The Sunday Rumpus Essay: What’s in a Name? A Tale of Two Alis and Three Muhammads
And He taught Adam the names of all things;
then He placed them before the angels, and said:
“Tell me the names of these if ye are right.”
–The Holy Qur’an, Surat Al-Baqarah, 2:31
Muhammad Ali is in the ring, shouting. “What’s my name?!” He keeps repeating it. “What’s my name?!” With each call and no response, he gives one of his own: He lands leather-gloved jab after leather-gloved jab on his opponent, stunning.
Pop! Silence. “What’s my name?!” Repeat.
Not a scratch is on Ali. He is flawless, in the moment. But, his opponent, the soft-spoken Ernie Terrell, can barely see, so swollen are his eyes. Ali has promised to “punish” him for not calling him by his chosen name. And punishing him, he is.
As the bell rings, ending the fourteenth of fifteen rounds, Ali stands still, seething. His arms are down by his sides, gloves touching up against the single, blood-red strips vertically adorning his lily white Ampro boxing shorts. But his spirit is anything but still. He is full of anger.
He punches his face forward, like it is a deadly weapon. As it extends beyond his body, poking in the direction of Terrell, he shouts again, the white of his mouth guard flashing the crowd.
“What’s my name?!” And his eyes are so full of fire, they could light the gates of hell.
It all started—the hostility—a little more than a month before the jeering, sneering and cheering crowd of nearly 40,000 witnessed the brutal beat down of Terrell inside the Houston Astrodome that February 1967.
It all first went south in the stuffy publicity office of the boxing department at Madison Square Garden, more than sixteen hundred miles away, in a crammed space that was made even more congested by the camera equipment and members of the press, all closing in on the two towering fighters, pushing microphones to get their every word.
Imagine twenty-five people all packed into a boxing ring. Now subtract even more space. And you have the scene.
Still, the mood was light, at first.
Ali, in his usual no nonsense but pretty boy stance, had just recited a poem boasting what he was going to do to Terrell. No matter that it was bordering on the doggerel. He was as confident as ever. (“He may come into the ring looking awful neat, but if he’s not cool, they’ll carry him out by his feet…”)
Terrell had just made a joke about Shakespeare turning over in his grave. It was all in good fun. It was all to promote the Garden’s first-of-its-kind closed-circuit showing of the big fight, on a 40-foot screen.
And then Terrell made the purposeful error that set off the heavyweight champion of the world. He referred to Ali by his birth name, Cassius Clay, knowing full well that Ali considered it to be his “slave name.” There was no way Terrell could not know. Ali had been telling anyone who would listen. But no matter what Ali said, now, Terrell made no move to take it back.
“Why don’t you call me my name, man?” asked Ali, all playfulness draining from his countenance.
“Well, what’s your name? You told me your name was Cassius Clay a few years ago,” responded Terrell.
Terrell, who had gotten close enough to Ali to be considered a friend, who had even once spent an overnight stay in the home of the Muslim fighter’s parents, was now trying—as he would explain years later—to throw off Ali’s “rhythm.”
It was a dangerous game.
“I never told you my name was Cassius Clay,” retorted Ali, his voice steadily intensifying by the syllable. “My name is Muhammad Ali. And you will announce it right there, in the center of that ring, after the fight, if you don’t do it now.”
They would have to wait for the ring, after all.
Terrell had resolved to call Ali “him” rather than call the prize fighter Muhammad Ali. He would do that, he said, “for the benefit of the broadcast.” This only incensed Ali more. Hadn’t Terrell already done enough with his nonchalant and unbothered retort to Ali’s pointing out that even the lawyer-turned sports journalist Howard Cosell—standing in between the two, conducting the interview—had addressed him by his chosen name, Muhammad Ali?
“Why you gotta be the one, of all people, who’s colored, to keep saying Cassius Clay?” the barely 25-year-old Ali asked.
It was clear in the snap of these words that Ali’s patience had began to fade. The unbridled agitation—no longer just percolating—was not going to be easily contained. And yet, his opponent remained unmoved.
“Howard Cosell is not the one who is gonna fight you, I am,” responded Terrell.
With that, the camel’s back was broken. Terrell was doing the white man’s bidding, refusing to acknowledge Ali by name, continuing to call him, as a black man, what he had told the whole world was a slave name. Ali was sure of it.
“You just acting like an old Uncle Tom. Another Floyd Patterson. I’m gonna punish you.”
Ali’s threat to punish Terrell like he had done in the ring to Patterson two years earlier, for refusing to call him Muhammad Ali, did not have a chance to hang in the air, like some of his other landed verbal blows.
“Uncle Tom,” well, those were fighting words for the six-foot-six Terrell.
Suddenly the Madison Square Garden room seemed more like a boxing ring than the office furniture-filled business space that it was, high above Eighth Avenue in Manhattan.
“You ain’t got no business calling me …Don’t call me no Uncle Tom, man.”
“That’s what you are, a[n] Uncle Tom!”
Ali’s lips began to tighten and curl, just in the slightest bit, as he spoke, the first sign of an impending pounce. The next aggression was more overt. He sucked in his entire bottom lip, a sure indication of an imminent attack, like a resource-guarding dog, reflexively baring its teeth in the final precursor before the battle. If Ali had put his “dukes” up it could not have been more clear.
But, no one else in the room, except Terrell, of course, seemed to be picking up on the signs. They were all too busy being entertained; perhaps thinking it was all part of the promotion.
“Back off of me!” Ali began to shout, over and over.
Terrell had leaned in too close for Ali’s comfort.
He would not back off him.
