Written by Dr. Anita Jack-Davies
John H. White, 1945-, Photographer
Today, the entire world is mourning the death of the legendary Muhammad Ali. And while I am saddened by his passing, I am taking this opportunity to reflect upon five life lessons that I gleaned from the way in which he lived his life. As a child, I grew up watching Ali in the media. At the time, he was one of few black men that I saw being featured in a prominent way that was both respectful and admirable.
And while I was too young to fully grasp his impact as a three time heavy-weight boxing champion, in some ways I took his presence for granted. However, as I got older, it became clear to me that he lived his life in a way that I, as a black woman living in Canada, could benefit from.
I admire the fact that Muhammad Ali stuck to his convictions by refusing to fight in the Vietnam War, citing religious grounds with the infamous quote, "I ain't got no quarrel with those Vietkong". In 1967, Ali refused induction into the U.S. army because the war went against his values. His decision had even more meaning as he reflected upon the plight of African Americans, knee deep in their fight for civil rights and social justice in a society that degraded their humanity vis-a-vis defacto segregation, a lack of economic and social opportunities and a denial of their most basic human rights. By refusing to fight, he brought international attention to the civil rights struggle. He had a voice and used it to enact change. His stance on the war was not only unpopular, it cost him the ability to keep on fighting, and in essence, his livelihood.
Even after he was convicted of draft evasion, sentenced to five years in prison, fined $10,000.00 and banned from boxing for three years, he maintained his stance. There have been times in my life when I have walked away from my values without even facing a fraction of the cost that Ali endured for standing up for what he believed in. And while I am ashamed of it, I have also learned an important lesson. Ali taught me that even when I am stripped of all that matters to me, my integrity and my word, matters more than the material trapping that success might bring.
I have watched countless documentaries on the life of the great champ and with each viewing, I am always struck by the fact that he loved being black and was proud of being black. This is important for me because I am not living in a culture where blackness is rarely celebrated. Muhammad Ali spoke about being black in a way that exemplified self-love and self respect in a manner that drew others to him. When I think about the fact that he loved being black at such a difficult time in history, I am reminded that no one can love my blackness more than myself. My love of myself: my dark skin, my nappy hair, my broad nose and my thick lips begins with me. It starts with me. My love of myself must be an attitude that I exude. It is a frame of mind that others must see and feel.
One of the qualities that I most admire about Ali is the fact that he effectively used media to teach about his beliefs. Rather than taking an oppositional stance, Ali developed a relationship with reporters and in doing so, was able to speak from a platform that enabled him to share a different point of view. ABC sportscaster Howard Cosell often interviewed Ali before heavyweight title fights and their humorous exchanges were a sight to behold. However, Cosell was one of the first reporters to refer to him as "Muhammad Ali", his new name after conversion to Islam, rather than Cassius Clay. In acknowledging his new name, at some level, there was also an acknowledgement of all that his new name meant.
For me, the biggest lesson that I take away from how Ali lived his life is the fact that he dedicated his life to helping and serving others. I watched an interview that is going viral on Twitter where a young child asks Ali what he hopes to do once he retires. In response, Ali explained that he hopes to use his entire life to help others in need. He talked about living one's life in such a way that others would benefit and benefit we did. Today, in my home, hangs a black and white photograph of Ali. He is in the ring getting ready to throw a jaw-breaking punch at his opponent with a beauty and intensity that we will never see again. The moment is frozen in time, etched into my mind's eye forever. And when I am knocked down and I feel like I cannot breathe, I remember that look in his eye and I fight back.
Dr. Anita Jack-Davies is a writer, consultant and academic. She is currently Assistant Adjunct Professor in the Department of Geography at Queen’s University. Professionally, Anita is President & CEO of Jack-Davies Consulting, a firm that specializes in helping organizations recruit, develop and retain talent from traditionally under-represented groups. She also recently launched The Soca Life, a lifestyle website that promotes the music, art and culture of the Caribbean. Follow her on Twitter @drjackdavies and Facebook at Anita Jack-Davies.