“What’s My Name?” A Remembrance of Muhammad Ali by Sean E. Ali

From the “WHAT’S MY NAME?!” File…

“A man’s true wealth is the good he does in the world.” — Mohammad

Superman died June 3, 2016.

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That is not hyperbole, not romantic nostalgia, not a delusion, not exaggeration – it’s a fact as sure as you’re breathing in and out.

I’m going to wander a bit as I reflect on the passing of a Titan among Titans. A man who walked with legends and giants in his sport and kept stride before taking point and leading the way.

You probably know him by other names, the Kentucky Kid, the Olympic Medal winner, the Louisville Lip, the Mouth, Cassius Marcellus Clay, or maybe by the first name he bestowed upon himself before he went out into the world and made believers of everyone he encountered…

…The Greatest.

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The second name he took ownership of, the name he fought under and fought for is the name we all know him by best after that first one – Muhammad Ali.

There was power there. There was power and dignity in the choice made. The name was bestowed upon him by the Nation of Islam, led at the time by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, but he took ownership of it. It was more than a badge of racial pride or rebellion – Muhammad Ali was the embodiment of who he was, the culmination of the search and successful establishment of an identity that wasn’t a product of oppression, social and racial inequality, or the gift rewarded to his lineage from some forgotten slave owner in the heart of a segregated so-called democracy. The name was his; it was his before he knew he was looking for it, and he would not go back to confines of anything else that may have made him more palatable to the conventions of a society that did not accept him or include him in the first place.

“WHAT’S MY NAME?!”

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That was the question he set out to answer when, while he was still known as Cassius Clay, he was asked by a reporter about the meaning of his name and Clay responded that he would have to find out…

…but I’m getting ahead of my own recollections, let’s back up a bit.

When he was a little boy, Cassius Clay had a bike. He went out one day, stopped off somewhere, parked his bike and when he returned, someone had stolen it. Clay and his mother reported the theft and the officer he spoke to just happened to run a program that taught boys how to box. Clay jumped on the chance to learn to fight because when he found out who stole his bike, he wanted to be able to beat him up…

…it was a different time, when we settled things with fists over bullets. Yeah, you might get hurt, but you lived to fight another day.

Clay grew, became more proficient at boxing and eventually represented the United States in the Olympics bringing home the gold medal before turning pro and building a career that would be legendary. Clay was fast, he was powerful; he was strong; he was brilliant, and he knew it…

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“It’s not bragging if you can back it up.”

When Clay was coming up in the ranks, he gained another reputation. They described him as brash, bold, a loudmouth, a fool, cocky…

…in other words, he wasn’t liked very much.

We revere him now, but at the time? Cassius Clay was a showboater who would walk into his comeuppance one day. That expected day was when he fought for his first title bout at the age of 22 against Floyd Patterson. There’s a great story from a reporter who was sent by the New York Times to cover the bout that he was to run a loop from the site of the bout to the nearest hospital because they wanted to be sure he was on hand when Clay was sent into the intensive care ward by Patterson…

…that guy was probably disappointed by the outcome.

Patterson was cut down by Clay’s speed and power and the world had a new champion who loudly proclaimed who he was and would be for the remainder of his life…

“I MUST BE THE GREATEST!”

That night, he really did shake up the world.

And it wouldn’t be the last time he did that.

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As Clay continued to fight the question he hadn’t been aware he was asking persisted until it moved to the forefront of his association with the Nation of Islam. The Nation was considered a hate group by mainstream media in the heart of volatile times that would eventually be the Civil rights movement. Fronted by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, and his outspoken, dynamic protégé – Malcolm X, Clay finally confronted the question…

“WHAT’S MY NAME?!”

The answer became Muhammad Ali.

And no one outside of the Nation and Clay’s fans were cool with that. Reporters continued to call him Clay, which Ali would correct every time. Every. Single. Time.

He was Clay in the press, Clay to his critics, Clay on the billing of the bouts he had, and Clay to his opponents…

…in particular Ernie Terrell, the holder of the next belt that Ali had to claim on his mission of unifying the title to be the undisputed heavyweight champion.

Terrell called Ali Clay through the weeks leading up to the fight. Ali warned Terrell that if he kept calling him out his name that he would pay for it. Terrell persisted…

…Ali kept his promise.