The men grabbed for each other. A rush of men moved in to pull them apart. All the while, Cosell, a sly grin plastered eerily on his face, continued to stand between them—as much he could, of course, as he was being jostled about by the fracas. The WABC-TV microphone he wielded back and forth, trying to catch their every word, remained his only protection in the mêlée.
The only common sense thing for Cosell to do was to jump out of the way, as the two boxers continued to lunge, as Ali continued to shout. But Cosell wanted to get it all.
“Another interview recorded for posterity, as the two gentlemen continue to promote the fight,” he reported, Ali’s continued shouts to Terrell of “Back off of me, man!” and “Uncle Tom!” having no effect on his own calm.
It took the sports journalist dangerously too long to rethink his place in their moment. Finally, he wisely gave up on capturing the voice of the madness, but not the moment.
“Keep shooting,” he instructed, not skipping a beat.
The next day, a New York Times journalist, favoring Terrell’s position, dubbed it “an ugly and tense moment.” Indeed, in his article, he only referred to Ali as Cassius Clay. He made no attempt to understand where the anger was coming from, though quite a bit of focus went to Terrell’s feelings and dignity.
It was hard not to feel bad for Terrell.
But, if calling one black man an “Uncle Tom” was part of the ugly, bringing to mind enslaved black men purposefully made to flunky for their white masters, then where was the disgust with continuing to call another black man a name that he associated with the worst period in American history for black people, too?
Why allow Terrell his wakening rage—however so soft spoken—over being called out of his name, but not Ali? Was not Ali’s anger rooted in the awareness and the woundedness of his black “brother” being the only one, even over the white men in the room, to disacknowledge his sense of freedom from the damaging social, moral and intellectual legacy of such devastating centuries of destruction of black life on American soil?
Or was that not ugly, too?
The man known to the Nation of Islam as the Honorable Elijah Muhammad had given Ali, a member since 1964, his new name. The Nation of Islam founder and leader believed that slave names would “keep you a slave in the eyes of the civilized world today.” He believed that if “you are still called by your slave-masters’ names” then “by rights, by international rights, you belong to the white man of America” and “you have never gotten out of the shackles of slavery. You are still in them.” For Ali, then, to call him Cassius Clay was to call him a slave, even if only mentally enslaved, which, for a member of the Nation, was worse.
“I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves,” purportedly said Harriet Tubman, leader of an armed military raid during the Civil War, resulting in more than seven hundred freed enslaved people in one day, and a principal conductor on the Underground Railroad, long before the war, with its network of safe houses and secret passages en route northward.
In Harriet-like fashion, Ali seemed to be essentially saying, making fun of my freedom name means you don’t even know you are a slave; you are the type to hold back when the freedom opportunity comes. Hence, his crescendo shouts of “Uncle Tom.” Hence, his immediate change in demeanor when a “colored” man challenged his name change, while a white man accepted it.
“I never went off track and I never lost a passenger,” purportedly said Tubman of her freedom missions.
Ali did not want to leave anyone behind in his conducted freedom missions either—led, in part, by his verbal sparring, like the expert rhetorician Malcolm X—but he also was not going to allow any attempts to derail him, in this case through blatant disrespect of the Nation’s revolutionary liberation strategy.
I have often marveled at how well preserved the histories are of many slave owning families that remain researchable by name in archives at the city, county, state and national level; and I have felt great pain at how poorly preserved the names of the enslaved were—especially when searching for my own ancestors—which frequently boiled down to what was most convenient for the slave owner, effectively permanently separating the progeny of those in bondage from their ancestral history. “Simple names” were more often than not assigned to the human chattel, despite the owners being very cognizant of the captives’ given or chosen African names, only putting them to use when it was of benefit to them.
Advertisements for runaway slaves in the colonial newspaper the South Carolina Gazette often listed both the enslaved person’s name given by their owner—considered the “proper name”—and their original “country name.” In the fall of 1773, among the runaway enslaved persons the Gazette listed were Limus …“his Country Name Serrah”; Mask… “his country name Mussu”; and Chole … “Her Country Name, Agua’.”
The original name of “Old Paul,” an African-born Muslim enslaved in early 1800s Alabama and South Carolina, was Lamine Kebe. But what was his surname as an enslaved person?
Surnames were not as common amongst the enslaved population in colonial America and the early United States. When the peculiar institution of slavery ended, freedmen chose given names for their progeny but often took on the surnames of their slave owners, and these names were passed down generation after generation, a surname, over time, unwittingly carrying proof of their tragic past.
Sometimes I fantasize that our newly freed ancestors did that just so we could one day trace them back to their freedom points, knowing we would come looking for them, and from there trace them all the way home.
Sixty years before my paternal grandmother was born in the Portland, Dallas County area of Alabama, in 1920, there were four Boykin slave plantations there, with a total of 648 enslaved people. I can trace Madea’s grandfather, born the year the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified, constitutionally ending slavery, and her grandmother, born two years after that, as Reconstruction was starting to wind down, right back to Portland, Alabama, Dallas County. But the 1860 U.S. Census yields no exact confirmation of their parents’ location, given slavery was still in full effect, and enslaved people were rarely ever listed by name in that census, since they were only considered property—listed by age, color of skin, mental state, as well as hearing and sight status. It is a high possibility that deeper digging will reveal that Madea’s maiden name, Boykin, comes from the slave owners located there, given the long lineage my family has in the area, and the number of black people who carried the name Boykin in that area by the time of the 1870 census. Similarly, by the time Muhammad Ali was getting his start in boxing, before changing his name, six generations of his family had lived in Kentucky, well back into the slavery days. Some, it is claimed, were even enslaved people on the plantations of politician and gradual abolitionist Cassius Marcellus Clay’s extended family, among the largest slaveholders in the entire state. Thus the origin of their supposed “slave name” Clay.
