“Boxing on Paper” for the Nation of Islam, Black Nationalism, and the Black Athlete: a Review of “The Complete Muhammad Ali” by Ishmael Reed

“And so when the Nation of Islam ordered Muhammad Ali to resist the draft, he became more than a boxer; he was an inspiration to black men needing uplift.”

“When Muhammad Ali spoke up, he liberated a generation, regardless of whether he was ordered to resist the draft. Because of his example, they exhaled.”

The Complete Muhammad Ali, Ishmael Reed.

On the back cover of Bruce Dick and Amritjit Singh’s Conversations with Ishmael Reed, Reed is quoted as saying that if anyone was going to compare him to anybody else, then compare him to “someone like Mingus and Charlie Parker, musicians who have a fluidity with the chord structure just as we have with the syntax or the sentence which is our basic unit.” Not only do all of Reed’s works depend on improvisation of scenes and characters, an improvisation the essence of which Reed finds in jazz musical forms such as Be-Bop, but for almost five decades Reed has also been arguing that in order to survive slavery, Reconstruction, lynching, Jim Crow, imperialism, and other colonizing systems, Africans in the “New World” have had to improvise on the little that had been left of African traditions. Reed has done this by fashioning his own writing style called Neo-HooDooism, which originates from Vodun and Voodoo, particularly in the capacity of the latter to absorb other cultures, a phenomenon known as syncretism.

In his quest to recover pre-slavery and pre-colonial African traditions, Reed has been learning the Yoruba (and Japanese!) language, which has allowed him to read African folktales and stories in Yoruba and to reassess how the African Diaspora has retained some of these African traditions. In Japanese By Spring, a novel written in English, Japanese, and Yoruba, Ishmael Reed stars in his own novel as “Ishmael” and justifies why he is studying Yoruba: To give a “blood transfusion” to the English language and to “end the jazz poetry hype”—with everybody claiming to be a Jazz poet. Having realized that speaking and reading Yoruba is like reading a song sheet, he sees Yoruba as a Jazz language, the “foundation of jazz. The language that was the only real jazz poetry.”

So, for those of us who regularly read, teach, and do research on Ishmael Reed’s work, the groundbreaking The Complete Muhammad Ali, Reed’s latest book published by Baraka Books in Canada in July 2015, is not a surprise. For in his third collection of essays, Reed describes his writing style since the 1980s as “Boxing on Paper.” In Writin’ Is Fightin’: Thirty-Seven Years of Boxing on Paper, Reed not only prefaces the essays
51haSf-ecnL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_by two epigraphs from Larry Holmes—“Don’t bite your tongue about it”—and Muhammad Ali—“Writin’ is fightin’”—but he also devotes “Boxing on Paper: Thirty-Seven Years Later,” the introductory essay, to comparing his writing style with boxing. Arguing that Mel Watkins was generous in comparing his writing style “with that of Muhammad Ali’s boxing style,” he reveals that he would rather compare his writing technique with that of Larry Holmes, “I don’t mince my words. Nor do I pull any punches, and though I’ve delivered some low blows over the years, I’m becoming more accurate, and my punches are regularly landing above the waistline.”

Writin’ Is Fightin’ also contains a review of Chris Mead’s Champion: Joe Louis, Black Hero in White America.

On September 15, 1978, Reed covered the Muhammad Ali vs. Leo Spinks rematch in the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans and devoted a thirty-page essay about the fight, which is collected in Airing Dirty Laundry (1993). Although defeated seven months earlier in Las Vegas, Ali won the New Orleans fight. In “The Fourth Ali,” Reed writes, “To be a good black poet in the ‘60s meant capturing the rhythms of Ali and Malcolm X on the page.”

In The Complete Muhammad Ali, Reed captures the complexity and the polyrhythms of Muhammad Ali, Elijah Muhammad, the Nation of Islam, Black Nationalism, and to some extent Malcolm X, on the page. Not surprising for this Neo-HooDoo—an aesthetic derived from African vodun—houngan (priest or artist), whose work rests on the idea that “Writin’ Is Fightin’; Boxing on Paper.” The Complete Muhammad Ali is also Reed’s biography, as Reed crisscrosses America interviewing the many voices that echo throughout the 427 pages. Additionally, Reed took most of the photos in the book and appears in many of them. These pictures, along with the cover photo by Jose Fuentes, a Puerto Rican who often traveled with Ali, have never appeared anywhere else.

This expansive masterpiece—54 chapters with an introduction, conclusion, and afterword, as well as 34 pictures; some chapters bear titles while others do not—does not turn Muhammad Ali into a Saint—as most of Ali’s biographers, who Reed calls the Scribes, do. Nor does it negatively portray the man who has become to be known as the G.O.A.T., the Greatest Of All Time.

