On Black Fatherhood and Muhammad Ali
Kiani Ned, our Communications Intern, writes about the importance of black fatherhood in the wake of boxing legend Muhammad Ali's death, and the legacy he left behind:
It’s been two weeks since the death of boxing legend and civil rights activist Muhammad Ali, who passed away at age 73 in Scottsdale, Arizona on June 3. We mourn his loss and in celebration of Father’s Day this weekend, remember Ali as a champion father figure in the black community—exemplifying strength, confidence, and a love for people around the world.
One could say that Ali’s career is marked by a series of bold and polarizing demonstrations of self. From his self-imposed nickname “The Greatest,” to his joining of the Nation of Islam and becoming Muhammad Ali, to his refusal to be inducted into the United States Army and fight in the Vietnam War, citing religion and racism in the United States. While many critics perceived his confidence as off-putting, Ali’s supporters recognized his bold and assured spirit as necessary. In the heart of the Civil Rights Movement, it was exhilarating for the black community and the world to see a black man be unapologetic about his strength, his faith, and his blackness.
In 1968, Ali became a father with the birth of his first child, Maryum Ali, with then wife Khalilah Ali, formerly known as Belinda Boyd. He would later father eight more children with wives Khalilah Ali, Veronica Porsche, Yolanda Williams, and three other women. Regardless of their separate maternities, Ali wanted his children to build relationships with one another. In a People Magazine interview after Ali’s death, his daughter Hana noted that her father’s desire for his children to become friends had come to fruition. She recalls him saying this to his daughters:
“You have different mothers, but you are sisters, and I want you all to come together and love each other.”
Throughout his boxing career, it was not uncommon to see Ali’s children with him at his training camp in Deer Lake, Pennsylvania. The 5-acre property was outfitted with cabins for sleeping, eating, praying, and training. There, the children would watch their father spar and go for early morning jogs. After Ali’s retirement in 1981, the kids spent the summers on a western Michigan ranch with him and his fourth wife, Yolanda Williams. He prioritized being a father by making a point to integrate his life and career with the lives of his children.
Ali taught his children to be of service to others, to be humble, and to love others and themselves. He raised his children in the Muslim faith—instilling in them the morals and values he spoke about to the world. In the 1960s, Ali made an inspiring call to black fathers: “I challenge them to help their children find their purpose in life and then see that the purpose is fulfilled.”
Ali’s sense of duty and responsibility to the black community and the world did not end with his own family. Over the course of his life, Ali supported organizations such as the Special Olympics and Make-A-Wish Foundation, and raised funds for the Muhammad Ali Parkinson’s Center after announcing his diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease in 1984. With the 2005 opening of the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Kentucky, Ali aimed to inspire children and adults to find and fulfill their purpose in life. Programs like “Generation Ali” help young people find their voice in social justice movements and as agents of social change.
Because Ali aspired to support the freedom of oppressed people everywhere, his fortitude in areas of championship, fatherhood, and social justice distinguish him as a father figure in the black community. Muhammad Ali, The Man Who Could Float Like a Butterfly and Sting Like a Bee by Ntozake Shange and Who is Muhammad Ali? by James Buckley Jr. are children’s books about Ali that inspire young black children to be just as passionate, just as bold, and just as black. These children’s books and other biographical titles about Muhammad Ali’s life and legacy are housed in our Jean Blackwell Huston Research and Reference Division. Visit our Moving Image and Recorded Sound Division for videos of Muhammad Ali, such as Ali discussing his 1980 fight with Larry Holmes.