“He is very young, not forty, and may live to be, if not vice-president, at least minister or consul to foreign parts. It would be touching to witness an examination for the post at St. Petersburg between Said and a competitor like Minister Clay,” wrote William Lloyd Garrison, Jr. in the Nation, a man in whose family we know the importance of names and naming ranked high.
The man not yet forty, the younger Garrison spoke of, was the African-born Civil War veteran Nicholas Said. The Minister was Muhammad Ali’s namesake, Cassius Marcellus Clay, who President Lincoln had appointed Minister to Russia during the Civil War. Among the many places Said had lived, and been a slave and a servant—before arriving in America a free man—included Russia, where he had been in servitude to a Russian prince: Prince Nicholas Vassilievitich Troubetzkoÿ.
Garrison’s comments were based on the New York Times article written about Said earlier that month, in 1867—one hundred years before the 1967 Times article favoring Terrell, with its author constantly calling Muhammad Ali by his “slave name” Cassius Clay.
Times correspondent William Swinton had detailed in his article Said’s travels while in servitude under the Russians. The African had had the opportunity to journey across most of Europe while under the prince’s employ and had picked up the languages—largely self taught—of most of the countries he had visited. He was, of course, fluent in Russian, too.
But there was one curious thing Swinton had not revealed, while writing his piece. How had an African-born man of Muslim heritage, from a Muslim-run kingdom, the Kingdom of Bornou, acquired the name “Nicholas”?
“I was baptized in Riga on the 12th of November, 1855, leaving my [Muslim] name of Mohammed Ali Ben Said at the font, and bearing therefrom the Christian name of Nicholas,” Said wrote in his 1873 autobiography.
He had been born Muhammad Ali the son of (thus the colloquially “Ben” part, as in “ibn,” as in “son” in Arabic) Said.
Said’s Islamic faith and name just would not do; the prince had decided.
A gradual, forced conversion ensued, to, in Said’s words, “the Greek faith, the State religion of Russia.”
“His Excellency made up his mind to turn me from the error of my ways, and devoted himself assiduously to the accomplishment of his purpose.”
To this end, the prince made Said accompany him to every single one of his prayer sessions, coercing the African-born Muslim to emulate and perfect each of his movements of worship, including kneeling, bowing, making the sign of the cross.
“Bon gré, mal gré,” as Said put it: in other words, whether Said was in the right mood, frame of mind or state of grace to do it or not, he must.
The young Said, then still a teenager, duty-bound to worship in a way that was not his own, often passed the time by fooling around, “cutting capers and going through all sorts of pantomimic performances,” while the prince thought he was actually preforming “in a very devotional manner.” One day the prince caught on, however, and proceeded to give Said “a striking reminder of what was decent and respectful on such solemn occasions, by administering to my ears a good boxing and depriving me of my dinner.”
Said gave in not long after and “consented” to embrace the new faith. After being baptized, he thought “the job was complete,” only to find the priest, who the prince had oversee Said’s initiation into the Greek Orthodox Church, calling on him to come to worship the very next day.
I can see Nicholas Said now, his tribal mark-scarred face twisting in agony as he kneels for hours on the multi-colored marble floor of a beauteous chapel in Latvia, then part of the Russian Empire, struggling “to get through without any overt act of rebellion,” kneeling, bowing, making the sign of the cross, etc. Under the watchful eye of the priest, he is praying, in his physical foreground a magnanimous sacred work of art depicting the Christian story of Jesus, in his historical background a connection to 800 years of Islamic history from his homeland now disconnected, a culture shock, to be sure, to go from the concept of the image in worship being forbidden to it being central.
So too do I see him disconnected from his name, a given name that was not only his original name, his country name, but also that literally connected him, by direct description, to his father’s, a name that allowed his ancestry to be traced.
I see Said there, renamed and newly-converted, being forced to pray for pardons of his past sins, but it being so difficult that he cannot help but tell us something of his pain.
“I was in perfect agony during the greater portion of the time, and became so enraged with the papa, that I fear I committed more sins during that space of time than I had done in days before.”
And he tells us something more.
“I cannot help thinking the way I was baptized was not right, for I think I ought to have known perfectly well the nature of the thing beforehand.”
We learn this from the earlier, significantly shorter version of his autobiography in the 1867 Atlantic Monthly. So many other things he goes to great length to describe in the book, but here he does not give a single detail of the baptism process, although it must have had quite an impact on his senses: the feel of the water, the smell of the oils and incense, the sound of the chants, the sight of the candles, the perception of taste that might have come with overwhelming olfactory stimulation from the ceremony.
And he tells us something more, back in his book.
This time about his steadfast commitment to his Islamic faith, before his forced conversion, ever since he had left servitude under Muslims and had transitioned to servitude under Christians.
“I had remained a consistent [Muslim] repeating the requisite number of prayers daily, and at the time required, refraining from the use of pork, wine, etc., and rolling my eyes in holy horror at the frequent infractions of the law of the Koran that I constantly had occasion to witness.”
His name had not just been a name; it had a whole culture and history attached to it.
And he wants posterity to know it, even as he comes to accept his new identity.
I see him. I hear him.
It used to be said of the members of the Nation of Islam that they were reaching too far on false grounds of history, that it was not possible that before slavery black people’s original names could have been Arabic, nor that their original religion could have been Islam. It was easy to laugh at Muhammad Ali and his ilk parading around with these Arabic names. Slave holders could change enslaved people’s names to something meaningless on a whim, but how dare free black people choose a name of deep meaning to them.