“WHAT’S MY NAME?!”

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This was the mantra chanted over and over again during that bout. Every time Ali laid into Terrell, he ended the exchange with that question. Ali would put Terrell on the edge, he would set the man right on the verge of a fight ending knockout…

…and then he’d back off, look Terrell in the eye as one man to another and bellow through what had to be a fog of pain and a haze of agony the question…

“WHAT’S MY NAME?!”

And then he’d open up on Terrell again. Step back to observe his work shake his head with dissatisfaction and ask again…

“WHAT’S MY NAME?!”

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And the beatdown would resume in earnest…

…Ali dragged that beating out for 15 rounds.

It’s in strong competition for the meanest, most brutal fight I ever saw in my life, the other being Mike Tyson’s first title match.

And actually, Tyson was more merciful in that bout, he put that guy away much faster than Ali torturing Terrell.

But the end result was quiet and profound.

He was never called Cassius Clay again by anyone, friend or foe.

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However, it wasn’t the last time he’d have to stand up and fight for who he was and who intended to be.

“WHAT’S MY NAME?!”

There’s a reason I reflect on this particular battle and what follows almost immediately over the others. Ali had chosen to adopt a name, a religion, a culture that was as opposed to most of his numerous other achievements in and out of the ring. There’s a reason why this brutal ballet and the bigger battle in the offing – Ali’s refusal to be drafted stand out as I reflect on his life and what he was to me as a fan and a young Black Man coming up.

Ali took that stand knowing, absolutely knowing that he’d lose everything he fought so hard for. He’d lose the status, the money, the fame, the title, all of it because he chose to be true to his faith, principles and name by taking an unpopular stance.

But just like Superman, he stood there and waited for the bullets to fly. And for many that was it, Ali refused to step up and that made him unpatriotic at best, a traitor and a coward at the worst. This was before he became a hero to the mindset of the general public, before he put away men like Frazier and Foreman three and a half years later. This was a time when a man who was a Muslim, true to his faith, true to his name, and dedicated to doing no harm that involved taking lives for a cause he did not believe in or support was not only unpopular, it was considered unAmerican.

“WHAT’S MY NAME?!”

It was an unspoken question, a new mantra, the click of a pendulum keeping time against the backdrop of bloodshed and rioting and the fall of voices of a generation. It was the cadence Ali kept time to as he stood tall despite his material losses. As he explored other avenues as a public speaker for the Nation after Malcolm X’s split from the organization. He was terrible at it initially, but as he had done in his previous life, he persisted until he became adept at it. The raw talent was there in his taunts and poetry in boxing matches, and like his fists Ali found precision in his words which only extended his reputation in the Black community as “The People’s Champion” and “The Greatest”.

“WHAT’S MY NAME?!”

He rebuilt himself in his time away from the ring. He answered that question conclusively to himself, his circle, his faith and Allah. He stood his ground, refused to be bought by offers of restoration of everything he lost through apology of wrongdoing and compromise for expediency’s sake. He was right in his heart, he believed what he believed.

He wasn’t in this fight for compromise, he was in it for a win.

The US Government didn’t know who they were fooling with.

The only people surprised by the eventual overturning of his conviction and restoration of his license to fight seemed to be the very people who condemned him and eventually vindicated him when they realized Ali could not be brought down.

“WHAT’S MY NAME?!”

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That question has been answered. It was a name he chose, a name he owned and a name he fought for.

It was an example of what happens when one man believes in himself and has the presence of mind to remain true to himself as he discovers who he is.

“WHAT’S MY NAME?!”

That is the question I toss out ahead of me because the name Muhammad Ali chose belonged to my great grandfather who came to America the end product of a line that traveled through Iran, Iraq, India, Ethiopia and eventually Northern California starting in Sacramento and migrating down into the Bay Area.

It’s the name continued to be passed on to my grandfather and my father. It’s a name I wear proudly despite the drawbacks that come with it in a post 9-11 world.

It’s a family name I hold on to and when asked by more than a few folks, “Wouldn’t it be easier to change your name? Maybe take on your mother’s maiden name or something?”

Yes, it would be easier.

But it wouldn’t be the truth.

It wouldn’t be who I am and who I will always be.

