Professor Michael Ezra teaches on post-World War Two African American history in the Department of American Multicultural Studies at Sonoma State University.  Though he teaches history, his emphasis on the history of cultural forms, and on how cultural forms impact our understanding of the past. In this sense, his approach to the past and how to think, write, and talk about it resembles that of Harvey Young.  

 

 


 

Perceptions and the Representation of History

 

In reading Young, we saw his attention to the gaps in the historical record and his own reliance upon metaphor to convey a sense of the past.  Ezra, meanwhile (explaining why he capitalizes the phrase the "Ali Story"), states clearly on p. 3: "I consider history to be primarily art rather than science. The Ali Story, although certainly based upon fact, is a construct: part fact, part myth, part interpretation."  He continues, referring to his own history of Ali, "Like all history, my version of the Ali Story leaves out far more than it includes.  This book is neither definitive nor comprehensive. Instead, Muhammad Ali: The Making of an Icon is a plausible interpretation of how people have made meaning of Muhammad Ali's life and times. The book is truthful, but it is not the truth."

 

You may have been struck by how Ezra begins the book with reference to all that has been written about Ali.  In particular, the metaphors of "library shelves buckling under the weight of Muhammad Ali literature" and of readers have to "wade through everything" conveys an image of a giant, unruly pile of books and papers on a floor somewhere.  You may even imagine that this pile of writing about Ali, which we would reasonably assume should reveal him, actually conceals or obscures or covers him up; as though the real Ali were buried under that pile.  Maybe we expect that Ezra's own book is going to be like some giant broom and dustpan, clearing away all this other writing so we can see Ali as he really was.  That would be wrong.  Ezra is actually writing about the pile on the floor ("how Ali has been perceived by various segments of the public" [p. 1], "public perceptions . . . and cultural meanings" [p. 2]).  This doesn't mean that Ezra sheds no light on Ali.  It just means that in the case of a hyper-public figure like Ali, there is really no way to separate "the human being" from "the public perceptions of the human being."  They aren't the same, perhaps.   But they are so closely tied together that it is essential to focus on these perceptions to understand the human being: these perceptions are a crucial part of this person's existence and significance.

 

Beyond this general approach, you should also note that Ezra announces that as he tracks what he calls "paradigm shifts in how Ali has been perceived" he is looking in particular at the interplay between "public perceptions,"—particularly of Ali as a "moral authority"—"economic entanglements," and "cultural meanings."  He puts this in different ways in his Introduction.  For example, on p. 2, at the end of the full paragraph, "The public's sense of Ali's moral authority has always been a function of its perception of who has economic ownership of him." He puts this even more bluntly in the paragraph immediatley following when he writes that each of the three main parts of the book may be read as a "response to the ever-evolving question 'Who owns Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali?'"  That's a pretty provocative question to ask about any human being, but especially about a black man in America, and even more especially in view of the histories of ropes that Young wrote.  We don't need to overreact to it.  In a way, Ezra just means "who has invested in and is managing Ali's career and finances?" and "who is profiting off of Ali?"  But perhaps he uses the slave metaphor of ownership to suggest that, even if these groups didn't literally own Ali the way in which a plantation owner owned a slave two centuries ago, they did significantly control—or limit the movement of—something about him, some part of him.  We'll have to see.  

 

 


 

In any event, the part of the book you're reading picks up where Harvey Young's story leaves off.  Where Young left us with an Ali who was headed to jail, stripped of his title and widely critizied, but integrity intact, Ezra's "Part III: Good People," is "a study of the figher's rebirth as an admired cultural icon representing corporate interests" (2-3).  He is interested in "making sense of this strange process" in which Ali has gone from "largely disliked figure" in the 1960s to "admired almost universally" and indeed "sanctified" as "standard-bearer of American values and the embodiment of the best things this country has to offer" (137).  Ezra notes too, though, that the point is not only to understand Ali, but to understand Ali in order to get to "the big picture" of "how economic concerns, race matters, and historiography come together to create symbols and folklore that influence the ways people percieve themselves and the world." (137).  Finally, Ezra observes that the period he covers in the part of the book you are reading seems to present a kind of paradox or at least an irony: because of the debilitating illness that prevents him from boxing or speaking, "Ali has less control than ever before over his meaning, yet more than ever before people recognize him, and he is represented, as being its sole author and owner."