Like all Reed’s works, The Complete Muhammad Ali is a multivocal and multicultural biography, with diverse and differing solos riffing off on the main themes: Muhammad Ali, Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, the Nation of Islam, Black Nationalism, boxing, and sports in general, across time and space: USA, Zaire, Philippines. This biography is designed to counter Ali’s biographers who vilify Elijah Muhammad, the Nation of Islam, and Black Nationalism, which produced incomplete portraits of Muhammad Ali. As a matter of fact, Chapter One opens with Elijah Muhammad being described as a “Bad Nigger”—“the black person who asks too many questions”—and ends with a comparison between Elijah Muhammad and Martin Luther King, Jr. Although both espouse American values, the former is a “flaming radical.” While Elijah Muhammad believed in non-confrontation, Martin Luther King “confronted the most diehard of racists and was murdered as a result of a conspiracy launched by racists. He brought about a revolution that benefited the black middle class.” One can even argue that the hero of The Complete Muhammad Ali is Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, not Muhammad Ali. This makes sense insofar as the latter has suggested that his greatest achievement came about when he joined the Nation of Islam, not in the ring.

The Complete Muhammad Ali is a jazz work characterized by syncretism and synchronicity, the latter referring to what Gayl Jones has termed “a non-chronological syncopated order.” In this jam session, the maestro or the band leader is Reed. Interestingly, Reed compares Ali with Coltrane, “Like Ali, the tenor saxophonist John Coltrane put his own mark on modern jazz so that the chord progression that he used in tunes such as ‘Giant Steps’ are called changes.”

One of the main themes that undergird the jam session, and which the solos riff off of, revolves around the fact that “Ali’s defiance of the draft, the act that endeared him to northeastern liberal writers, who, one could argue, contributed to the myth of Ali’s invincibility, was not a matter of free will. They held that he was commanded to do so by his mentor, Elijah Muhammad, whose orders were enforced by the feared Fruit of Islam.”

The solos/interviews riffing off one another include Yolanda Ali, Khalilah Muhammad, Wallace Muhammad, Russell Banks, Harry Belafonte, Hugh Masekela, Stanley Couch, Jesse Jackson, Amiri Baraka, Rahaman Ali, Marvin X, Ed Hughes, Jack Newfield, Emanuel Stewart, Sugar Ray Robinson, Melvin Van Peebles, Martin Wyatt, Agieb Bilal, Quincy Troupe, Akbar Muhammad, Haki Madhubuti, Elizabeth Nunez, just to name a few. Each of these voices offers fresh information on Elijah Muhammad, Muhammad Ali (as a boxer, an activist, a Black Nationalist, a husband) that other Ali biographers have ignored. From Khalilah Ali, Ali’s former wife and the daughter of Lt. Raymond, Elijah Muhammad’s right-hand man, we learn that she helped everybody get passports to Zaire for the Ali vs. Foreman fight, including Ali’s women (who included Veronica). Moreover, she refutes the claims from the “Ali Scribes” that the Nation of Islam confiscated Ali’s money. The truth is that Elijah Muhammad gave Ali money. Khalilah Ali also reveals that in order to keep Ali from the streets, Elijah Muhammad and the National of Islam gave money to Sonji Clay to marry Ali. Regarding Elijah Muhammad’s suspension of Ali, she notes that “Elijah Muhammad suspended Ali because Ali said that he was fighting for money. And Muslims are proud people and we don’t do sports for money. And if you embarrass Muslims in the press we will put you out.” (80). Concerning the murder of Sonny Liston, Khalilah Ali reveals that he was murdered by the Mob because he was hired to knock out Ali, but he could not. Interviewed on February 4, 2006 in Oakland, California, Martin Wyatt confirmed the fact that the Nation of Islam did not rip Ali off.

Another solo that provides new information about Ali is Hugh Masekela, the South African trumpeter and an activist, who played a significant part in “The Rumble in the Jungle,” along with poet Quincy Troupe. Conducted respectively on June 16, 2004 and January 8, 2005, the two interviews provide information about the Ali vs. Foreman fight that appears in book format for the first time. Equally significant, the fight represented the pinnacle of the cooperation between Africans and African Americans, albeit it was sponsored by a dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko.

Another fight that acquired a mythic dimension is the “The Thriller in Manila,” the Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier fight. Imelda Marcos paid for the fight, even though there was a fight going between Imelda Marcos and the Muslims in the Philippine Islands. Like the Zaireans, the Filipinos not only preferred Ali to Frazier, but they also perceived Ali like “Zeus Descending from Mount Olympus.” According to Emil Guillermo, a Filipino-American journalist interviewed by Reed in 1989, “the Ali-Frazier fight gave Marcos the opportunity to prop up his country with this major spectacle and lavish display, thereby belying the real problem of the Philippines, like poverty and the other issues that really counted. Back at that time, it was still a country of haves and have-nots, like this country.”

There are so many new revelations about Elijah Muhammad, Muhammad Ali, the Nation of Islam, and Black Nationalism to praise The Complete Muhammad Ali about. Suffice it to say that Reed’s book is a masterful contribution to our understanding and appreciation of the legacy of Muhammad Ali, Elijah Muhammad, the Nation of Islam, Black Nationalism, and what it means to be a black athlete or sports person in America.

This tirelessly hard-working and hard-punching novelist, essayist, poet, playwright, piano player, songwriter, editor, and publisher deserves our love, because even at seventy-seven, he still boxes on paper to remind the United States of America to live up to its intrinsic multicultural and multiethnic DNA.

Pierre-Damien Mvuyekure is a Professor in the Department of Languages and Literatures at Northern Iowa University.