Muhammad Ali (formerly Cassius Clay) trains at his Pennsylvanian mountain retreat in Owigsburg, Pennsylvania, US August 27, 1974.
Muhammad Ali (formerly Cassius Clay) trains at his Pennsylvanian mountain retreat in Owigsburg, Pennsylvania, US August 27, 1974.

My thanks to Ali for giving me gumption

By OPINION Time of article published Jun 12, 2016

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I would never have dreamed of applying for the prize without the inspiration of Muhammad Ali, writes Xolela Mangcu.

Johannesburg - This is a thank you column to the memory of Muhammad Ali and to the board of the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust.

Last week the Oppenheimer Trust awarded the Harry F Oppenheimer Fellowship, the most prestigious academic award in Africa, to me and the University of Pretoria’s distinguished scientist Brenda Whitfield.

While it may sound weird to invoke Ali and Oppenheimer in the same breath, we also do well to recall Immanuel Kant’s observation that “out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made”.

What Kant meant was that life is a series of paradoxes. Those paradoxes, another friend, Martin Bernal, once taught me, often always make sense only long after their manifestation and even long after we are dead.

However, I am lucky enough to reconcile them in the here and now. In short, I would never have even dared to dream of applying for this prize without the inspiration of Muhammad Ali.

Ali, the greatest sportsman of all time, gave me the greatest gift of all - gumption.

Gumption in a world in which black people were expected to be timid. Unfortunately, too many of us have internalised that timidity and dressed it up as an African cultural principle of modesty.

But when you peer beneath the surface, you find a disguised and grinding self-doubt and self.

That is the self-hate that leads presidents to call some people “the clever amongst us” or “clever blacks”.

Thanks to Ali, I never bought into the notion that blackness meant keeping quiet and acting the part.

Some years ago a fellow black student at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) kept complaining that he did not have enough money to live on campus. And yet he kept having these meetings with the president of the university, Charles Vest.

One day I thought to ask him if he had ever told Vest that he needed the money. “No man, that is un-African,” he told me.

I could have strangled him. How was Vest supposed to know, I asked. One day my friend straightened his back and went to tell Vest exactly what he needed. The president of MIT was astounded that he had been having such difficulties.

The problem was immediately solved.

Gumption is what made me convince my mother to let me go try my luck at Wits University without the government permission that was required for black students to attend white universities at the time. I was 17 and had never left our little town.

Gumption is also what made me convince sponsors of an award to the University of Pennsylvania that I would rather take it to MIT instead.

When the head of admissions into the PhD programme in City and Regional Planning at Cornell University, Bill Goldsmith, told me that my GMAT scores were not good enough, I asked him what that had to do with anything.

The rest is history, and Bill couldn’t be prouder.

This is what I impress on my students. I don’t care whether your answer is right or wrong, what I want to hear is your voice - your humanity.

That is what Ali gave me at a very early age. I was only eight when Ali knocked out George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle.

I was living under the same roof with an older brother, Mthobi Tyamzashe, who was a sports fanatic. Mthobi had reams of the authoritative boxing magazines, Ring and Knockout. Everyone gathered around our verandah to follow Ali’s trials and tribulations. One of the quotidian forms of sado-masochistic abuse that the white municipality routinely visited on our township was to turn the street lights off without any warning.

Rich or poor, we all huddled in that pitch darkness.

And then Muhammad Ali’s voice would come out of the radio: “I am the greatest, I am the king of the world!” Such braggadocio was as uncanny as it was incongruous in the context of the racial intimidation of the 1970s.

To be sure, Ali was not the only source of our hope against hope. I would be listening to Nina Simone’s Black is the Colour or Donny Hathaway’s To be Young, Gifted and Black or Lou Donaldson’s Say it loud, I am Black and I’m proud.

That music makes me wonder whether the SABC’s Hlaudi Motsoaneng knows anything about the cultural history of the black diaspora, or is that asking too much.

Down the road “ubhut’Bantu” would be pumping us with his messages of Black Consciousness. You cannot come out of such experiences still timid.

I initially looked at past recipients of the Oppenheimer Fellowship and got intimidated. But then I asked myself the Ali question: “Why not me?”

I am planning to use the grant to write a new biography of Nelson Mandela. Among other things I am hoping that the book will help throw the spotlight on black intellectual history.

Our students are so obsessed with Frantz Fanon that I often wonder if they know anything about the writings of Tiyo Soga, John Knox Bokwe (who wrote the first biography); Mpambani Mzimba and Elijah Makiwane and Mokone; John Tengo Jabavu; Walter Rubusana; Nontsizi Mgqwetho; Abdullah Abduramman; Yusuf Dadoo; Silas Molema; Sol Plaatje; Pixley Seme; Mweli Skota; DDT Jabavu; BW Vilakazi; RR and HIE Dhlomo; AC Jordan; Phyllis Ntantala; ZK Matthews; Govan Mbeki; Robert Sobukwe; Neville Alexander; Griffiths and Victoria Mxenge. The list is endless.

We could decolonise the university curriculum in this country in one fell swoop - by having students doing their research on these individuals and producing future biographies.

What our billionaires spend in one evening could fund a biography of Walter Rubusana or SEK Mqhayi or Nontsizi Mgqwetho.

There is enough material in the archives to keep a whole generation of students busy.

I have been making this plea to almost everyone within hearing distance, to no avail. In funding my book, Nelson Mandela: Romantic Hero, Tragic Hero, the Oppenheimer Trust seem to have gotten the message that Mandela can only be understood as a contested figure within the context of a long and illustrious black intellectual history.

It is only when he is contextualised in that manner that Mandela is better understood as the classic Tragic Hero.

Unlike the focus on the individual as the sole actor in Romantic tragedy, classic Greek Tragedy contextualises the hero as part of a larger communal tragic action that is constituted by the chorus and the audience.

The tragic action both pre-dates and succeeds the fall of the hero.

That is a much more useful metaphor for understanding Mandela’s place in the black experience.

The only other person to take my plea to do something about black intellectual history in our universities is Harvard University’s Henry Louis Gates jr, with whom I am also working on a new Dictionary of South African Biography.

When we started the project I suggested we start with what I described as the Greatest Generation - the black intellectuals of the 19th century. That was many months before Ali died but I am sure the Greatest would have approved.

I would like to thank all my well-wishers on social media. I do not mean to be unresponsive but I have not mustered the gumption to enter that space yet. Paradoxes, paradoxes.

* Mangcu is Professor of Sociology at the University of Cape Town and the 2015 Harry F Oppenheimer Fellow.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Sunday Independent

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