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Black Star, Crescent MoonThe Muslim International and Black Freedom beyond America$

Sohail Daulatzai

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780816675852

Published to Minnesota Scholarship Online: August 2015

DOI: 10.5749/minnesota/9780816675852.001.0001

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“Ghost in the House”

“Ghost in the House”

Muhammad Ali and the Rise of the “Green Menace”

(p.137) 4 “Ghost in the House”
Black Star, Crescent Moon

Sohail Daulatzai

University of Minnesota Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter explores the political and cultural history of boxer Muhammad Ali and his status as a national hero in the post-Cold War 1990s, a period when the Muslim International, through hip-hop culture, struggled to rekindle and reinvigorate the legacy of Black Islam. This post-Civil Rights fear of the “Muslim terrorist” gave way to a full-blown ideological paradigm of the “Green Menace” of Islam, replacing the “Red Scare” of communism during the Cold War elaborated in Samuel Huntington’s theory of “Clash of Civilizations.” The chapter draws from Huntington’s theory in examining Muhammad Ali’s recuperation being a symbol for the fear and containment of Black Islam within a narrative of American universalism, stripping Black Islam of its internationalist impulses.

Keywords:   Muhammad Ali, Muslim International, Green Menace, Islam, Samuel Huntington, Clash of Civilizations, Black Islam, Red Scare

Boxing is nothing, just satisfying some blood thirsty people. I’m no longer Cassius Clay, a Negro from Kentucky. I belong to the world, the black world. I’ll always have a home in Pakistan, in Algeria, in Ethiopia.

—Muhammad Ali, in Marqusee, Redemption Song

IN OCTOBER 1970, in his first fight back after his ban from boxing for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War, Muhammad Ali walked out of the dressing room and toward the ring to fight Jerry Quarry, with Ali’s charismatic cornerman, Bundini Brown, shouting, “Ghost in the house! Ghost in the house!” That Ali was fighting a white boxer in his first comeback fight made this, like almost all of Ali’s fights, a race war in the squared circle. Many people in America—boxing fans or not—wanted to see Quarry silence Ali for his strident and defiant political stance and outspoken criticism of American imperialism and white supremacy. For Bundini Brown, who relished this theater of war, the “ghost” he was referring to was that of Jack Johnson, the first Black Heavyweight Champion, who in the early twentieth century beat all white fighters in front of him and flaunted his relationships with white women at a time when lynching was seemingly a national sport. That all of Johnson’s opponents were deemed the “Great White Hope” (a term that has come to define the racially determined world of sport) reflected the longings of white America to restore the title to its “rightful” white place. Bundini Brown’s chants of “Ghost in the house” served not only to summon the past in the spirit of Jack Johnson but also to reveal, in true Bundini style, that the past is present or even prologue—and that the white anger, angst, (p.138) and rage directed at Ali were really a deeper-seated anxiety about the rise of Black Power and the trauma of Vietnam that threatened America as they knew it.

Earlier in that same year, Curtis Mayfield had claimed that “top billing now is killing” in his appropriately titled 1970 anthem “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Gonna Go,” and Bundini’s signifying on America’s bloodthirst for Blackness, its racial quagmire, its imperial arrogance, and Ali’s challenges to them revealed that ghosts are an appropriate metaphor with which to understand Muhammad Ali and his relationship to American political culture beginning in the Cold War 1960s and extending into the post–Cold War 1990s and the post-9/11 era. It is through the resurrection of Ali within the American imagination that ghosts and phantom pasts have been summoned and exorcised. Ghosts are the specter of the 1960s, the decade that continues to haunt the American present. Ghosts are the phantom dead in America’s Cold War against the Third World. Ghosts are Patrice Lumumba, who was assassinated, and the countless others who have died and gone nameless. Ghosts are the history of Malcolm X, the specter of Black Islam and the Muslim Third World. And ghosts are the visage of Ali, muted and tamed but still a haunting reminder of what was.

For it is through Ali that we can not only understand the history of Blackness to the Muslim Third World but also the figure of the Muslim to American national identity. His legacy is a lens through which to view the shifting ideological currents of American national identity from the Black Power era and the Vietnam War through the post–Cold War 1990s and into the post-9/11 moment. Through Ali’s legacy we can see how he became a figure who healed the domestic tensions of the “culture wars” around race and helped forge an imperial multiculturalism, a color-blind logic that served to redefine U.S. national identity and position America as the leader of the free world in its struggle against the new enemy of Islam, embodied by Samuel Huntington’s influential “Clash of Civilization” thesis.

