From Langston Hughes to Muhammad Ali to Black Arts
Only on rereading Langston Hughes’s The Big Sea for my course on African American Autobiography did I ponder name and geography connections. Hughes identifies his paternal great-grandfather as Sam Clay, a white man who lived in Henry County, Kentucky. Sam Clay, Hughes suggests, was a relative of Henry Clay, who was a Senator, Secretary of State, and several times a candidate for President. On this reading, Clay in combination with Kentucky made me think of another famous Clay from Kentucky, the one who became Muhammad Ali. Named Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. at birth, his name derives from the slaveowner-turned-abolitionist Cassius Marcellus Clay, who was a second cousin of Henry Clay. No one to my knowledge has determined that Ali, like Hughes, descended biologically from the famous Clay family. A lot of Clays, enslaved and free, had been running around Kentucky. But the idea seems plausible, and I imagined that Hughes and Ali, two great poets of the people, were distant cousins. But I don’t fathom that genealogy was discussed when they met.
And they did indeed meet. In March of 1963, twenty-one-year-old Clay was a rising star both in and out of the ring. An Olympic gold medalist, he had generated widespread interest in his boastful rhyming as he compiled a 17-0 record. He had already appeared in a Hollywood movie, Requiem for a Heavyweight. In addition, he had been featured in the February 15 issue of Life magazine and was only a couple of months away from recording his Grammy-nominated album I Am the Greatest, which eventually sold half a million copies. He was in town to face number three contender Doug Jones; Clay was ranked second behind Floyd Patterson. However, a few days before the March 13 bout at Madison Square Garden, Clay engaged in another contest, a poetry event at The Bitter End, a coffeehouse and music venue in Greenwich Village. He won with a poem about being The Greatest---what else?---and vanquishing Jones.
Hughes, a heavyweight in his own right, was on hand. It was in his character to be interested in the career of any promising artist. The future boxing champion told Hughes that he had long admired “I, Too, Sing America,” which is included under the title “Epilogue” in The Weary Blues, published in 1926. As Ali tells the story, “I thanked him for his poem and asked if he had any more. He gave me three books. His were the kind of poems I liked, straight, simple, and at least half of them were in rhyme.”
As we know, Ali beat Jones that March, defeated Henry Cooper in June, and lifted the crown from Sonny Liston the following February. To mark the achievement, according to Hughes biographer Arnold Rampersad, Hughes displayed a picture of Ali in his study and apparently sent the new champion a copy of Pictorial History of the Negro in America, a book he authored with Milton Meltzner. He definitely sent the following lines,
I HEAR YOU ARE INTERESTED IN HISTORY. WELL, HISTORY IS NO MYSTERY. WHY, OUT OF THE FACT THAT SOME MEN ARE BLACK, OTHERS TRY TO MAKE A TWISTERY IS THE ONLY MYSTERY. TAKE IT FROM ME—
Ironically, a sixty-five-year-old Hughes, soon would be accused of trying to imitate Ali when he wrote rhyming speech for the narrator (Sidney Poitier) of the television special The Strolling ‘20s.
We’ll never know the full extent to which Hughes influenced Ali or vice versa. Hughes and all of Harlem had produced rhymes for decades. Maybe Hughes doubled down on rhyme after the emergence of Ali. But we do have “I, Too,” and its opening,
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh
And eat well,
And grow strong.
The persona in the poem proceeds to assert that times will change. No one will challenge his strength, and he will be recognized for his beauty. He will not simply sing America; he will be America.
In 1966, Ali sampled that vision,
I am America.
I am the part you won’t recognize.
But get used to me:
Black, confident. cocky.
My name, not yours.
My religion, not yours.
My goals, my own.
Get used to me.
Ali made more of a Black Power statement, more in the mood of the nascent Black Arts Movement. We see the textual link, through Hughes, to Don L. Lee/Haki Madhubuti, a poet one month younger than Ali. The poet’s 1967 grievance,
You are society---white anglo-saxon,
do it like me pure christian
The resolution of the poem suggests the waging of physical and militant struggle against oppression.
Ali continued to write and perform both humorous and serious poetry into the 1970s. I witnessed this up close as I was on stage with him at Queens College in the spring of 1971. As part of his presentation, he performed a poem from the perspective of a Black revolutionary making his last stand against the police. He began,
Better far from all I see
To die fighting to be free
What more fitting end could be?
This could have set a listener to thinking about Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die.” That connection might have been made stronger a few stanzas later when Ali recited,
Better far that I should go
Standing here against the foe
Is there sweeter death to know?
You have to work hard to miss the link between that stanza and McKay’s line “O Kinsmen! We must meet the common foe.” Ali wound up seven stanzas later,
Better now than later on
Now that fear of death is gone
Never mind another dawn.
After the closing line, he burst into a simulation of a combatant wielding a rifle or machine gun, sound effects and all. He seemed to have absorbed some of the impulses of mentor poets, including Hughes, and to have contributed to setting the radical edge of Black Arts poetry. He was twenty-nine years old.
The estimable Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has a deep appreciation for Ali’s verse. That doesn’t mean, he says, that Ali belongs in the Norton Anthology of Poetry. I argue that he does.