“To have Kunta Kinte, or one of his fellows, praying to Allah while chained in the bottom of a Christian ship is an unjustified sop to contemporary developments rather than a true reflection of the past,” wrote prolific author James Michener, of Alex Haley’s Roots, in a 1977 issue of the New York Times.
And yet, Said had been a devout Muslim, hailing from a place that had a thriving Islamic history for eight centuries. And though Said was never a slave in America, there were plenty of African-born enslaved people here, carrying that similar historical connection, carrying “country names” that were Muslim names, such as Ayuba Suleiman Diallo on a tobacco plantation in Maryland, Omar ibn Said (Sayyid) in South Carolina and North Carolina, in the latter state on a planation connected to brothers who had served in Congress and as governor, and Bilali Muhammad on a rice plantation in Georgia, to name a few.
Like Nicholas Said had written about his steadfast commitment to Islam before being enslaved among Christians, so, too, had Omar ibn Said. Among his reflections on his life as a Muslim, he wrote thus, his entire short autobiography addressed to the people of the states where he had been enslaved, and to the people of the entire nation:
“O ye people of North Carolina, O ye people of S. Carolina, O ye people of America all of you… When I was a [Muslim] I prayed thus: ‘Thanks be to God, Lord of all worlds, the merciful the gracious, Lord of the day of Judgment, thee we serve, on thee we call for help. Direct us in the right way, the way of those on whom thou hast had mercy, with whom thou hast not been angry and who walk not in error. Amen.’ ”
The only thing that kept Nicholas Said from being torn from his religion, Islam, and his name, Mohammed Ali Ben Said, in America, as opposed to in Europe, is that his captors took him on a different slave route. Had the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves not taken effect in 1808, Said could have easily ended up here, enslaved, like the newly-arrived Igbos—from his same homeland of what is now Nigeria—who, in 1803, in protest of their captivity, took command of their destiny, and walked en masse right into Dunbar Creek in St. Simons Island, Georgia.
Before Muhammad Ali—a freedom fighter in his own right—rejected the slave name Cassius Marcellus Clay, Nicholas Said, perhaps the earliest, publicly known Muhammad Ali living in America, fought for the freedom of Ali’s ancestors during the Civil War, when he fought for all enslaved people, among them ancestors who had once been owned by the family of the same man that Said would later be compared to as an intellectual equal, none other than the twentieth century Ali’s namesake, before he was Ali: Cassius Marcellus Clay.
How ironic that while Ali was being ridiculed for his new name, the reality was that his actual ancestral name could have quite easily been Muhammad Ali.
Muhammad Ali could have quite easily been the “country name” of one of his recently-arrived, at the time, enslaved ancestors.
Just as it had indeed been the name of one—we all share in common as a black community—who had arrived free.
Few things are as important to me as my name. Precious, meaning something of great value. Rasheeda, meaning mature and wise. Muhammad—the world’s most common name—meaning one worthy of praise.
Most people can tell how much it means to me because I always write it all the way out—Precious Rasheeda Muhammad—and become agitated when it doesn’t fit. When I co-authored an article with a fellow scholar, for the Journal of Africana Religions, he wrote my name as Precious Muhammad. We were editing the piece in an online document at the same time—putting our final touches on it—and talking on the phone. I could see as the letters typed across the screen. My heart started beating fast. I tried not to make a big deal out of it. “Is this okay?” he asked. “The indexing system might kick it back later if you try to put the whole name in there.” I paused. “It doesn’t sound right to my ears this way,” I said. I could not have been more calmed by seeing my full name on the published version of the paper when it came out in 2015.
When I married, I bristled every time someone would call me by my husband’s last name. My husband still does not understand why I see his last name as a “slave name” that I have a hard time with it being attached to mine; we grew up with very different cultural and religious histories. I carefully explain it to him in calm tones, but he doesn’t get it. Even though I have added his last name to some of my government-issued identification, to make him happy—now four names I have—I rarely use it, and never professionally, and I carefully warn people not to call me by that name.
“I am only giving you this for business purposes,” I say.
In our Islamic marriage contract, my then fiancé and I worked out an agreement that any children we were blessed to have would carry my last name as their middle name. Thus both of our little girls have the middle name Muhammad.
Sometimes I won’t respond if people use my first name and my husband’s last name. I find it disrespectful that they skip right over my two-part last name on my identification. I can’t respond to what I don’t identify with. So, I look around to see if they are talking to someone else, because surely they cannot be talking to me. And I tell my husband often that I am changing my name back to just three names.
“Muslim women don’t have to change their names when they marry,” I say.
And yet, I don’t change my name back to three names, not yet, because his feelings matter and I don’t want to hurt him. Because his name is important to him, to be attached to me. But, it is important to me not to be attached to anyone else’s name but my own, with its own beautifully rich genesis.
I am sitting in the South Concourse area on the lower level of the relatively new Center for Government and International Studies building at Harvard when I see him—a bespectacled and bearded black gentlemen, about my father’s age, wearing a fez-like winter cap and some sort of back pack. It’s nothing out of the ordinary. And yet I want to know who he is. How can I not? He was one of only a handful of black people, and the only black man, in the room during my lecture. I don’t know yet that he is going to give me a confirmation of just how historically significant my surname being Muhammad is, a confirmation of a story my parents have been telling me my whole life.
But before that, I have one of my “I don’t answer when you don’t call me by my right name” moments.
It is not something consciously I do. It happens deep within me, and it triggers a physical reaction of anxiety and stress.
I am on a panel getting ready to give a talk on intra-Muslim relations in the United States. Our moderator, Professor Diana Eck, reads my bio to the audience. And for some reason, she gets creative, deviating from what is on the page, and keeps referring to me as “Rasheeda Muhammad.” Rasheeda did this, she says. We know Rasheeda because of her days at Harvard, she says. Rasheeda did that, she says. My palms aren’t sweaty, as she speaks, but I imagine, in that moment, they will be soon.