By placing Ali’s initial conversion to Islam, his strident critiques of white supremacy, and his defiant stand against the Vietnam War within the context of Cold War liberalism, the rising tide of Black internationalism, and the influence of Malcolm X and the Muslim Third World on Black Power of the 1960s, this chapter will explore how Ali’s recuperation (p.139) as national hero in the 1990s and into the twenty-first century has signified a great deal about America’s redefinition of itself. For the United States the fears of Black Islam and the influence of the Muslim Third World on Black political culture have forced a shift from the ideals of Cold War liberalism and the “Red Scare” of communism to the post– Cold War imperial multiculturalism and the “Green Menace” of Islam, which now defines U.S. nationalism.

The recuperation and resurrection of Ali are nothing less than an attempt to celebrate and sanctify as national hero the most polarizing figure of the 1960s. And if Ali can be transformed into an American hero, then maybe the threat of Black Islam, the bitterness of Black Power, and the fears of Black internationalism can be assuaged so that the wounds of the past can be healed and American redemption can be the moral imperative for global dominance in the new American century as Islam became the preeminent threat to U.S. national security. Ali’s transformation from racial pariah to “national treasure” coincides with the shifting terrain of late twentieth-century America, when the fall of the Berlin Wall ushered in a high moment of triumphalism about America’s past and its possibilities for the future. How was the Cold War liberalism and its domestic racial complement of “Civil Rights” going to be remembered and reframed? And how would this post–Cold War moment seek to fracture the Muslim International by domesticating Black Islam and reframing America’s foreign policy toward the Muslim Third World?

Ali was the perfect vessel through which to reimagine America’s past and its future during the post–Cold War 1990s, because his redemption as a national hero has not only served to contain the internationalist impulses of Black Islam that he embodies but has also suggested that, because of his “courage,” the racism and imperialism that he fought against no longer exist. As both icon of 1960s radicalism and the embodiment of Black Islam in the post-Malcolm period, Ali is a potent vessel through which to do tremendous ideological work: to solidify simultaneously New Right discourses on race by rewriting the 1960s vis-à-vis the culture wars of the 1990s and an embrace of imperial multiculturalism; to domesticate and contain the internationalist impulses of Black Islam and its historical relationship to the Muslim Third World during a time when, through Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” thesis and the rise of the “Green Menace,” Islam and the Muslim Third World have (p.140) been viewed as the predominant threats to U.S. national security and the post–Cold War order; to cement a unipolar American triumphalism that positions America as benevolent by sanitizing U.S. foreign policy in regard to the Muslim Third World; and finally to contain America’s anti-Muslim image in the post–Cold War and post-9/11 eras.

Cash Rules Everything around Me

As an emblem of the Black liberation struggles of the 1960s, Ali embodied the combination of domestic antiracism in the United States and global anti-imperialism, particularly in light of his critiques of American imperial aggression in Vietnam. Since the mid-1990s though, Muhammad Ali has experienced an unprecedented resurgence in his visibility in contemporary culture. Having signed a licensing deal with CKX, which paid Ali fifty million dollars for an 80 percent interest in his name, image, and likeness (and which also owns the rights to the name, image, and likeness of Elvis Presley), Ali has become one of the most visible and beloved figures within the American popular landscape. Arguably the most iconic figure within all of sports anywhere in the world, Ali lit the torch at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, has been named “Athlete of the Century” by Gentleman’s Quarterly, Sports Illustrated, the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), and USA Today, has been the subject of numerous television documentaries, had his sixtieth birthday nationally televised in January 2002 in the aftermath of 9/11, was called a “national treasure” by former president Clinton, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush in 2005, and was a guest of honor at an inauguration party for Barack Obama in 2009. In addition to these appearances and honors, he is also the subject of both the 1996 Academy Award–winning documentary When We Were Kings and the 2001 feature-length film Ali, the latter by Michael Mann and starring Will Smith.

But why has there been such a sudden and immense interest in Muhammad Ali? Why has America been so celebratory of a figure that it so reviled in the 1960s and ’70s? Why was Ali, who has represented and embodied the Other like no other within the American imagination, asked to light the 1996 Olympic torch after he threw his own 1960 Gold Medal into the Ohio River because legal segregation barred him from eating in a restaurant in his own hometown of Louisville, Kentucky? (p.141) Why has he graced the cover of numerous magazines in the last few years, as “Athlete of the Century,” after his conversion to the Nation of Islam and his incisive critiques of American racism?