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Muhammad Ali was my example a long time ago. He not only wanted to find an identity, but in pursuing that identity, he went to Africa and embraced the many cultures across that continent; he traveled the globe as an ambassador of sorts and never tried to deny who he was, or where he felt he fell short in his life.

These days, you talk to a younger generation and they draw back at the history they could avail themselves to, the discovery of something more than the narrow confines of the neighborhood they were born into and no farther. They are fronted these days by guys like Floyd Mayweather who asks what Africa ever did for him as opposed to what he could do to make the world a better place outside of an expensive sports car in his driveway.

They look across the horizon but don’t see anything as if learning about these places, cultures and people diminish being part of the USA (since that’s where I am) – their end all be all.

They missed what Ali discovered by asking a simple question loudly…

“WHAT’S MY NAME?!”

It wasn’t about being self-absorbed or self-serving for Ali, he was too busy trying to give of himself while discovering himself to become a complete human being.

“Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth.”

He stood with pride and dignity even as Parkinson’s diminished his ability to speak and move. He continued to show up, be counted, to give well past his part, if things like that could be measured.

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He didn’t hide. He didn’t walk away. He didn’t abandon who he was because the road would suddenly be easier if he just went along to get along.

He is, because his influence in my life is a forever kind of thing, my hero. He is the example I strive for still.

He is that for a lot of young men of my generation who, when heroes were in short supply, had the real Superman…

…and he looked like us.

And in my case, he wore my name when he could’ve gone back to his old one.

“WHAT’S MY NAME?!”

He is Muhammad Ali.

And he is the Greatest.

“WHAT’S MY NAME?!”

That’s a question I never have to ask, because just like Ali…

“I know where I’m going and I know the truth, and I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want.”

That was the lesson he taught me. And when I step into the ring daily, that lesson’s a part of the gloves I lace up.

Now…

“WHAT’S MY NAME?!”

And more importantly, what’s yours?

Peace be upon you. And upon you be peace.

Peaceful Journey, Champ. You will be missed but not forgotten.

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Kickin’ The Willy Bobo With…MICHAEL A. GONZALES

Derrick Ferguson: Who is Michael A. Gonzales?

Michael A. Gonzales: Born on June 23, 1963, I’m a kid from Harlem who has been interested in books, movies and comics since I was a small boy, and knew I had to figure out a way to make those things a part of my life. I grew-up on 151 Street between Broadway and Riverside. My biological father lived in Westchester while my step-dad, a Puerto Rican barber/hustler, lived on 7th Ave and 123rd Street, so I always tell folks I had the best of both worlds.

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DF: Where do you live and what do you do for a living?

MG: Currently I live in Baltimore. I write full-time, but I’ve had all kinds of jobs including working as a NYC foot messenger in the early 80s, working at a coffee shop restaurant, a clerk at Tower Records and, my longest job, was working at a NYC homeless shelter for a decade. I started out mopping floors, but a few years later worked in the recreation department with the kids. That was trip, believe me. It was also the height of crack, so the shelter could get wild. It was a family shelter…the first one I worked in was in Brooklyn in the middle of Fort Green Projects while the second was on Catherine Street on the Lower East Side. Needless to say, it was an adventure, but I was writing for various newspapers and magazines during that time as well.

DF: You have an interesting background. Tell us some of it.

MG: Growing-up in NYC in the ‘70s was a great adventure. Our block and building was full of kids, so I had a lot of friends. I was raised by my mom and grandma, but my biological father as well as my stepfather was a big part of my life. My stepfather adopted me, which is why my last name is Gonzales. His name was Carlos. My “real” father was named Lafayette Dixon and he came from down south. For most of my young life I went to private (The Modern School) or Catholic (St. Catherine of Genoa) school and was a kind of shy as a boy. I went to Rice High School for a year, then my mom moved to Baltimore in ‘78. Our NYC neighborhood crew went to the movies together every week, so I saw a lot of films as a boy. Also, my mom was a big reader and film lover. My mom was (is) the coolest and exposed me and baby brother (two years younger) to museums, concerts, Greenwich Village and all kinds of arty stuff. I was also a TV junkie and watched EVERYTHING from “The Brady Bunch” to cartoons to PBS.

DF: How long have you been writing?