Every time she leaves off my first name, I grow more uncomfortable. When I take the mic, at the podium, finally, I pause, long. I look out to the audience and continue to pause. They think I am nervous, I know it, I say to myself. But I am not nervous. I am contemplating correcting, weighing, in those few seconds, if it is worth correcting something that was not intentional. I decide against it, in the end, and begin to speak. But, for the first minute or so, I am off my speaking game, ruffled by the mix up of my name.
Only the people closest to me address me by middle name, my family, or those so close they might as well be family. And then there are those people who won’t call me by my first name because they do not believe it is my real name. Some Muslims, mostly men who were foreign born, translate my first name into an Arabic equivalent as if I must have an Arabic first name to be legitimately Muslim.
No, I say, my name is not Nafeesa, it is not Thamina, my name is Precious.
Once, while receiving an Unsung Hero Award, live on air, I had to first watch the intro vignette the television station did about by my life history. You are mic’d, they told me, so no matter what you see, don’t say anything out loud, everyone can hear you.
So there I was. I was excited. I couldn’t wait to see what they had prepared. But then the package started and I heard the voice over say, “Born Rasheeda Muhammad…” And, I gasped. That’s incorrect, I said, or I said something like that, not able to hold in my shock. Or maybe I just said, “No, no, no,” over and over again. I can’t remember.
What made these people assume that my birth name was not Precious? What is it about my name that precludes people from acknowledging what I have given them in clear instruction? Why do they jump to conclusions without seeking to clarify? And why, even if my name was not really Precious, do they decide to call me something else, if I have presented to them, clearly—just like Muhammad Ali did with his name—what I desire to be called?
My name was the one consistent beautiful thing I could control during a childhood filled with debilitating and disfiguring health issues.
“That’s a beautiful name,” people would always say.
And it was the one thing I knew, for sure, was beautiful—not just because of its literal meaning (something of great value, mature and wise, one worthy of praise), or aural appeal (the way the ears embrace it when it rolls off the tongue), but because of the way it came to me, my last name in particular, connecting me to something bigger than myself.
“We have to record this!”
The bearded black man, who I’ve been in deep conversation with for several minutes now, has started telling me a story about his own last name. I stop him, jump up from where I am sitting in the concourse and make the declaration about the need to document the moment.
So many times my parents have relayed to me the account of how we came to have the last name that we do. But, until now, I have never heard a corroboration of it from anyone else, have never met anyone else who had been at the dinner that day it all went down at the Nation of Islam’s famous Salaam Restaurant on Cottage Grove Avenue on the South Side of Chicago, just one block parallel from where my family lived at the time. My father had a frequent presence at the Muslim-owned business, often on hand to help beautify the restaurant and once even stood on post, as Fruit of Islam security detail, in full FOI uniform, to help control crowds because Muhammad Ali, upon returning from his October 1974 fight with George Foreman in Kinshasa, had come to dine.
It turns out the bearded black man, Brother Waleed Muhammad, formerly William 9X, has come up from Rhode Island to Harvard just to hear me speak. He knows of my work and my father, not only from their Nation of Islam days in Boston, but also in Chicago, the movement’s headquarters. My community was very much a migratory one back then, many of the believers constantly gravitating toward wherever the center of community life thrived the most.
I am video recording Brother Waleed with my smart phone, when he gives me the full story, a few precious seconds of oral history that delight me so.
“I was in the Chicago in the year of 1975, and the Imam W. D. Mohammed … he stood up and he said, ‘those sisters who are expecting at this time, this is a very special time for us,’ he said, ‘I would like to suggest two names for the families: either Abdullah or Muhammad,’ and that is how I ended up with the name Muhammad.”
My parents account had differed only in that Imam Mohammed had not just mentioned the sisters who were expecting, but had included any of the babies of sisters in the community who were born in that year.
But why either Abdullah or Muhammad?
The imam, then supreme minister, had made clear the very same day his father, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, passed, and he took over the mantle of leadership of the Nation of Islam in February 1975, that his would be a Qur’an-centered leadership, and anything that conflicted with that would have to go, even if the conflict came from the teachings of his own father.
The names he had suggested fit that equation of a new day: Muhammad ibn Abdullah. Muhammad, the son of Abdullah. Muhammad, meaning one worthy of praise. Abdullah, meaning slave (or servant) of God. Names of the beloved Prophet Muhammad ibn Abdullah to whom Muslims the world over believe the Qur’an was revealed and is considered, by them, the seal of the prophets, the last in long line of Judeo-Christian-Islamic prophets, Abrahamic prophets, beginning with Adam.
The imam seemed to be signaling that there was going to be something singular about these babies born in a time of historic change. A very special time. As he had described it. A time where the community, revolutionary in its own right, was rapidly and constantly evolving. A time when the single largest conversion of people in American history to the traditional, orthodox practice of the Islamic faith would happen, and under the imam’s direct leadership no less. Among those making the transformation, en masse, included the champ, Muhammad Ali.
“That is how I ended up with the [family] name Muhammad,” brother Waleed had said: he’d had a child born that year.
And the single reason my family took on the last name Muhammad is because they had heeded the suggestion too, given that less than a month after the imam became leader of the community, their own 1975 baby had been born at the University of Chicago Wyler’s Hospital: me.