Clearly, Ali’s inability to speak now stands in stark contrast to his reputation for eloquence, a quick wit, and a sharp tongue in the 1960s and 1970s. And it begs the question: Would Ali be as revered as he is today if he were still able to articulate his thoughts and feelings the way that only Ali knew how? Is he less threatening now because of his silence? And has he become a signifier, an empty vessel that America can fill with its own desires and myths—a tabula rasa on which America can not only rewrite its own history, particularly of the highly contested 1960s, but also imagine its triumphalist future?

Clearly, it is important to understand the encroaching role that commodity capitalism has increasingly played, particularly in the post– Cold War era, in which market dictates have colonized and commodified dissent, stripping rebellion and resistance of their oppositional possibilities and making “revolution” a target demographic in and of itself. Ali himself has become a commodity in late-capitalist America—a cottage industry in which popular culture, Black radical chic, and opposition have converged.

Cultural critic bell hooks, in her essay titled “Eating the Other,” explores the ways in which racial difference is circulated within the mainstream media and the implications of this. According to hooks,

The commodification of difference promotes paradigms of consumption wherein whatever difference the Other inhabits is eradicated, via exchange, by a consumer cannibalism that not only displaces the Other but denies the significance of that Other’s history through a process of decontextualization.1

Hooks’s insightful comments on the commodification of difference underscore the power of commodity capitalism. But more important, in highlighting the importance of history, hooks opens up a space of interpretation to understand the contemporary manifestations of the resurgence of Black liberation struggles in general and Muhammad Ali in particular.

In building upon hooks’s evocative arguments regarding capitalism and decontextualization, we should consider Michael Eric Dyson’s (p.142) discussions of memory for a more nuanced understanding of Ali’s recent recuperation. In his work on Malcolm X, Dyson differentiates between “collective memory” and “selective memory” in his exploration of the role of historical consciousness. In doing so, he asserts that collective memory for Black peoples has been an “instrument for survival,” because it has continually stimulated and preserved Black cultural and political achievement in order to fight “against the detrimental consequences of racial amnesia represented in the selective memory of the recent past in white America.” For Dyson, selective memory (often the product of white America) “expresses the desire for reconciliation—through strategies of depoliticization and amnesia—by dominant traditions that obscure or distort the collective memory of minority traditions.”2 These processes of depoliticization and amnesia are central to an understanding of Muhammad Ali and his recent embrace in contemporary culture.

Dyson’s examination of selective memory is echoed and inflected by Herman Gray, who, in his essay titled “Remembering Civil Rights,” argues that for an entire generation “feature films, fictional television, documentaries and popular representations of blacks in contemporary visual culture are the chief means by which memory, history, and experience of the past become part of the common sense understanding of the present.” Gray suggests that contemporary television is engaged in a kind of recuperative work in which historical subjects are forced to fit the requirements of contemporary circumstance. Gray supports this view by examining contemporary television’s representations of the Civil Rights subject—what he defines as the Black, largely middle class who gained the most visibility as well as the most material and status rewards from the struggle of the Civil Rights movement—and suggests that such representations serve to “construct the mythic terms through which many Americans can believe that our nation has now transcended racism.”3

Gray’s critique of televisual history is a compelling one, and it resonates with Dyson’s idea of selective memory, both of which inform much of the complexity of Ali’s relatively recent assimilation into the American narrative. But “the Civil Rights subject,” emphasized by Gray, differs from Ali, who, in contrast, was not only part of the Black Power movement but also a Black Muslim and ideologically opposed to Civil Rights as well as the Cold War liberalism that defined the era. As (p.143) result, the meanings surrounding Ali’s contemporary reception are different. Because Ali is a Black Muslim, his recuperation as a national hero has occurred at a time when the meaning of race began to shift, as the New Right forged an imperial multiculturalism and altered the memory of the 1960s and America’s Cold War past and its post–Civil Rights present. But in addition, Ali’s recuperation is also informed by the national memory and fear around the role of Black Islam and its internationalist impulse toward the Third World more broadly and the Muslim Third World specifically, as it has challenged the containment of Black freedom within a narrative of U.S. nationalism.

