THE BLOG
06/08/2016 04:01 pm ET Updated Jun 08, 2017

Muhammad Ali is dead, long live his America!

Growing up as a boy in Iran, I remember opening up a popular magazine to a page with a photo of Muhammad Ali's iconic boxing glove. At the bottom of the page a caption read: "the actual size of Muhammad Ali's glove". After seeing the picture I remember how I made a fist, placed it on the photo, and pretended to wear the glove. No sooner had I lifted my fist from the page than a feeling shaped in me. Wearing that glove I felt America.
This was not just a photo of a legendary glove of a boxing champion, but how I came to imagine a country, where in a few short years I would call my new "home". In those childhood years, when Iran was at the height of its revolutionary fever and still at war, I saw an America in Muhammad Ali that was strong, confident and yet different. He was vain, but not pompous. He was loud, but only because he had something important to say. His vanity was one of self-determination rather than egoism. His humor was one of self-fashioning through laughter rather than mockery. His boxing made blackness beautiful, attractive, and desirable. His boxing became a poetic metaphor of a new black identity, a combative self that defied segregation, racism, and becoming an instrument of organized violence with the brutal war in Vietnam.
Muhamamd Ali redefined Black America. His wit alone challenged the culture of bigotry that viewed blacks as inferior and unintelligent. In his powerful voice he demanded recognition for a history that was lost, a presence that was denied, and a future yet to be realized. "I am America," he once famously declared. "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 use to me."
America, indeed, is now use to Muhammad Ali. He is known in every school, church, neighborhood in the country. Images of his fearless looks and unrelenting punches, his rising of the Olympic torch, his photo towering over defeated Sonny Liston looms large in our collective consciousness.
His adopted first name, "Muhammad," is of the Prophet of Islam, who is revered by Muslims as trustworthy, gentle and yet strong. His other adopted name, "Ali," the Prophet's cousin and the fourth Caliph, represents leadership, courage and defiance. And now the combined name of "Muhammad Ali" is as American as apple pie. He is the part of us that we must now recognize, a part, I should add, that is also Muslim.
His Islam was of a distinct American experience: emerging from a racial past and in constant search for spiritual strength while remaining open to change. He shaped an identity that was once American and Muslim, defying a current perception that continues to see the two at odds. His Islam did not hate America but is America, a country of enduring struggle and change.
Perhaps it was such spirit of defiance that I felt in that photo years ago in Iran. Later, as I moved to California and settled in Orange County, one of the most politically conservative places in the country, the memory of that photo helped me remember an America I imagined in Muhammad Ali; an America I continue to aspire, that is: a defiant nation still in the making.
It is the memory of that glove that will also help me confront the kind of America Donald Trump aims to achieve: a country of exclusion, inequality and racial purity. To challenge that America we need Muhammad Ali more than ever, especially after his death. Muhammad Ali is dead, long live his America!