Monday, February 26, 2007

Where is Muhammad Ali?

[one from the archives that appeared in the Atlanta Journal Constitution]

I drive a 2003 Mini Cooper S. It was slightly damaged and I went to a popular Atlanta body shop to get it fixed. In order to get into the office I had to navigate through a maze of Mercedes Benz’s and Porsche’s with fantastic aftermarket effects. The middle aged white man who owns the shop greeted me at the door. He saw me looking at the cars and said, “that’s one of Too Short’s.” “Wow,” was all I could say. He went on to show me pictures of cars he had done for several other celebrities like Jermaine Dupri and Shannon Sharpe. His secretary was a young and pretty, blond white woman who had a picture of herself posing in front of Tyler Perry’s custom Rolls Royce. The owner was telling me that he has a ton of work for a lot of celebrities – athletes and rappers. I asked how he got their business. He said that a local stereo spot is the one that all of them go for really high end sound systems and the people there recommend his shop for aftermarket body work. He said, for example, that some of his clients install $40,000 sound systems and then come to him for body work in the same neighborhood of cost. According to him, some of his clients spend nearly $100,000 on aftermarket effects on their cars

He told me all of this with an air of connection and the assumption that he was impressing me. He was. These cars were incredible and extravagance is awesome by definition. His assumption was based on the common view that young black men are taken by excess indulgence. He is making himself rich on that very fact. His assumption is precisely at the core of the problems with black male achievement that so many people are concerned about. Many of these celebrities are fantastically popular and their lifestyles are public in the extreme. Their wealth and trinkets are copiously documented in a variety of magazines and television shows. What is conspicuously missing from their public personas is a cause. Very few of them have taken a decisive and public stand on any of the assortment of issues that are strangling the black community, particularly the young black men that idolize them.

There is no doubt that there is an emergent political arm of the hip-hop movement. The sincerity of the movement is questionable, however. Even those who are at the forefront remain awash in three-quarter million dollar watches and half-million dollar rings. They set a weak example, at best, for aligning a lifestyle with a positive principle. They fall into the category outlined in Kahlil Gibran’s, The Prophet, “There are those who give little of the much which they have – and they give it for recognition.” Several others of this black celebrity clan are completely immersed in vacuous consumption and narcissism.

In 1974 Muhammad Ali was asked about his title fight with George Forman, The Rumble in the Jungle. He said:

I’m gonna fight for the prestige, not for me; but to uplift my little brothers who are sleeping on concrete floors here today in America – black people who are living on welfare, black people who can’t eat, black people who don’t know no knowledge of themselves, black people who don’t have no future.

Ali not only spoke that principled view, he lived it. His famous resistance to the draft was a living example of a young black celebrity who was not consumed by consumption or by public celebration of him. He sacrificed all of his material wealth to stand by a principle. He did this at a time when he was at the top of his career and stood to lose the most. He was a soldier, in the spirit of the Nation of Islam, for the betterment of the collective black condition. His celebrity was only incidental to that core belief. It appears that our current crop of celebrities are soldiers, in the spirit of Narcissus, for the betterment of themselves and their principles are only incidental to that core belief.

In a world of black fame, diamonds and millions, I am utterly inconsequential. I continue to stand up straight, however, propped up by my faith in the legacy of the black community, my pride as a black man and the example of Muhammad Ali. The repairs for my car were $196.53. Ouch!!


1 comment:

luvlife0702 said...

Shout out to Sheryl Lee Ralph and her Divas Simply Singing and her Sometimes I Cry performance. When so many of her peers are doing junk movies to bling to the max, my sistah is spreading the word about HIV/AIDS both here and in her home country of Jamaica. Can't say i know of anyone else at her level of fame (or below or above) who are using their voice and connections in the same way. Even her Jamaica Film and Music Festival is about upliftment. So big up to my jamdown sistren! (Who i ran into in the Pacific Place Body Shop in Seattle last week looking fab with her Philly senator husband who is down for the cause of improving the mental health of the black folks. My kinda folks: action-oriented nad let the works speak for themselves).