Behind Enemy Lines

The day after winning the heavyweight championship from Sonny Liston, Ali announced that he had converted to Islam. The furor of a heavyweight champion converting to Islam and openly critiquing American racism was immense, particularly in light of how the Nation of Islam was seen by mainstream America at that time. With Mike Wallace’s televised documentary The Hate That Hate Produced still resonating with the American public, and with Malcolm X still a highly visible figure, the announcement of Ali’s conversion and name change created a visceral response from every corner of American society that could only be characterized as shock and awe. Endorsements and television appearances were canceled, attempts were made to strip him of his title, and prominent figures in all walks of life spoke out vehemently against him, creating a firestorm of criticism that ultimately turned the public against Ali. Numerous journalists and newscasters refused to call Ali by his new name and continued to call him Clay while disparaging him at every turn. Jimmy Cannon, a respected boxing journalist, said that prior to this, boxing had never “been turned into an instrument of hate” and that “Clay is using it as a weapon of wickedness.”4 The NAACP’s Roy Wilkins said, “Cassius may not know it but he is now an honorary member of the White Citizen’s Councils…. He speaks their piece better than they do,”5 and he held up the Nation of Islam as the mirror image of the Ku Klux Klan. Thurgood Marshall called Ali the “ugly American,” and revered former heavyweight champion Joe Louis also spoke out against him, saying that Ali would “earn the public’s hatred” because (p.144) what the Nation of Islam “preach[es] is the opposite of what we believe.”6 Floyd Patterson, the former Heavyweight Champion and a staunch integrationist, said that the “image of a Black Muslim as Heavyweight Champion disgraces the sport and the nation,” and he wanted to personally return the championship to America and Christianity, adding that “Clay needed to be beaten and the Black Muslim scourge removed from boxing.”7 Unfortunately for Patterson and his backers, Ali mocked and humiliated Patterson in their fight, battering him into submission.

While Ali’s conversion to Islam once again stoked the fears of Black Islam in the aftermath of Malcolm, public outcry against him reached its ultimate fever pitch in 1967, when he refused to fight in Vietnam. Though somehow he went from the lowest priority for being drafted to becoming classified by the U.S. government as 1A—the highest priority—after winning the title, Ali’s refusal to fight in Vietnam and his critique of an imperialist war sent shock waves through American political culture. With Malcolm X’s influence still resonating and his Muslim Internationalism defining the shape of SNCC, the Black Arts Movement, and the emerging Black Panther Party, Ali’s refusal to fight in Vietnam and his denunciation of white America and its imperialist impulses brought front and center a resurgent Muslim internationalist who rejected America’s Cold War liberalism and the Civil Rights movement’s claims on Black freedom dreams. In the view of the American mainstream, if Ali were given a platform and were allowed to escape the draft, not only would many other Black youth follow his lead, but they might also become Muslims or members of other radical organizations such as RAM, SNCC, and the Black Panther Party. And though he was ultimately stripped of his title, had his passport revoked, was unable to fight and generate income, and was facing a five-year prison sentence, Ali continued to be a lightning rod for both controversy and mobilization, for he arguably became the defining figure within popular and political culture to capture the internationalist zeitgeist.

Like Malcolm before him, Ali challenged the idea that Black freedom should be limited to and contained within the context of the United States. Ali boxed several times throughout the world, and his fights, in combination with his stand on Vietnam and his burgeoning relationships with the Third World, can be seen as stages upon which the drama of the Muslim International unfolded, as the global theater that was his (p.145) fights in Munich, London, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Kinshasa, Jakarta, and other places made Ali a figure who not only transcended America but also rallied support for himself and his cause throughout the Third World. When he made his famous remark “I don’t have to be what you want me to be,” he was directing it as much at a racist America as at Black Cold War liberals of the Civil Rights movement and mainstream Black communities. Ali embodied the rebel spirit that had also become style in the late 1960s, and in many ways he was the popular incarnation and even genesis of the “Black is beautiful” mantra, which emerged during this time.