The curves and bends of the massive, early-1960s-built Dan Ryan Expressway, running through the heart of Chicago—further racially dividing an already intensely residentially-segregated city, riddled with economic and political disparities—revealed a curious sight during the early 1970s, whether you were headed north, towards downtown, or you were going back south. You would come around one of those bends, on that infamous fourteen-lane freeway and you could not avoid the site of that huge sign looming, in all caps, and, if at night, all lit up in bright glow, giving off the optical illusion that you could reach right out and touch it.
That’s what it told everybody.
Whether you were the mayor of the city, hailing from the predominately white side of the expressway, in Bridgeport, or a further South Side of Chicago, Chatham-born baby, hailing from the predominately black side of it, like me.
In the building host to that sign, my father worked sixteen-hour days—from the year before the Honorable Elijah Muhammad died until we moved to Alabama in 1976—as an offset pressman at Muhammad Speaks, the newspaper of record of the Nation of Islam, a paper where names meant everything, so much so that its emblem read “freedom, justice and equality for the so-called Negro.” “So called” being key. During those years, as the Nation was metamorphosing precipitously, even the paper and the community undergoing name changes, always in pursuit of an improved definition of a constantly improving identity, my father literally held in his hands, and stood watch over, the history of the community.
He monitored the tension on the paper, keeping it from snapping right off the press, ever vigilant against a stop the press moment; filled the inkwells to keep them from running dry; maintained the proper pH levels in the water; placed the paper rolls on the ends of the press, two rolls up top, two rolls on the bottom, to get started the imprint from the plates; repaired the gears; cleaned the press when it was down; kept a close eye on the plates on which the images for printing had been burned, from the front page to the last, color and black and white; and even stacked the papers in bundles of one hundred to be loaded on to the trucks, running up and down the eastern seaboard for delivery. Hundreds of thousands of copies—the articles in which continue to be cited by countless books, academic papers and lectures today—were properly printed under his watchful eye, and the watchful eyes of all the others working there.
By the time Cassius Marcellus Clay’s name came up at the 1860 Republican National Convention, down by the Chicago River, in a makeshift wooden-frame structure, with a curved ceiling, for optimal acoustics, and a Native American descriptive name, the Wigwam, a nod to its intentional temporary existence, people around the country—beyond the thousands filling the building to its rafters, spilling over into the second-story gallery—were already familiar with it.
As his name made its way onto the ballot to become the party’s nominee for president of the United States, in great company with names like future president Abraham Lincoln’s, but coming in last, and then for vice-president, but coming in second to U.S. Senator Hannibal Hamlin, it had already had quite a run beyond that room, due to his emancipationist freedom-fighting antics over the years: founding and running an anti-slavery newspaper he called The True American and adorning it with a nameplate that read “Devoted to Universal Liberty”; facing many threats on his life for his abolitionist views that led to him having to guard his office in Kentucky with loaded cannons and killing one opponent in a knife fight that had left him near-mortally wounded too, bleeding profusely from the gut; helping to start the first racially-integrated college in the South, Berea College, through donations of acres of his own land; and freeing all the enslaved people he personally owned, though not quite liberating the ones who were to go to heirs, he was, after all, a proponent of gradual abolition, of changing laws, and, convenient for him when it was convenient, laws hadn’t quite changed yet.
Clay would have been a hard sell for the national election anyway, given his too-bold anti-slavery actions at a time when the nation was already dangerously inching closer to a possible civil war, states rights on slavery being of maximal concern. To the point, no delegations were in attendance, at the anti-slavery party’s convention, from the slave states of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. And yet, there Clay’s name was, coming up for consideration at this historic convention in the area of Chicago now known as the Loop, less than five miles from where my father would work over a century later at the widely-circulated Muhammad Speaks, between the pages and on the cover of which a black freedom fighting Cassius Marcellus Clay-cum-Muhammad Ali would have a ubiquitous presence and be ubiquitously photographed with a copy in hand.
Turns out Ali’s original namesake had been just as much a pugilist as he.
Had Ali’s grandfather been thinking of his son becoming a great freedom fighter like Clay when he named Ali’s father Cassius Marcellus Clay, a son born at a time when books like W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folks were telling the whole world the black freedom struggle had still been far from won, that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line”? Had Ali’s father thought the same when he made his son a junior?
“I wouldn’t change my name for anybody,” early on his father had lamented about his son’s name change. “He’s trying to rub that name out and I’m trying to make it strong.”
But that was precisely it.
Cassius Marcellus Clay had already been a strong name for a white man. Why did Ali have to continue to strengthen that name, rather than one of his own choosing?
Even Ali’s white compatriots pressured him about the name, one fan taking it upon himself, in an extensive open letter published in the Philadelphia Sunday Bulletin Magazine, to school Ali about Clay’s history in great detail, even making the claim that among the enslaved people Clay owned directly and freed were a couple who thanked Clay profusely for their freedom and promised to name a child of theirs after him. “That baby, my research indicates, was your great, great-grandfather,” wrote the fan. His instructive work now done, having laid out all of Clay’s “monumental” sacrifices for blacks, the overzealous fan could not see any reason why Ali would not comply.
“Now, CHAMP,” the fan urged, “knowing the kind of Clay from which your name was molded, why not salute your big-hearted, two-fisted Kentucky namesake for his great battling for civil rights, by reclaiming the Clay name, thus conceding that what the world needs is more—not fewer—Cassius Marcellus Clays?”
This tone-deaf overreaching brings to mind those Muslims who believe firmly that my first name must be Arabic for me to be fully Muslim. “But Nafeesa means precious,” they say, as if that, and not my own choice, is the logic alone needed for the change. As if I will jump to the change because they have put in the work to educate me because, in their minds, the knowledge of self I claim just won’t do. Never mind that I have always known what Nafeesa means.