MG: My mom said she used to put books and magazines in play pen and I would look at them like I was really reading them. I had a cool German godfather whose family came to NYC when Hitler came into power. Uncle Hans was a writer and one day, out of the blue, asked me to dictate a story to him. My mom had just taken me to see a movie called “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight”, so I stole the plot for my own story that Uncle Hans typed up. I was eight years old. When I saw the collected pages when I was finished, I was hooked. That same year, Uncle Hans bought me an Olivetti typewriter and that was that. But, many years later, it was my late girlfriend Lesley Pitts who believed in my work and told me she would support me until I finally broke through. I wrote about her in my essay “Love in the Age of Prince.”

Love in the Age of Prince: https://catapult.co/stories/love-in-the-age-of-prince  

DF: What have you learned about yourself through your writing?

MG: Besides the fact that I spend too much time living in the past, I’m not sure.

DF: What audience are you trying to reach with your work? IS there an audience for Michael A. Gonzales?

MG: That’s an interesting question, because I’ve been blessed to have written for a wide variety of publications from New York magazine to a ghetto-lit collection edited by Shannon Holmes to various erotica and crime fiction anthologies. I love telling stories, all kinds of stories, and always hoped my stories reached everyone from the b-boys on the corner to the be-boppers in a jazz club, from the around the was girls to the Spellman College grads. Also, while I write from an obvious Black perspective, I hope the stories can be appreciated by folks of all races.

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DF: The first thing of yours that I read was “Jaguar and The Jungleland Boogie” in the BLACK PULP anthology. An improbable mash-up of Hip-Hop, New Jack Swing, Blaxploitation and Pulp, after a single reading it became one of my favorite stories in the book. What’s the origin of the story?

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MG: Oh, man, thank you. I had started writing that story years before Black Pulp but asking to be a part of that book gave me the courage to finish it. Really, I wanted to write a hood version of Batman and Robin with a little bit of the Shadow mixed in. Growing-up, I loved Batman, the TV show and the comics. As a kid, my favorite Batman artist was the late Marshall Rodgers. In 1978, he and Denny O’Neil did a weird mash-up of comics and fiction called “Death Strikes at Midnight and Three” and I was so inspired by that. Comic Book artists and writers (but mostly artists) are a big influence on me and I channel their work when I’m writing those kinds of stories. Guys like Howard Chaykin, Michael Kaluta, Alex Nino, Berni Wrightson, Jim Steranko and, of course, Jack Kirby.

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“Jaguar and the Jungleland Boogie” excerpt http://www.egotripland.com/jaguar-jungleland-boogie-michael-gonzales

DF: How familiar were you with Pulp before you wrote the story?

MG: I’ve been a pulp fan since I was a boy. I used to order old Shadow radio shows on records, I watched Flash Gordon serials on PBS and read Byron Preiss’ Weird Heroes series of paperbacks. I think that was when I first heard the word “pulp,” but I’ve been a fan since childhood.

DF: Having dipped your toes into New Pulp waters, do you plan on diving in again anytime soon?

MG: I hope so. I wrote a second Jaguar story that hasn’t been published. It was done for BLACK PULP II, but I have no idea what is going on with that project. I really like writing pulp stories and, if given the opportunity, I’d love to write some more.

DF: Your musical knowledge is extraordinary and you are perhaps best known for your articles and essays about music. How important has music been in your life?

MG: I’ve been buying records since I was a kid. Growing-up uptown was the best music education because I heard everything: jazz, salsa, soul and pop. I grew-up listening to WABC-AM as well as WWRL and later WBLS. I was a major rock fan too, which got me teased, but I didn’t care. I loved Curtis Mayfield and Isaac Hayes, but also Elton John and Queen. My mom took me to see Little Anthony in Central Park when I was kid. Her friend Chucky played drums with the group and we went backstage after the show. I was about six or seven, but that changed my life. I couldn’t sing or play an instrument, but I knew I wanted to be in music somehow. Later, music critics Lester Bangs, Greg Tate, Nelson George, Barry Michael Cooper and other became my guides.

DF: Your opinion on the current musical landscape?

MG: I’m going to be 55 this year, but I try to stay somewhat current. I don’t listen to as much new rap, but I’m down with guys like Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole. Still, I am very much an old school head…still blasting the Super Fly soundtrack like it came out yesterday.

DF: I’ve read the term “culture writer” applied to you. Does that fit? Exactly what is a “culture writer” anyway?