The emergence also of a distinctly Third World Left within U.S.-based Black communities during the mid- to late 1960s and early 1970s was undeniable, especially in light of the vocabulary that Robert Williams, Harold Cruse, and numerous others crafted in the 1950s and ’60s, situating Black struggles in the United States alongside and in solidarity with the struggles of the peoples of the Third World against white supremacy. With the Black Panthers vocally supporting the National Liberation Front of Vietnam and even offering up Black men to fight as soldiers in the NLF against the U.S. military and with the influence of Che Guevara, Mao Tse-tung, Frantz Fanon, Patrice Lumumba, the Mau Mau of Kenya, and the Third World anticolonialism of Cuba, Algeria, and China, the militancy of the moment saw kindred souls in the national liberation struggles taking place throughout Africa and Asia. The “revolutionary violence” of Che, Fanon, and others captured the hearts and minds of young Black radicals in the streets, as RAM, the Black Panthers, and other radical youth within Puerto Rican, Native American, Chicano, and Asian communities formed groups such as the Young Lords Party, the American Indian Movement, the Brown Berets, and I Wor Kuen. The spirit of internationalism was endemic and widespread in the United States through the use of the Third World and colonialism as lenses to frame and understand the conditions of Black peoples in the United States. As Stokely Carmichael said, “Black Power means that we see ourselves as part of the Third World; that we see our struggle as closely related to liberation struggle around the world.”8

But more than any other figure, it was Malcolm X whose linking of the Muslim Third World of Mecca, Egypt, Bandung, and Palestine to the freedom struggles of Black people in the United States who clearly (p.146) influenced the shape and tenor of Black radical political culture in the mid- to late 1960s and on through the emergence of Black Power. Ali, who was a central figure within the unfolding drama of Black internationalism and who continued to shape and be shaped by the Muslim International, became the most visible and powerful figure after Malcolm to connect Black Islam in the United States with the larger worlds of Africa, Asia, and the Muslim Third World. Soon after winning the heavyweight championship and converting to Islam, Ali claimed that he was the champion of the whole world, and when he went with Malcolm X to visit the United Nations, he said, “I want to meet the people I am champion of.”9 Upon winning the heavyweight title, Ali went on a trip to Africa, traveling to Ghana, Nigeria, and Egypt and meeting with Kwame Nkrumah and Gamal Abdel Nasser as he solidified his place within the African and Muslim Third World, linking Black radical politics to the broader Muslim International. Because his religious conversion was the means through which he identified with the broader Third World of Africa and Asia, he would say, “Islam is a religion of 750 million people all over the world who believe in it and I’m one of them,” tapping into the same internationalist vein that Malcolm had tapped into in connecting Black peoples in the United States to the Muslim Third World of Africa and Asia.10

Mobilizing the Nation of Islam’s expanded understanding of “Black” to include anyone who is not white, Ali would later say, “Boxing is nothing, just satisfying some blood thirsty people. I’m no longer Cassius Clay, a Negro from Kentucky. I belong to the world, the black world. I’ll always have a home in Pakistan, in Algeria, in Ethiopia.”11 Not only did Ali’s ability to imagine Black belonging and freedom beyond America make him a global icon, it also brought a new dimension to the Muslim International in which performance and sport became another site to explore the possibilities of the political. For Ali was a new aesthetic of athlete, and he also represented a new aesthetic of what could be political. He redefined, or better yet broke, the mold of athletic identity, particularly for Black athletes. And he also embodied a new spirit of rebellion, one that linked new forms of self-identity with a global politics that simultaneously took shape and shaped the contours of the Muslim International and the revolutionary currents coursing throughout the globe as newly formed nation-states fought to break out of the yoke of (p.147) centuries of colonialism. When he said his infamous line “I ain’t got no problem with them Vietcong, ain’t none of them called me nigger,” Ali exposed the fundamental hypocrisy of American exceptionalism and within U.S. imperial culture.12 He would poetically and poignantly expand upon this in a speech made in his hometown, Louisville, in 1967:

Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No, I’m not going ten thousand miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slavemasters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would put my prestige in jeopardy and could cause me to lose millions of dollars which should accrue to me as the champion. But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is right here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality…. If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to twenty-two million of my people, they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. But I either have to obey the laws of the land or the laws of Allah. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail. We’ve been in jail for four hundred years.13

For Ali, despite his ban from boxing for three and a half years, the Muslim International and Black radical politics became the sites of his new struggles outside the ring, bearing witness to the truth that the battleground, as Fanon would say, is in fact everywhere. And though Ali was ultimately able to return to the ring after refusing the military draft, he lost the prime years of his boxing life. Though he had incredible moments and victories, one can only wonder what might have been as far as the ring was concerned. But his ban may have been a blessing in disguise, for he was at the frontline of a very different battle—a battle over the limits of white power and the possibilities of freedom for Black and Third World peoples worldwide. All of which continues to beg the question, what does it mean that he is so revered today, after taking the positions he took?

