Transcended Race


2016 has been a year of celebrity deaths. A lot of icons of the 1970-80s era have passed. My generation grew up watching and listening to these stars. Many of them are closer in age to our parents than grandparents, a worrying reminder of their mortality. As I see the news of Muhammad Ali this morning, I can’t help but notice a racial component to how my fellow white people mourn black and white celebrities.

There’s an attempt to claim them all for ourselves. We say black artists “transcended race” if we lied their art. We don’t do the same in reverse. We don’t apply this universal raceless  idea to white artists with black fans. White artists stay site as black artists “transcend” or are wiped “clean” of their race.

When David Bowie died, no one said he transcended race. No one said it about Alan Rickman or Eagles founder Glenn Frey. But they said it when Prince did and now that Muhammad Ali has. These black entertainers, who frequently and openly talked about their position in the United States as black people, are posthumously declared to be above all the pettiness of caring about racial justice.

Prince was black and declared himself neither a man nor a woman. Muhammad Ali was a black man. Both supported charities focused on black people, like the United Negro College Fund and Black Lives Matter. While they appealed to many white fans, they lived in black skin in this racist nation. When Muhammad Ali came how from winning a gold medal in boxing at the Olympics, he was refused service at a diner because he did not transcend race. He was black.

When we erase the identities of others, we erase their struggles, achievements, and community. And we never seem to feel the impulse to strip away majority identities. David Bowie got to stay white. Prince and Ali get to stay black.

2 thoughts on “Transcended Race

  1. I had a “boxing phase” in the late ’90s. I became really interested in the past heroes of heavyweight boxing and watched a lot of film of Ali and others. There is a 1989 documentary I like called Champions Forever which covers ’60s and ’70s heavyweight boxing, but also covers a little of American society in general over that time. Boxing helped get me interested in history, particular black American history. I haven’t been seriously interested in boxing for a long time, but I still felt a slight connection to Ali when I heard about his death yesterday. People who know me would expect that I would have felt something on hearing of his death.

    I think I can recall feeling, as a teen in the ’90s, that it was cool and fashionable to like “black things” e.g hip hop, reggae, RnB, black film heroes. When I started sort of idolizing black boxing champions I didn’t really see that there was any real irony in it, which in hindsight may have been naive. It was only years later that I started to see that there was a bit of a division between “black entertainment” and “white entertainment”. I tended to note racial difference more when I found myself enjoying black musicians. My music collection today is fairly racially biased (towards white musicians). I have made some effort to buy more music of black musicians, but little enough effort so that I can still say my collection is fairly honest. Maybe it’s just because I’m white that I want to buy more white musicians’ music. At the same time though, my musical taste has been continually broadening.

    I never though that much about how much more Ali and other black boxers were popular with white people, than other black people were. I know that black boxer Jack Johnson, the first black world heavyweight boxing champion I think, was very unpopular with whites in his day. Later, Joe Louis became champion and was popular with whites and was possibly criticized for that by blacks. I’m reminded of how Ali called some of his fellow black boxers “Uncle Tom” meaning I suppose that he though they were letting white people dictate to them. These days I am more curious about what people are popular with their own race and what people are popular with many races. Not just skin color, but country too. I’m interested in what popular music from my own country(New Zealand) has managed to get popular overseas. As for white people who “transcended race”, I guess Elvis did. In music of course, a lot of white musicians would take ideas from black musicians and commercialize them a bit and I think that still happens. I’m reminded of debates in past about the color of Jesus’s skin. lol. I dunno how true it was, but in the 2002 film Ali, Will Smith (as Ali) says to his dad that he ain’t going to be worshiping no blonde haired, blue-eyed Jesus anymore(Ali did of course become a Muslim). There is of course the understandable idea that Christianity became the white man’s religion.


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