Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties

It’s the second book of Mike Marqusee’s i’ve read, and i think i may have a new fave author…

Marqusee excels at impressionistic cultural histories, and here as elsewhere he focuses on his personal heroes to explain their significance in what was clearly the most important era in his life – “the sixties.”

Normally this wouldn’t work — i mean, normally wtf do i care who some guy idolized forty years ago?

But Marqusee has shown me that it can be done without navel gazing. It doesn’t have to be embarrassing like a mid-life crisis, or bad poetry. With a class and anticolonial analysis, and a sympathetic eye to understanding the less obvious motivations and perils of choices made by people at the time (kinda similar to Collingwood’s view of how history should be written), Marqusee makes the era come alive.

As with his biography of Bob Dylan (Chimes of Freedom), what interests Marqusee is not the tumult and the exuberance of the revolutionary breakthrough we are used to seeing – white hippies, Black Panthers and all – but rather what happened five minutes before, when there was no victory in the air, when everything seemed fucked, but when against the odds some people chose to do what must have seemed crazy at the time. Like when you’re not expecting a musical remix, and then a new rhythm breaks through the first tune and you’re not sure if it’s a mistake before you realize what being done. Marqusee shows us a glimpse of what it was like for those who could listen to the new beat when most people could only hear it, who saw it before it was acknowledged — certainly before it was what it has since become.

The case in point: a young boxer, chosing to jeopardize (how Marqusee puts it, it must have seemed like torpedoing) his career and his success to do what was right – Muhammad Ali, standing by the Nation of Islam, refusing to fight in Vietnam. Doing what he felt was right even when it breaks our heart, as when on the NOI’s say-so he broke off his warm friendship with Malcolm X, literally turning his back on him in one painful encounter when fate would have their paths cross in Ghana — even as Malcolm was standing there like a jilted lover insisting that that the young boxer was indeed the greatest, that he still loved him.

As in his bio of Dylan, Marqusee argues that the american genocide in Vietnam was the climax of a global conflagration that had entered its newest spectacular phase twenty years earlier with the anticolonial revolutions following World War II. In the united states this means that the Black Revolution was what came first, what set things in motion, the leap forward that in its turn prepared the ground for the antiwar explosion.

Marqusee uses that era — the sixties, which he himself experienced as a kid coming of age in the u.s. — as his pivot, but he swings a wide arc, tracing boxing in the Black nation back to the late nineteenth century, situating it in what Paul Gilroy has termed the “Black Atlantic”, examining the tensions between laughing-with and laughing-at that Black boxers like other Black entertainers have always had to navigate.

& he looks forwards to our time, too: showing how neocolonialism beat back the Black revolution and what this meant for boxing in general, and Ali in particular. i wish this had been drawn out more, but even with the cursory examination of how Mobutu-the-butcher and Marcos-big-dick teamed up with Don King and used Ali to create their own circuses, the message was clear. The negative comparison of Ali with Michael Jordan was spot on, too — like: people say Jordan’s a model, but what for? being wealthy?

My only caveats about this book are (1) there is some quick name dropping, some quick references to facts, and if you don’t know what is being referenced it might be a bit bewildering. This is not a major thing, and Marqusee actually does the opposite — fully explaining who folks were and their context — more often than not. So much so that someone who never watched sports and abhors boxing (which i can’t tell apart from wrestling, silly me) never felt unsure of what was being described. But i’m less sure that a boxing fan who was not particularly interested in politics would’ve enjoyed it quite so much.

The second caveat, really nitpicking, is that i found a bit too much of an overlap with his Dylan bio. Like he’s had these great insights, and he put them in both books – but having read both books so soon the one after the other i occasionally suffered from deja vu. Even in their structure, when Michael Jordan comes in for his last minute appearance as a shallow materialistic foil for Ali, i was reminded of how Marqusee used Bruce Springsteen as a similar foil for Dylan right at the end of Chimes of Freedom.

But perhaps it makes sense, as what is being traced is how individuals – albeit from different worlds and with different priorities and personalities – navigated the same storm.

Neither of these caveats should discourage comrades from picking up this book – it’s a great read, a wonderful blending of cultural and political history, and really inspirational to boot.

Which i never thought i would say about a book about professional sports.


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