(p.148) (Re)Birth of a Nation

Ali’s resurrection in the 1990s coincided with the emergence of a broader set of ideological forces that erupted after decades of white backlash and state repression during the post–Civil Rights era and the expansion of U.S. empire. As a result, a resurgent American nationalism emerged that was predicated upon the creation of both domestic and foreign enemies of the state, which the “Black criminal” and the “Muslim terrorist” came to embody. On the domestic front, beginning in the late 1960s with Nixon and his “law and order” campaign and continuing into the Reagan–Bush years of the “War on Crime,” a national consensus was created that sought to link the idea of America to an implicit idea of whiteness that leaned heavily upon ideas of tradition, family, responsibility, work ethic, and character, ideas that were then molded into a larger conception of citizenship. Against this backdrop, Reagan made very coded appeals to whites by distinguishing them from and contrasting them to the inhabitants of urban America and the sensationalized fears and assumptions that were created about “Black criminality,” “welfare queens,” drug dealers, and the supposed pathologies of the inner city. In the calculus of the New Right, post–Civil Rights America had transcended race, suggesting that overt expressions or explicit appeals to race were themselves viewed as racist, ultimately nullifying and silencing those who sought to challenge the persistence of systemic forms of racism in housing, education, and the like. This had the desired effect of positioning whites as victims of policies such as affirmative action, welfare, and other social programs, a strategy that was central to the New Right and their allies who sought to continue to protect white privilege by tapping into the decades-long white anger and resentment over Civil Rights and Black Power.

On the international front, the hypernationalism of the post–Civil Rights era and the desire to restore “greatness” to America were predicated upon the fears stoked by the “Muslim terrorist.” The fear of the threat of Islam and “terrorism” to U.S. national security was fueled by the oil embargo, the Palestinian–Israeli conflict, the Iranian hostage crisis, and a deepening U.S. involvement in the Muslim Third World of Lebanon, Libya, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, and numerous other countries. With anticommunist battles being pitched in Central (p.149) America and covert wars being fought everywhere, the Muslim Third World was imagined as a region of threat, if not a proxy for Soviet influence, so it witnessed a deepening U.S. military and political presence.

But with the end of the Cold War in 1989 and in light of the domestic consensus around race that had supported the Cold War liberalism of the previous four decades, a great deal of discussion and debate occurred over who and what were going to define United States nationalism in a post–Cold War world. On the international front, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War were the cause of both a euphoric triumphalism and a tremendous anxiety that gripped the architects of American power. What would America’s role be in this new world? And if the country assumed the position of lone superpower, now that democracy and capitalism had “won,” what were the new “threats” to American power going to be? If the Cold War liberalism had assumed that communism was more of a threat to the Third World than colonialism was, thereby justifying European and American control of the Third World, what now for America’s relationship to the countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America?

What was clear, despite the ambiguity and unease, was the sense of collective triumphalism that gripped the nation. The Cold War was won as a result of what many viewed as successful American policies and interventions, and a moral flair and imperial arrogance suffused the rhetoric of triumphalism, which seemed to justify and legitimize the violence and havoc created in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. This triumphalism was reflected on the international front, with the United States’ assumption of lone superpower status, its swift victory in the Persian Gulf War, and the vanquishing of the “Vietnam Syndrome,” all of which situated America as poised to dominate the new global landscape.14 While the end of the Cold War seemed like a radical rupture from the past, a breaking point, and a clean slate, that was far from the truth, because Cold War alliances, policies, and legacies continued to play out. But as the celebrations continued, the smoke began to settle, and the fractures and fissures around the American nation began to reveal themselves.

