Poet Elizabeth Alexander’s Tribute to Muhammad Ali

As tributes to the late, great Muhammad Ali (January 17, 1942 – June 3, 2016) pour in from around the world, from people of every walk of life, Elizabeth Alexander’s 2001 poem “Narrative: Ali” might be one of the most fitting. It powerfully moves between social critique, history lesson, and nuanced analysis of what he meant and means as one of the all-time most powerful symbols of Black pride and unapologetic Blackness. At points, Alexander assumes the voice of Ali’s persona and ponders what it was to live inside the mind and realities of Ali. She provides the brutal context of 20th century Black American life and the tolls extracted by anti-blackness to illustrate and underscore why he meant so much to people across the African Diaspora, and why he’s a hero to so many.

In her poem’s seventh stanza, “Dressing Room – Visitor,” she writes:

He opened 

up his shirt: 

“KKK” cut 

in his chest. 

He dropped 

his trousers: 

latticed scars 

where testicles 

should be, His face 

bewildered, frozen 

in the Alabama woods 

that night in 1966 

when they left him 

for dead, his testicles 

in a Dixie cup. 

You a warning, 

they told him, 

to smart-mouth, 

sassy-acting niggers, 

meaning niggers 

still alive, 

meaning any nigger, 

meaning niggers 

like me.

Don’t believe the ahistorical, revisionist hype being hawked in so many mainstream eulogies. Elderly Ali was packaged by the mainstream media as a warm, cuddly, beloved figure. He was that. But he was also so much more, and this particular media portraiture was a pointed effort to defang him and what he really stood for. Ali in his prime was not only one of the greatest athletes of all-time, he was loudly and relentlessly anti-racist and anti-imperialist. His pro-Black politics made him Public Enemy #1 in the eyes of much of white America. It’s somehow fitting that his death occurs at this moment on the American clock, when there’s a determined march backward, when people pushing back against toxic, retrograde politics are labeled anti-American and a threat to the sanctity of a country that has yet to show respect for any life that isn’t white, hetero, (confusedly) Christian, and male.

Even today, especially today, Ali remains an example of a very rare courage and principle, and anyone claiming to honor him and his legacy has to grapple with what he said, what he did, and what he meant outside the boxing ring.

They called me “the fistic pariah.” 

 They said I didn’t love my country, 

called me a race-hater, called me out 

of my name, waited for me 

to come out on a stretcher, shot at me, 

hexed me, cursed me, wished me 

all manner of ill will, 

told me I was finished. 

Here I am,

like the song says, 

come and take me,

“The People’s Champ,” 



The full poem is here.

All photos courtesy Getty Images.