’t it?

    • Jo, you put it well about admiring in the end, whatever you thought along the way. He was spellbinding, that is for sure. History being depressing? No more than current events, surely. And whether it’s depressing or not, it shouldn’t be avoided or we will have even more to depress us! Thanks for stopping by!!!

      • There’s no avoiding it, Luanne. That’s what makes it so depressing. It’s tied to the nature of man. And here in the present we continue weaving that history. As individuals, there are so many people I love. As a species I’m really not so sure. Happy to visit, with my glum words 🙂 🙂

  11. What a wonderful post – the kind of thing that makes me feel very glad I read it. Thank you for sharing. Glad your son was finally diagnosed. And Ali – what a remarkable person.

    • Thank you, Cynthia. So remarkable. It’s hard for me to write right now because I am listening about the attack in Orlando :(. But I wanted to thank you for stopping by. It was good that my son was diagnosed because it has helped him both in practical terms and emotionally.

  12. This was a most amazing post, Luanne. There is such warmth, courage and assertive declaration going on in this wonderful story of Ali, your son, and the Roots story, too. I never claim to watch an entire series, since I tend to once settled down, fall asleep or if awake, change back and forth to see two shows I like. (No DVR) I did like the serious level of the current Roots and hope my library gets it on DVD, someday.
    My children are in their thirties, so all know Muhammad Ali. We all went to see “Ali” when Will Smith gave a strong performance and captured the essence of his character.
    I am so thrilled you gave him a tribute with such warmth and understanding of how Cassius Clay was truly more Muhammad Ali. My daughter, Felicia’s college roommate lives in Ali’s neighborhood in Louisville, KY. She said he often would raise his hand between a “hi” and a salute in a neighborly fashion, in his early days of Parkinson’s. I mentioned that black power would have been a fist. “No, he would never do that,” she responded. My daughter and I felt he was a “Gentle giant.”

    My oldest daughter has a son 1/4 black, his father’s dad is black. When people talk negatively at work, I say this, “Did you know my grandson Micah is bi-racial?” I just cannot tolerate nor ignore people who are bigoted or mean.
    I don’t care what people politics are, our President Barack Obama really makes me proud. He uses the gentlest tone, serious attitude and doesn’t deserve what warehouse coworkers say, along with others, who thank God, I don’t have to daily deal with. . .

    I was sorry to hear of what your son was diagnosed with (Myoclonus Distonia). I hope by knowing, his condition may be easier to treat. . . Hugs, Robin

    • Robin, no, he wouldn’t do that. He seemed to really grow into who he was from being that brash young man to start with. He learned who he was, I think. My kids are both Asian, so I too take it personally when people are being racist. Luckily for my heart, most people I know are not racists and are kind people.
      Myoclonus dystonia cannot be treated, but knowing what it is certainly makes us all feel better. He went so many years without a real answer and that kind of denies your reality, if that makes sense. He has a serious tremor, muscle tightness, etc., but he has it mild comparatively speaking. the biggest benefit of a diagnosis is that he knows that he has a 50% chance of passing it on to a child who would have a good chance of living in a wheelchair. It’s an extremely rare disease.

      • Thank you for sharing and I hope your son has some possibility of a medicine that will prohibit further declines. Wow, I admire his inner strength and so glad you and your husband became his parents. Love conquers so much, just being one as a family. . . <3
        Ali became a much more "force" after he stopped fighting. Again, this was such a warm, caring post that made tears burst out, the first read, Luanne. You have such a way with words.

        • Oh, that is so nice of you to say, Robin! Let me know when you get your mail from me! No medicine for my son, but the good news is it is not a progressive disease. It is highly unlikely that his case will get any worse! xo

  13. A great tribute Luanne, it’s good to have a personal story to tell about such a larger than life figure. I didn’t even know there was a new Roots so we’ll definitely check that out.

    • Well, now you know ;). It’s not as exciting to watch as the first one, maybe because that one was so different and we were all so ready for it. But it’s very interesting and I was looking forward to each episode.

  14. Luanne lots to take in here today, I grew up on the other side of the world and Ali was big time news here too. A showman for sure, yet he had a strong message and people sat up and listened. True legend and amazing that he has crossed your path a few times in a positive way.

    I grew up watching the first roots mini series and remember how effected I was by the story. Would be interested to see the new one too. Have a great day.

    • Yes, the new one is so interesting. There are some things that were not as good, but overall I’d say it was better because it did two things I like: created a myth of Kunta Kinte and it tried to be a little more realistic in many parts.

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