The original Cassius Marcellus Clay had always known what “all the horrors of slavery” meant for the enslaved, but had still “regarded it as [he] did other evils of humanity”: He saw it “as the fixed law of Nature or of God, and submitted as best [he] might.”
He had not imagined fully any way out of the institution.
“[M]y parents were slave-holders; all my known kindred in Kentucky were slave-holders.”
An anti-slavery lecture at Yale, by none other than William Lloyd Garrison, Sr., is what had finally forced Clay on a precious path to “give slavery a death struggle.”
Wrote Clay, of his life changing shift in thinking, “Garrison dragged out the monster from all his citadels, and left him stabbed to the vitals, and dying at the feet of every logical and honest mind. As water to a thirsty wayfarer, were to me Garrison’s arguments and sentiments.”
Garrison’s anti-slavery urgings took hold of Clay like “a new revelation” because of the abolitionist’s “plain, logical, and sententious language” about the “Divine Institution,” language that served to “burn like a branding-iron into the most callous hide of the slaveholder and his defenders.”
Like the Nation of Islam’s “make it plain” impact on Muhammad Ali’s psyche, Clay had been woken up by the naming of deeply oppressive things for exactly what they were in the greater scheme of injustices contemporary to his day.
Surely, Ali could see that Clay had been transformed into greater moral consciousness by a great thinker of his own race, like Ali had been transformed by a great thinker—the Honorable Elijah Muhammad—from his?
Why not keep the name of a man with whom he had so much in common?
Clay delivered his first anti-slavery speech the year he graduated from Yale, in 1832, to a captive audience he proudly described as the “elite, social and literary, of the college and New Haven.” During the Civil War, he would go on to secure Russian support for the Union, in his capacity as Minister to Russia; serve as a major general in the Union Army, commissioned by President Lincoln; and even influence Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, something Clay had been among those to long advocate for, strongly and without compromise on its importance, and of which Clay was so ecstatic about his part in it that he described it as “the culminating act of my life’s aspirations.”
Aware of these things, Ali still was not moved.
In life and death, Clay had been called many things, including “nigger lover” and “the Abraham Lincoln of Kentucky.” Ali added to that long list of goods and bads, essentially calling his namesake a white supremacist.
Turns out Ali did not need schooling on the life of Clay.
“[Clay] had gotten rid of his slaves, but held on to White Supremacy,” contended Ali in The greatest: My Own Story.
He pointed to his namesake’s own words, which he had stumbled upon as a high school student in Kentucky when trying to learn more about the man one teacher had kept telling him he should be so proud of being named after.
“[T]he Caucasian, or white, is the superior race; of a larger and a better formed brain; of more beautiful form, and more exquisite structure.”
Ali had read Clay’s words aloud in class.
“Modern discovery proved that the builders of the Pyramids, and Egyptian founders of signs and letters, were Whites. And this long disputed problem being settled, History now unites in making the Caucasian race, the first in civilization through all past time.”
Ali, long before his name change, had finally taken an interest in learning more about the lauded historical figure, he had been so proudly named after, only to find information damaging to his psyche as a young black man.
Like other influential white abolitionists, who could not seem to shake their white superiority complexes, even in the midst of doing good works, even in the midst of putting their lives on the line for black lives, Clay had been no more different in this regard.
The great Garrison Sr. had once even greatly agitated Frederick Douglass with his belief that the anti-slavery “cause, both religiously and politically, has transcended the ability of the sufferers from American slavery and prejudice, as a class, to keep pace with it, or to perceive what are its demands, or to understand the philosophy of its operations.”
Frederick Douglass, astonished, pushed back hard against that great white savior complex.
“If it be true …,” Douglass responded, “it is equally true that it has transcended the ability of white men as well; and it is, therefore, difficult to perceive any good motive in Mr. Garrison for thus branding the colored people—the sufferers from slavery and prejudice—thus invidiously with a want of apprehension and moral capacity.”
Still, just as we should not reduce Ali or the Honorable Elijah Muhammad to statements about the white man being the devil, as people are often wont to do, when viewing them outside of the social, cultural, religious and particular realities of their day, we cannot reduce men like Clay and Garrison to their white supremacist views, evaluating them outside of their larger body of work and social justice sacrifices.
For, Clay also pointed out something else, during his lifetime, and with great melancholy, that gives us further insight not just to the greater context and evolution of his thinking but also to why the need to divest oneself of “slave names” still remains just as relevant to many black people today, a cultural revolution that extends beyond the Nation of Islam theology now and has a life of its own.
“After we have traversed all time, and all people, of all religions, and all grades of civilization, that here, in these United States of America, professing to be the only people on earth free, slavery stands pre-eminent in degradation.”
Clay had taken a long, exhaustive look at American slavery, and concluded just the same as U.S. Senator Charles Sumner would on the floor of the United States Senate in 1860, that the dehumanization involved in its practice on American soil was unrivaled in the world. Clay’s recognition of how American slavery stripped enslaved people of all dignity, in ways that had not been seen in the world before, speaks volumes to the challenges faced by the psyche of all these men to overcome the prejudices of their day and to the evolutions of their positions on race relations in the United States, and how we have ended up in this name drama in the first place.
This went beyond theft of labor.
A people’s entire history had been stolen from them.
An entire people had essentially been sold down the river, and this is key: the fear of the individual enslaved person, to be sold away from all he or she had ever known, had become the reality of the entire community of people; the disconnect was virtually complete.
They didn’t even know their names.
Meanwhile, a white man like Clay could want most passionately for black people to be free, risk life and limb for them to be free, but in the same breath perpetuate mental enslavement through the propagation of white superiority. Further wiping away the history, even as he broke away the physical chains.
