Black chattel slavery in North America was a de jure and de facto ownership of African men and women – their leisure, labor, product of their labor – everything from harvest to children (a polite way of saying ‘sweat to semen’) – belonged to the slave owner. Their arms, legs, backs, sexual organs…did not belong to them.
How is ownership maintained in a liberal democratic state? How are some black men and women confined to at worst, property/chattels and at best infant/dependant status?
My parents told me over separate whatsapp calls that they watched the entire Muhammad Ali funeral and week-long international coverage of his death. They asked specific questions like ‘What did you think about Billy Crystal’s eulogy’, so I couldn’t lie. I never loved Ali. I was slightly taken aback, to realise that they did. I asked, ‘Did you guys really care about him?’ And they told me how much Zambians of their generation -‘He was our age mate’ – cared for Cassius Clay and celebrated his conversion to Muhammad Ali and his unceasing defiance against white supremacy. ‘National television would, for a change, play through the night so that we could watch all the pre-fight action ahead of Ali, we’d all be awake early in the morning to watch Ali fight. We really loved him.’ We talk about the white media’s rejection of the name Ali, how names were imposed on enslaved and colonized communities, and how some white media refused to tolerate a black person rejecting the name given him by his owners.
Joyce Carol Oates ode to Muhammad Ali exemplifies this. I don’t read an ode, I read a display of an old arrogant right to name, to arbitrarily anoint one black and to condemn other blacks. To create categories of blacks, in this case, ‘white man’s Negros’ versus Muhammad Ali.
Oates’s assertion that boxing legend Muhammad Ali was ‘never the white man’s Negro’ raises the question: Who is this white man’s Negro? Is it Joe Louis, Archie Moor, Ezzard Charles – legends that Oates writes were forced to ‘efface’ or ‘emasculate’ themselves before white men? The white man’s Negro is a fantasy of white-owned media (and white op-ed contributors). It’s an arrogant exercise of white right to pin stars on good blacks.
Kudos and salute to Muhammad Ali for refusing to submit to white supremacy and patriarchy in the ring. Kudos to Anita Hill for defying white supremacy and patriarchy in the work place, and to Sandra Bland for fighting to the death against the white supremacy and patriarchy of abusive policing. However, Joyce Carol Oates’s ode to ‘Muhammad Ali never the white man’s Negro’ becomes an odious slur against African Americans whose resistance is not memorialized by the white media as iconic as the likes of Bland, Hill and Ali. Oates’s intemperate use of the ‘white man’s Negro’ demonstrates that the white media is still undecided about exactly which black lives matter.
Not everybody is waiting for the media to make up its mind though. Let me end with love. Big love for Women’s NBA. I’m all over them, since I left New York and fell in love with David Jeter’s Player’s Tribune. Hearing WNBA & New York Liberty players Swin Cash, Tanisha Wright and Essence Carson declaration: I do this for a living, gave me a new mantra for my workstation. And the WNBA did it again. Silenced the media’s narrative, refusing to be fined or named. They’re not talking basketball, they are talking about black lives. “It’s unfortunate that the WNBA has fined us and not supported its players so whatever you want to ask about that feel free but we’ll only be taking questions about that today…” Yes Tanisha Wright.
A white American friend once asked me, mournfully, whether Africa would ever see another Nelson Mandela. I was very taken aback. I called him an asshole. Not out loud. I was angry, with him, but to be fair, with the precariousness of my life at that moment. But I managed to remain courteous. I said ‘Mandelas are born every day in Africa.’ He was taken aback. Today I would add that ‘Mandelas are born every day in Africa and amongst the black Diaspora, in Israel, in Cuba, everywhere, whether You laud them or not. And just because We snuff them out through our school to (psychological or physical) prison pipelines, it doesn’t mean that the beautiful ones are not yet born.
PS I’m saying white alot – bear with me, I’ll explain shortly.