Althea Dryden, GUEST CONTRIBUTOR – It was the perfect ending to the perfect week. As we left the Memorial Service for Muhammad Ali, I sensed the magic of that week coming to an end. My 11 year-old son and I walked hand in hand to the parking garage and as we started our ascent, he turned to me and said, “Mama, am I a Black man?”
Caught off guard, I paused, but with a knowing smile I responded, “Yes, baby, you are.”
“YES!” He pumped his fist and raced up a few more steps, then stopped and turned to me quizzically and asked, “Then what are you?”
What a moment.
What a week!
Like so many of us in Louisville and millions around the world, I was terribly sadden by the death of Muhammad Ali and incredibly moved by the subsequent weeklong celebration. Somewhere between standing alone in the lobby of the Ali Center during the last hour of his life, and sitting among thousands of mourners in the YUM Center during our last hour of his “presence”, I became a better mother.
Don’t get me wrong; I am a great mom! My 20 year-old daughter is a template of daughterhood and my son is the reason I rise. He’s the sun, and she’s the shine. Bringing these children into existence and shepherding them through life will be my greatest accomplishment no matter how long I live. But something happened to me that week. Something settled in my belly and pulled my shoulders back. Resolved to be a better human and to raise better humans, I too, became the Greatest.
We all did.
The week between Muhammad Ali dying and his Homegoing services gave us the opportunity to not only remember The Greatest, but to recognize our own greatness, as a city, as a community, as a family and as human beings.
For that week the world sat at the knee of Louisville, Kentucky eager to hear the tales of stolen bikes and Olympic medals in the Ohio River, soaking in the iconic images and reveling in the arc of our hero’s tale. We rushed to pink shrines in Parkland and heartfelt altars on Main Street.
We signed banners proclaiming “I Am Ali” and tossed flowers on his processional motorcade chasing and chanting “Ali!, Ali!, Ali!”. We bought tee shirts on corners and shared our own Ali stories like communion wine. We respectfully witnessed the Jenazah prayer service at Freedom Hall and laughed and cried at the Memorial Service at the YUM Center. At all times I was fully aware of the gift Muhammad gave in life and was giving us in death. It was the greatest week I’ve ever experienced in my beloved Louisville, Kentucky.
Muhammad Ali’s story was not a fairytale or an action novel, it was a parable. A story wrapped in mystery and magic meant to challenge and change its tellers and its listeners. We listen to the narrative and at any given point can see ourselves in his story. We nod our heads in recognition of lessons learned, we have “aha” moments and smile because we’ve heard it all before, but this time with new ears. The lesson to my son, hearing so much of Ali’s tale for the first time, was the awareness that he, too, could become great. He has a red bicycle, he loves sports and he’s from Louisville, Kentucky. Why not, him?
The lesson to me though was not who Muhammad became, but how he became him. Cassius became Muhammad because he was always Ali inside – noble, excellent, elevated. Thee man of the glove became the man of love because the love of his people was always the reason for the fight. He was a fighter in every sense of the word. He was a man of faith in every sense of the Word. He was a father and husband with a deep sense of humanity yet few words. The challenge that lingers in my heart sparked by this gift of a week is not how can I be more like Muhammad, but rather, how can I raise Ali.
Like a parable, the lesson of Muhammad’s life story is more transformative each time it’s told. This is how legends are born – in the tales, true and tall and in the lessons, earned and learned. This is how legacies are left – via universal transfusions of blood, sweat, tears and smiles. Muhammad fought with his body, taught with mind and sought with his spirit.
He was the Greatest because he knew he was only as great as the people he saved and never as great as the One we serve.
And save us he did.
He saved us from complacency in this country by standing up to the fight. He saved us from hopelessness in the world by sitting down in peace. We were the social revolution to his spiritual evolution. Like the sun in which we bask and burn, he was a necessary light, a power source taken for granted, an illuminator of our shadows. In life, he challenged and pushed and lifted and led, and in death, he did the same.
