Muhammed Ali died in the summer of 2016 amidst a presidential election cycle, a crisis of police shootings of African-American citizens and the first retaliations against officers (Dallas and Baton Rouge). America’s entrenched racism and sexism forged ugly political battle lines during this hot summer. The Republican Party nominee tapped white-male anxiety, while the Democratic Party nominee broke a political glass ceiling for women. These struggles for human justice were not new, as the great Muhammad Ali and Lord Byron confronted similar racism and sexism of past eras.
The legacy of Ali, “The Greatest” boxer of all time, has many similarities to the renowned English Romantic author, Lord Byron. Both men were skilled poets who developed worldwide fame during their lifetimes, and used this platform to aggressively expose social injustice within their respective societies.
Ali and Byron each had impressive early achievements. At age 22, a gifted Muhammad Ali upset the fierce Sonny Liston to win the heavyweight boxing title, a shock that raised Ali from the slums of Louisville, Kentucky. Lord Byron was a privileged Baron-heir with a clubbed foot who attended the Harrow School and Cambridge College. He struck fame at age 24 with the publication of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, the travel adventure of a young aristocrat who is disillusioned with shallow social life and the continual war that supports its pleasures.
Muhammad Ali’s early fame led to religious conversion, a name change from Cassius Clay, refusal to fight in the Vietnam War and bold words against entrenched racism in 1960’s America. “The word ‘Islam’ means ‘peace,’” Ali said. “The word ‘Muslim’ means ‘one who surrenders to God.’ But the press makes us seem like haters.” Ali did not box during the prime of his career (ages 25 to 28) after refusing to serve in the US Army. When his legal appeals were finally granted in 1974, he returned to the boxing ring and capped his eminence with a stunning championship victory over the undefeated “big bad ugly monster” George Foreman, before a stadium crowd of 60,000 in Kinshasa, Zaire and a worldwide television audience of millions.
Don Juan was the crowning feat of Lord Byron’s life. A galloping lampoon written in ottava rima structure, Don Juan mercilessly satirized the “Christian chastity” and sexism of early Victorian England, along with the social figures who supported false norms. In Don Juan, Victorian stereotypes of women are destroyed in every episode, where women control their sexuality, dominate kingdoms and exert keen intelligence. Despite huge sales of Cantos I-V, Byron’s publisher refused to release Cantos VI-VIII because the text was “so outrageously shocking.” Established English reviewers all ignored or panned Don Juan, while multiple versions of the text sold like wildfire. Byron could not write fast enough. He rapidly produced four installments (Cantos VI-XVI) for a new publisher, which likely contributed to his death in 1824 at age 36.
In the early 1800’s, mechanization of book printing and paper manufacture profoundly expanded publishing capacity, producing a worldwide proliferation of the written word. Byron’s fame coincided with this media revolution, just as Ali rose during an age when television permeated America and the world—the next monumental shift in world communication. As a result of timing, both men reached immense audiences, well beyond the scope of their predecessors. In places like Zaire, Ali became a God-hero, while at home, many critics still considered him an “uppity negro.”
During his visit to Zaire, Ali was impressed by African pilots, doctors, businessmen, and heads of state—professions and opportunities that racism restricted in America. He spoke of his admiration of Africans and clearly articulated the raw frustration of the “Black Power” movement to a mainstream American white audience. Lord Byron was also disgusted by the social hypocrisy of his homeland. In fact, he left for a trip in 1816 and never returned to England. He settled in Italy, leaving Victorian sexism behind.
As poets, Lord Byron and Muhammad Ali were stylistically similar, utilizing a playful tone along with expert use of literary devices. Byron packs his epic poems with allusions to classical Greek and Roman culture, resulting in a satire of Western Civilization beyond the borders of England. Ali’s use of simile, metaphor, freestyle flow, braggadocio and African griot style trash-talk (“the Dozens”) were all early influences upon modern rap music:
done wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale;
handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail;
only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick;
I'm so mean I make medicine sick.
Ali’s brash humor opened the hearts of common folk and aristocrats alike. Once opened, he introduced ideas of human dignity for all races in American society. Today peace and justice, including racial and sexual equality, need further implementation. Humanity needs a talented voice like Ali’s. Who is the next bold voice? Swimmer Simone Manuel and/or gymnast Simone Biles? Who dares to utilize fame (and expanding social media platforms) to shock the barriers of race and gender? As Lord Byron noted in the introductory quote to Don Juan, “Difficlie est proprie communia dicere” (It is difficult to speak about common society/propriety). This is especially true of societies with entrenched racism and sexism.
Lee Miller graduated from Cornell University and has taught writing for over 13 years at the secondary and post-secondary levels. This column examines current events through the lens of quality literature.