Merriam-Webster defines censorship as “the practice of officially examining books, movies, etc., and removing things that are considered to be offensive, immoral, harmful to society, etc.”
Anytime one of us steps beyond the circle of social approval we face consequences. Some ruin us. Others inconvenience us. Some get us killed. Artists are especially known for telling the truth and butting heads with censors, and their works have been silenced, erased, and altered by others who have had a different political, social or religious agenda – and the power to do so.
Who remembers now that Helen Keller was also a radical socialist? Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgement” nudes had loin cloths painted on later by one of his students at the insistence of the Church. World renown Chinese artist and activist Ai Wei Wei has recently so outraged his government, state museum workers erased Ai’s name from the list of the award’s past winners and jury members. In 2012, five members of the feminist punk rock group Pussy Riot were convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” and imprisoned. The list is endless.
We need to honor outspoken artists and all brave ancestors, and insist on preserving their stories as accurately as possible - so let’s not ever whitewash the world class boxer, Mohammed Ali.
He died today and that caused my deep remembering…
Boxing is brutal sport I cannot watch, but Mohammed Ali is one of my heroes. I grew up around boxing. It was always on our TV because my father had been a professional boxer back in the Depression. Dropping out of school and starting too young at age seventeen, Dad trained and fought hard for seven years trying to make it big. He was driven by the dream of a fortune he would pass on to his brothers and sisters and his mom and dad when they could not find jobs.
Dad adored Mohammed Ali. He respected the man’s ability as a fighter, but loved Ali’s outspoken willingness to stand up to the government, pass up millions of dollars, and relinquish his title rather than fight in an unjust war halfway across the world in Vietnam.
Dad was pugnacious too. As a fireman, he had to travel across the LA basin to get to the special station he'd been assigned to as punishment for welcoming black firefighters during the tumultuous early days of racial integration. Dad always stood up for what he believed and admired Mohamed Ali’s personal willingness to step way outside what was considered acceptable behavior.
You can hate boxing, but you don't have to hate boxers. I remember Dad bringing home aging pugilists who’d hit the skids and my mother feeding them. As a little girl, these guys with their cauliflower ears and loud talk and broken noses seemed scary, but nice. They were all men who were willing to do the intense work and take the heavy risks the sport demanded. These are not lesser men, though many consider them so.
Dad told me about the early days of boxing, how hard he tried, how close he came, and he often repeated his one major regret: he’d knocked out an opponent and as he was leaving the stadium saw the man, broken, beaten, walk away with a young wife who was very pregnant. Dad said he'd never forget that image and that he would've thrown the fight had he known about the baby. A few years later, Dad woke up one morning alone in a seedy hotel room, his manager and his trainer having abandoned him there. Dad was sleeping off his own first knockout. He quit that day, barely in time.
Not so for Ali. He suffered. When we saw Mohammed Ali shuffling and struggling to light the Olympics Torch, crippled by a disease probably caused by the punches he’d taken, we loved him even more and understood the price of human brutality. His legacy is one of spirit, not just of titles and accomplishments, and he will be missed.