 

As you read through Part III of Ezra's book, look for some of the following elements:

 

  1. The organizational structure.
    1. The 60 pages I've asked you to read that comprise Part III, are divided into eleven chapters, some as short as just 3 pages and none longer than ten.
    2. Does this strike you as unusual? What sort of impression does this make on you? What, if anything, does it remind you of?
    3. How, if at all, do you suppose it impacts your reading experience (especially by comparison with a different organizational structure)?
  2. The metaphors.
    1. Even just scanning Ezra's chapter titles, we find a number of metaphors ("Exile, "Prodigal Son," "King," "Monarchy," "Salesman,") and the text itself includes many others.
    2. You've already had some practice thinking about metaphors.  
      1. Remember that they work by yoking dissimilar things and domains together into a single word or phrase, with the aim of provoking an unexpected flash of recognition insight.
      2. They can also lead to overextending the identification between the two terms in question, so that more of the qualities of the metaphorical vehicle are transferred to the subject than might appear to be intended.
      3. They can also lead to us to minimize important differences between the two terms in question.
    3. What are some of the metaphors in the text? How do they seem to be working?  Toward what purpose? With what possibly unintended side effects?
    4. How do these metaphors relate to some of the others we've already encountered in other texts?
    5. How, if at all, do these metaphors contribute to Ezra's argument about the relationship between moral authority, cultural perception, and economics?
  3. The phrase "moral authority" appears frequently throughout the reading.  What do you think Ezra means by it? Why? What purpose does it serve in the argument?
  4. The central assumption guiding Ezra's analysis concerning the relationship between moral authority, cultural perception, and economics. 
    1.  Ezra articulates this in many places. For example, on p. 152, in relation to the purse Ali earned for fighting Joe Frazier in 1971, "Taking seriously the relationships between earning power and cultural image requires that we regard Ali's massive purse share for the Frazier fight as a sign of his moral authority and as an indicator that public opinion was shifting in his favor."  Let's examine this assertion together. 
      1. It first charcterizes "Ali's massive purse share"  as a "sign", which must presumably be interpreted, and as an "indicator," which, like a pointed finger, should be followed.  
      2. The meaning of that sign is "his moral authority" and the indicator points to "public opinion was shifting in his favor."  
      3. We are to regard all this in this way, Ezra tell us, if we are really going to take seriously the relationships between earning power and cultural image.  So here are you questions:
    2. What are the relationships between earning power and cultural image that we are to take seriously? Do you take them seriously? Why or why not?
    3. Do you see Ali's massive purse share as an indicator that public opinion was shifting in his favor?
    4. Do you see it as a sign of his moral authority?
    5. Do you see a "sign" and an "indicator" as the same kind of thing? 
    6. Do you see moral authority and favorable public opinion as the same kind of thing?
  5. The "Ali Story".  A central preocuppation of Ezra's throughout this is the way in which an image of Ali emerges through the construction of what he calls "the Ali Story."  There's lots to think about here involving language, narrative, history, cultural values, commerce and race.  Pay attention whenever the phrase "the Ali Story" comes up.  But you might pay special attention to a couple of elements in particular:
    1. Speech, voice, dictation, narrative perspective.  
      1. What role did speech and language seem to you to play in Ali's life during the height of his career? What is the importance of the fact that Parkinson's now render him unable to speak for himself?
      2. What is the relationship between speaking and authority, both in the specific case of Ali and in general?
      3. And what is the relationship between both of these and cultural or historical representation?
    2. Paraphrase.
      1. Frequently, Ezra will render elements of "the Ali Story" in his own words.  This is known as a "paraphrase" ("a rewording of something written or spoken by someone else").  One example is on p. 142, another one pp. 154-155, and another on pp. 182-3.  
      2. Examine the tone of these passages. Does it seems similar or different from the tone of the passages around it?
      3. What purpose do you think these paraphrases serve in Ezra's argument?
      4. What do you speculate might be the effect of such paraphrases on a reader? What was their effect on you? 
      5. Would you have even noticed them had I not drawn your attention to them? If not, what is the significance of that?
    3. Related to this, but more specifically, from pp. 167-181, Ezra analyzes and criticizes Thomas hauser's definitive biography of Ali as well as subsequent versions of "the Ali Story" based on this. Metaphor and paraphrase play important roles in this critical analysis.
      1. What are some of the metaphors Ezra uses to characterize the work of Hauser and other subsequent purveyors of the "Ali Story"? What is the effect of these metaphors? What do you think of them?
      2. Ezra emphasizes the formal charateristics of Hauser's biography and of "the Ali Story." For example, the use of "oral history," testimonies, personal recollections.  Why do you think he emphasizes this? 
    4. Truth. 
      1. What is the role of this term or category in Hauser's analysis? In other words, for what purpose does he invoke the word "truth" (or others related to it like "deception")?
      2. What does he seem to mean by truth? How do you think he would define it? Do you think he would apply it to his own work?
      3. What do you think of how he uses it? 
  6. The King of the World chapter on the Ali-Foreman fight. Pay special attention to this since it is also the subject of the documentary "When We Were Kings." Primarily, we're interested in how Ezra's account differs from the film's and in considering the importance of those differences, especially for how we understand the cultural and historical significance of Ali. Specifically, you might consider any of the following in comparing When We Were Kings to this section of Ezra's analysis (and keep in mind that you should consider not only what is said, but how it is said):
    1. The portrayal of the relationship between Ali and Foreman.
    2. The potrayal of the relationship between both fighters and ordinary people in Zaire.
    3. The role of President Mobuto Sese Seko.
    4. The role of Don King.
    5. The portrayal of Africa.
    6. The relationship between principle, race, and money.
  7. Lastly, can you identify Ezra's own position on Ali? How does it compare to Young's?

 

Ezra, _Good People_.pdf   
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