It is this kind of twisted existence that motivated Malcolm X to call for a revolution, a cultural one, even after he left the Nation of Islam and started the Organization for African American Unity, writing the importance of it into the very founding documents.
“This cultural revolution,” came his words, “will be the journey to our rediscovery of ourselves. History is a people’s memory, and without a memory man is demoted to the lower animals.”
It was a revolutionary act for Ali to stand before the world and repeatedly reject a name as oppressive that so many others not only perceived as liberating but also one he should be thankful to have. Still, it would take more than exposure to Clay’s white superiority beliefs to cause this shift in mentality. Long after high school he still had the name. He admittedly still liked the aural appeal of it as it rolled off the tongue.
“Don’t you think it’s a beautiful name?” he would ask of those covering his story, once he became well known. “Say it out loud: Cassius Marcellus Clay.”
It was the fatigue of being a man without a memory that had done it, a change in thinking that had only come for him with exposure to the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad.
“Why should I keep my white slavemaster’s name visible and my black ancestors invisible, unknown, unhonored?” he wrote, in The Greatest, My Own Story, of his evolution of thinking on the matter.
That was in 1975, my birth year.
I wish he could have known back then that, in taking on the name Muhammad Ali, he was carrying the same name of black Union Army veteran whose name and religion had been taken from him too. The only difference between them being that one of them had a memory and one of them didn’t, and that made all of the difference.
Six years after Clay’s name had been in consideration at the Republican convention, Nicholas Said’s was suddenly making its way into the consciousness of Chicagoans. The widely-circulated 1867 New York Times article had reached even the windy city and now a Midwestern newspaper had put its own spin on it for their readers. In an article titled “A Wonderful Negro Pundit Discovered by a Chicago Physician,” The Chicago Republican reprinted the New York piece in their pages with a particularly eager foreword because they had discovered a personal connection to the charming story.
The Dr. Sim mentioned in the article, on whose plantation Said was living and working on in South Carolina, and who had helped Said to start up a small school for blacks in the area, happened to be one of Chicago’s very own: “a highly cultivated and intelligent physician” who had been a medical director for the Union Army during the Civil War and had taken the lead role in establishing a much-needed military hospital in Illinois, on site of one of the Union Army camps.
And yet, though the reprinted article from the Times raved about Said too—so much so that William Lloyd Garrison, Jr., when he had reprinted the story in the Nation, had pondered the idea of Said being so well-accomplished that he could rival Minister Clay, or even be vice president—the Chicago paper introduced the very accomplished Said to their readers, not as a man, but simply as Dr. Sim’s protégé and “the wonderful negro boy Said, now making a great stir in the letters of newspaper correspondents from that region.”
Worse than being called a boy, had Said been somehow been refused the use of his birth name in the title of his book length autobiography? Earlier in the summer of 1873, before the publication came out sometime later that year, the original titled had appeared, clearly in quotes, in the New Orleans South-Western Presbyterian, as The autobiography of Nicholas Mahomet Ben Ali Said.
Said hadn’t just left his original name behind after all, as he said he had done after the forced conversion to the Greek Orthodox Church. He had intended for it to be used as part of the title of the book.
So how did his final title end up, in part, The Autobiography of Nicholas Said? And why in the newspaper-quoted version of the title was the order of Ben and Ali reversed and the spelling of Mohammed different than he had described both inside the pages of the book and in the 1867 Atlantic Monthly article?
Who had seized control of Nicholas Said’s name, yet again? And Why?
The day before I was born, Muhammad Speaks published the first official interview of the-then supreme minister of the Nation of Islam. I imagine my father carefully monitoring that run for the March 21, 1975, issue the night it came hot off the presses. I see him looking right at the words, as copy after copy glides on by. Of course he can’t make sentences out clearly, because of the speed of movement of the pages. But he is still there, a witness to history.
“Will you keep the name “Black Muslim,” which your Father, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad…accepted officially in editorials in some of his columns?” came one question. The leader did not hold back in his response.
“The name “Black Muslim” was not given by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad … This name was given by Dr. C. Eric Lincoln in his book on the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and His great work. The Honorable Elijah Muhammad has wisely treated this name given by Dr. Lincoln. He has treated it in such a way to make it clear that He rejects it as a racist label, but accepts it as an identifying term which groups Him and His followers with all Black people.”
He made it crystal clear just how important the proper naming of things remained in his community. Whatever was predefined for us without our consent, we would continue to redefine for our purposes.
Had Nicholas Said done the same under his circumstances? Is this why I push so hard to tell Said’s story because the constant manipulation of his identity is so familiar to me?
The supreme minister-cum-imam had a constant saying I have never forgotten. I learned it from him as child, most likely while attending religious services at the massive, former Greek Orthodox Church that had been transformed into a golden-domed, star and crescent-topped mosque on Stony Island Avenue in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood. I would sit there in the musalla, that had once been the church’s nave but now was removed of all pews so believers could assemble on the floor in accordance with Islamic tradition, and I would take in the intensity of Imam Mohammed’s voice, transfixed by its highs and lows and ability to command attention as he delivered the khutba. Sometimes Muhammad Ali would be right there on the floor too, shoes removed and humbled like the rest of us, taking it all in like the rest of us. The champ was there, but he wasn’t the champ when he was there.
I am positive none of us have forgotten what the imam used to say.
“Words make people.”
Feature Image credit: She’ila F. Mujahid. The photo is from around 1984 and in it are the author, her siblings, and her classmates and friends. They are in Chicago at the location that is mentioned at the end of this chapter. They are standing outside Sister Clara Muhammad School, which is the school they attended next door to the mosque that had formerly been a Greek Orthodox Church.