Just as the Soviet Union and communism had created the ideological blueprint for both U.S. domestic and foreign policy during the Cold War, the singular rise of the “Green Menace” of Islam replaced the Red Scare, providing policy makers and think tanks with the ideological (p.150) impetus, contour, and purpose for reinvigorating American domestic and foreign policy. Edified and crystallized by Samuel Huntington’s influential “Clash of Civilizations” thesis, which sees Islam and the West on a collision course, as well as by the viewpoints of Bernard Lewis, Martin Kramer, and others, the American perspective came to view Islam and Muslims as the predominant threat to the post–Cold War world. For just as communism was viewed as a bigger threat to the Third World than colonialism in the aftermath of World War II, Islam has been viewed in the post–Cold War era as the biggest threat to global security and the hard-fought “gains” of the United States in the Cold War, a view that has served to justify not only the United States’ position as a unipolar leader in the world but also its continuing presence in the Third World as a bulwark against “Islamic terrorism.”

As the “Muslim terrorist” came to be seen as a foreign threat to U.S. power and the West in the post–Cold War moment, so were racial minorities, feminists, and queer communities seen as domestic threats—“radicals” threatening the coherence and cohesiveness of America and the West. In response, the New Right agenda asserted its ideological footprint with the “culture wars,” which involved attacking the legacies and gains of the 1960s by targeting multiculturalism, identity politics, and other race-, class-, gender-, and sexuality-based remedies, viewing these as threatening to national unity and “common culture.” In defending the West and seeking to redefine America, the New Right agenda cemented the triumphalism of Cold War liberalism by vanquishing America’s racist past and celebrating an idealized present through the valorization of Civil Rights and “color blindness.”

Referred to as the “culture wars,” the battle over multiculturalism and “political correctness” picked up steam in the late 1980s and was raging by the early 1990s. The tensions between a “common culture” and the “disuniting of America” through minority voices—which was called multiculturalism—became common refrains and tropes that appeared in numerous media, including television, major newspapers such as the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, and magazines such as Time and Newsweek, as well as in scholarly treaties, including Dinesh D’souza’s Illiberal Education, Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, and Todd Gitlin’s Twilight of Our Common Dreams: Why America Is Wracked by Culture Wars, to name just a few. Numerous politicians and senior (p.151) cabinet members, such as Secretary of Education William Bennett and even President George H. W. Bush, weighed in on the topic, marking the impact and sense of furor that these issues raised.

George Will, a leading conservative columnist, wrote in Newsweek magazine immediately after the conclusion of the Persian Gulf War that Lynne Cheney, who was head of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), would have a more difficult battle to fight than the one her husband, Dick Cheney, had as secretary of defense. According to Will, “In this low-visibility high intensity war, Lynne Cheney is secretary of domestic defense. The foreign adversaries her husband, Dick, must keep at bay are less dangerous, in the long run, than the domestic forces with which she must deal.”15 Emblematic of the volatility and fluidity of the post–Cold War moment, the rhetorical frameworks of newly emerging threats, both foreign and domestic, began to mirror and complement each other. On the international front, the threats to the post–Cold War order might take the shape of breakaway republics, rogue nations, and demagogic leaders, and on the home front, an unofficial civil war was being fought in the eyes of the New Right to maintain the unity of the United States and, by extension, the West. As a result, the debates around multiculturalism, feminism, and other racial and ethnic minorities were seen through the lens of global threats, as domestic complements to the fracturing and Balkanization that was perceived to be taking place throughout the world. In this way, these domestic “identity” movements were a threat to American unity and “common culture,” much like “Islamic terrorists,” the former Yugoslavia, the former Soviet republics, and other nations fracturing were a threat to the new global order being led by the United States. As a result, this American motley crew was seen as the domestic versions of breakaway racial republics, feminist rogue nations, and demagogic radicals in universities threatening the unity and hard-fought cohesion of the nation that was gained by the Cold War. In the eyes of the Right and even many liberals, such as Gitlin, Hollinger, and others, the domestic war was on—and there was a great deal at stake—nothing less than the very idea of America.

The perceived threat of multiculturalism, feminism, and queer politics—as problematic as any and all of these were in arguing ultimately for inclusion instead of fundamentally challenging the forces that led to (p.152) their exclusion in the first place—stemmed from a deep-seated white fear that these “movements” would undo the work of the New Right and fracture the social cement that has made America what it is. The calls for the inclusion of minority writers, voices, and ideas within school curricula were seen as an attack on the established literary canons and historical “truths” of the West, as minority writers such as James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Maxine Hong Kingston, among numerous others, were perceived as having politicized literature and history by pushing out the “greats,” such as Dickens, Shakespeare, and so forth, and attacking the very idea of truth and objectivity. In the minds of the New Right and their liberal accomplices, to emphasize or recenter discussions of power around gender, race, and sexuality was to privilege these other identities over and above being “American.” For, according to the New Right, who had hijacked the rhetoric of race in the post–Civil Rights era, to speak about race was itself racist, an ideology that undermined race-conscious social remedies and silenced the challenges brought forward by Blacks, Latinos, women, and others, deeming these minorities un-American and their approaches antithetical to the post–Civil Rights consensus.

