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.