Many of you reading might be wondering about the relationship between Muhammad Ali and my Fulbright experience. Having applied to specifically learn about how the nexus between national identity and diversity is being illuminated in U.K. history classrooms, one might find it interesting (or even confusing) as to how the specific focus of my project turned toward Ali and his life experiences. With guidance from my advisor at UCL-IOE as we dug deeper into the topic, what started as one lesson about Muhammad Ali within the context of my project soon turned into much more. As we have recently concluded the enquiry with years 10 and 12 at the Convent school, I felt now was a good time to provide an explanation for anyone interested.
First, a quick note on historical enquiry. This is a pedagogical model the history education program at the IOE strongly urges as best practice for teachers to use in their classrooms. (To be honest, this more than teachers engaging in diverse curricula and pedagogical strategies appears to be the international best practice I am learning the most about.) It centers on a key enquiry question designed to “upset the psyche” and inspire students to think critically about whatever historical topic the enquiry concerns. Regarding the Ali enquiry, after months of discussion (and yes, it does sometime takes months) we finally agreed on the following question – How did Muhammad Ali both intimidate and inspire Americans? Comprised of six lessons and designed to get the students thinking beyond the greatness of Ali that was reiterated in much of the news reported after his recent passing, the enquiry situates Ali’s life experiences within the context of the ideals underpinning what it means to be an American.
For this enquiry, I created six lessons intended to encourage the students to think critically about American ideals and how Muhammad Ali, in both an intimidating and inspiring manner, embraced and lived these during the most controversial time in his life.
Lesson 1 – What Does it Mean to be an American?
This lesson challenged students’ conceptions of what it means to be an American by looking at the ideals often iterated as underpinning this label and the reality for many in terms of their lack of application. It began by asking U.K. students to think about the word American and share whatever ideas came to mind. We then watched a brief video clip where John Cena discusses patriotism in America as being grounded in a sense of love for everyone, specifically in terms of our differences. The lesson then turned to Langston Hughes’ poem Let American Be American Again as the primary source to consider the paradox of ideal verses real in terms of the American dream. From each of these sources and the connected discussions, the classes came up with a concluding assertion that America has a great dream which many are prevented from living, a point I thought was incredibly insightful.
Lesson 2 – The Apotheosis of Ali
This lesson focused on the last twenty years of Muhammad Ali’s life, specifically the events surrounding the 1996 Atlanta Olympics where he surprisingly lit the torch at the end of the opening ceremonies and his passing in June of last year. After watching video clips of both events, news reports of the torch lighting and magazine covers after his passing were used to get the students thinking about how Ali was perceived by the public in the final years of his life. As “The Greatest” was the phrase most often used to describe him in these sources, the students came away with a sense that he must have been more than just a talented boxer, which is what most only knew him as going into the enquiry. We purposefully put this lesson here to set the students up for the next three lessons, all of which concerned the controversy surrounding Ali in the 1960s. In terms of connection back to the first lesson, the students determined that Ali must have lived the American ideals which contributed to his annunciation as The Greatest in the last two decades of his life. It was at the end of this lesson we gave the classes the enquiry question.
Lesson 3 – What’s My Name, Fool?!
This lesson centered on the changing of his name from Cassius Marcellus Clay to Muhammad Ali and the notion of agency. We watched contrasting clips from 1960 and 1966 where in the first, a young Cassius Clay is talking about how great his name is and its historical importance in Kentucky, while in the second, the newly-named Muhammad Ali verbally castigates Ernie Terrell for not referring to him as such in their pre-fight press conference. To help the students understand the importance of name and agency we watched a clip of Malcolm X talking about the notion of slave names and why it was important for African Americans to consider their names in relation to their heritage. The students seemed to enjoy this lesson as many wanted to freely talk about their own names and what they meant in familial and cultural terms. They clearly came away with an understanding about the connection between one’s name and identity.
Lesson 4 – I Don’t Have to Be Who You Want Me to Be!
The focus of this lesson was on the Nation of Islam and Muhammad Ali’s association with this group after winning the heavyweight championship from Sonny Liston in 1964. We looked at two newspaper articles from the Chicago Tribune. The first, from 1960, praised Cassius Clay as an American ambassador at the Olympic Village in Rome. The second, from 1966, described Muhammad Ali as going from hero to bum in only six years, the causes of which were directly related to his association with the Nation. We watched a series of video clips where Ali described the reasons behind becoming a Muslim and discussed how this and his decision to change names was both intimidating and inspiring to Americans. To help the students understand better the significance of Ali’s conversion in terms of the ideals discussed in the first lesson, we read the First Amendment and talked about association as a fundamental right. The students determined that there was nothing wrong with what Ali did and that his treatment was unjust in terms of the American ideal.
Lesson 5 – I Don’t Have No Quarrel With them Viet Cong!
The third of the lessons on Ali in the 1960s, this one concerned the war in Vietnam and his refusal to be inducted into the United States Army. Under the banner of “What was Ali’s greatest fight?”, we challenged the students to think about what it means to be a conscientious objector and whether Ali’s situation was relative to this. Using excerpts from Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience and a speech delivered in 1966 by Senator Fulbright on Higher Patriotism, the students determined that Ali was absolutely within his rights, particularly as a Muslim minister, to refuse induction. Coupled with the third and fourth lessons, the students came to see Ali’s actions during this critical period as an attempt – either conscious or unconscious – to restore his agency and that of other African Americans in a time of struggle and crisis. Essentially, they saw Ali’s actions regarding Vietnam and the Nation of Islam as examples of living out the American ideal discussed in lesson one.
Lesson 6 – Ali and the Advent of Hip Hop
Probably the most fun lesson I have ever prepared or taught, our final Ali session was on the influence of Muhammad Ali on the urban art form that emerged in the early 1980s known as Hip Hop. Specifically, our goal was to get the students thinking about how Ali and Hip Hop, in terms of agency, afforded those who have been traditionally voiceless in American to have voice and be heard. We listened to Ali recite some of his famous poetry and discussed how unique this was for an African American man in the 1960s to be so boastful and braggadocios in the public arena. We then looked at lines from Ali poems and 1980s hip hop songs to see if the students could determine which was which – in all the classes we taught the success rate was only about fifty percent which showed the similarity between them. Four songs from the 1980s were chosen for analysis – Run DMC’s King of Rock, Big Daddy Kane’s Ain’t No Half Steppin, LL Cool J’s Mamma Said Knock You Out, and Public Enemy’s Fight the Power. In each the students saw the influence of Ali’s pugilistic poetry and look-at-me message, determining that all were relative to the notion of agency and situated within the American ideal, specifically the right to engage in free speech and expression.
In simplest terms, our goal with the enquiry was to get students thinking about what the American ideal is, how this has been denied certain groups historically and is still today, how this affects the agency of individuals within these groups, and how those who stand up against this – Muhammad Ali being a classic example – are both intimidating and inspirational in terms of their actions and influence. Although vilified by many in the mid-1960s, Ali today is considered an iconic figure, representative of the best America has to offer and what the rest of the World hopes we stand for. He is and always will be, The GOAT!