Art Doc of the Week | Nikki Giovanni and Muhammad Ali in Conversation
Nikki Giovanni, one of the brightest stars and most influential figures in the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s, was a tough-minded, fearless, take-no-prisoners artist/activist in the midst of the cultural upheaval of the ‘60s, with FBI wiretaps to prove it. She still is. Her poetry, in content and form, is one of the building blocks of contemporary spoken-word. (But don’t hold that against her.) She was also one of the co-hosts of the now long defunct black talk show “Soul,” a forum where artists, musicians, activists – any high profile or culturally relevant black person – could speak without inhibition about everything from police brutality to art of the African diaspora.
In this interview from 1971, her guest is Muhammad Ali – at the height of his physical prowess and trademark wit – and she’s utterly charmed by him. Fangirl is written all over her face. She’s a proxy for millions of black Americans for whom Ali was a much loved and hugely respected hero.
This clip kicks off with Nikki Giovanni thanking singer Miriam Makeba for a performance that has just ended and the audience applauding enthusiastically. (The viewer never sees or hears Ms. Makeba or the episode’s other musical guests – Major Harris; the Delfonics – likely because music rights issues would have the clip yanked offline.) The vibe all across the room – encircling Ms. Giovanni and the crowd – is chill and lovely. She then introduces Ali (“He’s our brother and we love him,”) and the air is instantly charged.
In the exchange that follows, she sets the tone by first asking him about his family in a warm, loving voice. She sidesteps following up with any probing questions when his breakdown of gender roles and responsibilities within marriage and parenthood are rigidly old-fashioned, and it’s hard to tell if this is out of respect for his religious beliefs, being slightly cowed in the face of one’s hero, or if it’s because they somewhat co-sign Ms. Giovanni’s own notions of manhood and womanhood, which have always oscillated between visionary and reactionary.
From there, the conversation illustrates why so many black Americans took Ali into their hearts and why the man who is now spoken of with reverence across the board as “an American hero” was considered such a volatile, “dangerous” figure in the eyes of much of mid-twentieth century white America. (And the youthful Ali still would be today.) His insights on how much of boxing is a racial spectacle, how skyrocketing ticket prices for boxing matches effectively shut out the working man, and his comments on the hypocrisies of both the American government and media show a finely honed analytical mind that was mercifully free of dry theory but absolutely on-point. And there is lots of humor, as when Ali says of opponent Joe Frazier, “We can’t get on him. He’s a brother. He can’t box, he has no skill… but he hits hard.”
The segment ends with Ms. Giovanni reading an excerpt from her essay “Gemini” from the book of the same name. The essay breaks down the coercive components of colonialism (religion; violent military force) and the ways they’ve been employed historically and contemporarily. Much of the piece is stirring and insightful. Some of the gender politics in it, though, echoing those espoused throughout the segment from both Ali and Ms. Giovanni, are not only dated but also show how even progressive figures can re-inscribe some retrograde beliefs even as they’re fighting for radical politics of equality.
There’s a tendency now to throw out the baby with the bath water when our political and cultural heroes and heroines don’t align one hundred percent with the political checklist we wield. But part of the value of these figures is in their blind-spots, and the way we – if we’re truly smart and don’t simply want to be either hardliners or apologists – have to figure how to parse what of what they offer is valuable from that which needs to be gently critiqued or firmly challenged.
Top photo courtesy Getty Images