To comprehend the legacy of Muhammad Ali is to explore the history of African Americans, to study the evolution of civil rights, to grapple with the intricacies of religious identity, to examine the plight of the marginalized, and to truly consider the life of a Black man on this planet. He was the kaleidoscope of diversities that makes America the United States in one body, in one lifetime. In death he reminded us of who we are, where we’ve been, and what we can become.
We know the needle on race in America has moved, but the song sounds strikingly the same. At a time in our world of heightened division and paralyzing fear, he gently reminded us through a rainbow of color, culture and creed on his memorial stage, that we are all human beings with the responsibility to be a witness to love, and a testimony to truth. Ali punched with certainty and shuffled with ease because he knew the fight was never with a man but with a mindset. We know that mindset still rages today, and he left us with an example of how to defeat it.
We must show up, proud and loud as Cassius did.
We must stand up, straight and strong as Muhammad did.
We must step up, certain and determined as Ali did.
And we must do it with a deep sense of love, compassion and faith.
I have spent the last 20 years protecting and providing for my babies in all the ways parents do. In the last two years, I’ve joyfully watched my daughter blossom at college into a young woman pursuing her dreams with calculated abandon. Yet, in those same two years, I’ve fearfully watched my son tiptoeing around the green buds of adolescence like landmines. They are at those ages of betwixt and between – she, no longer a youth, not yet an adult; he, no longer a child, not yet a youth. She is eager but scared; he is weaned but still wanting.
This week of exploring my city and her beloved son coupled with an examination of my Self and my beloved daughter and son, revealed I, too, am at a own crossroads. I am not just mothering Black children, I’m raising Black adults.
“Then who are you?”
Then, who am I? At first pass, I thought this another one of his attempts to understand the differences in our hue. This was not our first conversation about race and color and how his mama can look white but be Black. I’ve explained the social construct of race and the genetic make-up of our family. I’ve dissected the reasons why sometimes I’m mixed, but he’s always black. I know he sometimes teases me about my color not just to push a button, but in hopes of getting an answer he still doesn’t have.
This time though, he wasn’t questioning as much as making an observation. If I am a “Black man” then what are you in relation to me? Is that not the question for all young, Black males? A recognition that despite still being a child, he is a “Black man” in society’s eyes, and if he must own the consequences of that fact, like Tamir, if he can see the magnificence in becoming that like Ali, then he must also acknowledge what it means to NOT be that.
His mother will never be a Black man and for the first time, I saw his recognition of that distinction as well as the understanding of its power. My son was locating himself in the narrative of all Black men by identifying with Muhammad Ali. We all proclaimed “I am Ali” that week understanding the butterflies and bees inside us all. Yet, with one simple question, my son reminded me I can never truly be Muhammad Ali, but he can.
During the memorial one of the eulogist stated we all have an Ali story. My son lifted his head from my shoulder and asked if he had one. In the darkness and reverence of that memorial crowd, I looked deep into his hopeful eyes and whispered, “This is it.” And so begins my son’s Ali story. First comes Black pride and masculine swagger. Soon will come an awareness of the burdens those characteristics bring in our country and the desire to fight. Then, I pray, comes the fortitude to hold tight to his convictions and fearlessly lift high his voice. As his mother that is both my hope and my fear.
I also hope my beautiful son can protect the treasure of compassion and kindness so evident in his being; he really does float like a butterfly. I know that softness of heart is what allowed Muhammad to see beyond the borders of race, nationality, political party, gender and class. He was, like the prophets before him, fully human and fully divine. His legacy is the wisdom that in every moment, if we are willingly to be human, we are able to be divine. That is greatness.
What a moment.
What a week.
What a story.
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Althea Allen Dryden is the lucky mama of two compassionate and creative kids. She works for two Louisville-based national organizations and is a freelance writer who uses her free time to enjoy sporting events and a good libation. Respond to her via: firstname.lastname@example.org