MG: I stole that tag from my critical writing hero (and now friend) Greg Tate. In the ‘90s, when I was on staff at both Vibe and The Source, I was writing about music, but also books, films and old school NYC life…to me, cultural critic best described my beat. I did stories on Snoop Dogg, Lauryn Hill, Pete Rock and CL Smooth, The O’Jays, Barry White (spent a few days in Europe with him), Curtis Mayfield, Kool Herc and many others. I also co-authored a book about hip-hop called Bring the Noise: A Guide to Rap Music and Hip-Hop Culture, published by Random House in 1991. I wrote it with my buddy Havelock Nelson.

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DF: I’ve read a few of your articles where you describe your movie going experiences back in the 1970s/80s and I’m convinced that you and I must have been in some of the same 42end grindhouses at the same time back then. How important have movies been in your life?

MG: Very, though I must admit I didn’t start going to Times Square until I was an adult. Our hood had some great movie houses…the Tapia (which was The Bunny when my mom was a teen and later became The Nova) was my childhood spot. There was also the Roosevelt on 145th and 7th Ave, the RKO Coliseum on 181 Street and Broadway, and The Olympia on 107 Street and Broadway.

DF: How much of an influence do movies have on your writing?

MG: Man, I don’t even know where to begin. The movies I grew-up with, from “Across 110th Street” to “Annie Hall” “The Mack” to “Network”, have perhaps influenced me more than any books. Then, as a teenager I discovered foreign films. I think “The 400 Blows” was the first one I saw and I was hooked. I’ve written a few essays about my love for film and its influence on my work, but “Into the Cinema, Onto the Page” is perhaps my favorite.

​Into the Cinema, Onto the Page: https://catapult.co/stories/into-the-cinema

DF: What are you working on now?

MG: Well, I have a new book column I’ve been writing for a site called Catapult. The column is called The Blacklist and it explores out-of-print books by African-American authors. I have a heist novel called Uptown Boys that I’m ready to dust off and try to sell. I also want to revisit a few short stories I have in the can. I have an essay of New York City graffiti coming soon in the Smithsonian Anthology of Hip-Hop and Rap as well as an essay about the Gordon Parks/XXL magazine collaboration A Great Day in Hip-Hop, which will be published in Contact High edited by Vikki Tobak. Also, my essay on the book Hog Butcher, which was adapted into the film “Cornbread, Earl and Me”, will be published later this year in Sticking It To the Man: Revolution and Counterculture in Pulp and Popular Fiction, 1956 to 1980 edited Andrew Nette and Iain McIntyre.

The Blacklist: https://catapult.co/editorial/topics/the-blacklist/stories

DF: What’s a typical Day In The Life of Michael A. Gonzales like?

MG: I need coffee first thing in the morning. Strong Bustello. It used to be coffee and a joint, but now it’s just coffee. I try to write every day. I’ve been blessed to having never had to deal with writer’s block, because, usually if I get stuck on something, I jump to something else. Also, if I get stuck I usually watch a movie, watch cartoons, listen to Miles Davis or the speeches of Malcolm X. Also, reading the Beat poets including old LeRoi Jones also helps.

DF: For anybody wanting to know more about you and your work, where should they start?

MG: My most recent short story a weird semi-gothic joint called “Roses,” that The Root published earlier this year. Fiction wise, I’d love folks to check out my erotica in the Brown Sugar series and other collections. One of my favorite non-fiction pieces that combines music and crime is called How Cool C and Steady B Robbed a Bank, Killed a Cop and Lost Their Souls, about these Philly rappers who became bank robbers and killers. I’ve also published some cool music pieces at Soulhead.com, Complex and Wax Poetics, where I did major articles on Curtis Mayfield, Nina Simone and D’Angelo.

ROSES: https://www.theroot.com/roses-1823731825

How Cool C and Steady B Robbed a Bank, Killed a Cop and Lost Their Souls : https://medium.com/cuepoint/how-cool-c-and-steady-b-robbed-a-bank-killed-a-cop-and-lost-their-souls-d24d404f120a

Wax Poetics: http://www.waxpoetics.com/author/michael-gonzales

Complex: http://www.complex.com/author/michael-a-gonzales

Derrick Ferguson: Anything else we should know?

Michael A. Gonzales: I could go on and on, until the break of dawn. But, this is cool. Thanks for the honor.

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