The teaching of eternal values and truths was thought to be the hallmark of the West, and to include other voices and perspectives that might challenge or destabilize the master narratives of the West was seen as an attack on those values, which only served to “politicize” literature and history, and relativized “truth.” But the New Right critics of these challenges to the canons of the West (often referred to as “revisionist” by the new Right) overlooked how Blacks, Latinos, women, and other minorities sought to place literature, history, and the notion of truth within a historical and political context. Challenging the five-hundred-year celebration of Columbus’s “discovery” of the New World and critically engaging minority voices and perspectives in the discussion of literature and history were about foregrounding how power, authority, and ultimately historical “truth” were created and also about the implications this had for understanding contemporary forms of inequality. But more poignantly, these movements, at their best, sought to challenge the established canons by revealing how the universal “truths” espoused by the West are themselves marked by what critic Richard Dyer has called the “invisibility of whiteness.”16 Ironically and quite hypocritically, the (p.153) New Right claimed that these minority voices were tainted by the peculiarities of race and gender and therefore “biased.” But what the New Right critics overlooked was how the very idea of the “West” and its notions of “truth” and “objectivity” were themselves imbued with particular race and gender politics, specifically the privileging of white male perspectives, which have historically masked themselves as universal and transcendent. For what ultimately was at stake in the New Right’s calls for a “common culture” and a preservation of the West was an unspoken and deep-seated anxiety about the role of Eurocentrism in historically coding and privileging the voices of straight white males as truth telling and authoritative. These challenges, then, to the canons of literature, the notion of truth, and the force of history were framed by the New Right as an attack on not only the “dead white men” who created the West, but also on the living white men whom the New Right constructed as the victims in the Reagan era backlash against Civil Rights. In fact, much of the New Right’s condemnation of these movements was a not-so-coded criticism of the 1960s as the origin of these struggles with minorities, as that decade was consistently characterized as not only naïve and permissive but also responsible for dangerously fracturing the very fabric of the nation, which then led to the current struggles over “identity” politics that undermined the post–Civil Rights consensus that the New Right had ushered in. The criticism coming from the New Right and from many liberals was then ultimately about recentering whiteness and its invisibility, through appeals to “common culture” and “the West,” without understanding the powerful forces of slavery, genocide, and colonialism that were unleashed in the name of the West and that ultimately led to these challenges in the first place.17

Premillennium Tension

During this moment of seeming transition after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the United States sought to redefine its global military posture to reflect what it saw as a very different political order around the world. While some argued for a multipolar world, political columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote an influential article titled “The Unipolar Moment,” which had widespread support across the American political spectrum, ultimately arguing that the United States should seize the (p.154) moment and assume the role of leader in the new global environment. And with the threat vacuum created by the fall of the Soviet Union, questions arose as to who or what would begin to define this new U.S. military posture.18 Would it be a series of rogue leaders, so-called teacup dictators? Individual outlaw states? Or would there be a coherent threat, similar to the threat of communism? While debate raged, a consensus began to develop that later emerged from the buildup to Gulf War I, as the one-time U.S. ally Saddam Hussein was being compared to Hitler. Numerous influential columnists, think tanks, and policy makers began to make the argument that Islam, as the “Green Menace,” would replace the Red Scare of the Soviet Union as the new and emerging threat not only to U.S. interests but also to the ambiguous idea of “Western” values.

Like the threat of communism, this new Islamic threat was seen as spreading throughout the world and undermining Western political interests and values. Much as communism was seen as a bigger threat than colonialism to the post–World War II order that justified the European and U.S. extension of colonial rule wherever democracy and freedom were “protected,” the Islamic threat was seen as the biggest threat to the post–Cold War global order and viewed as potentially undoing all that had been gained by and for Western political interests during the Cold War. This emerging threat demanded that the United States assume a singular role in the New World Order and create new alliances, strengthen existing ones, and develop new long-term political, economic, and diplomatic strategies to “protect” the world.

As a result, think tank papers, policy conferences, op-ed pieces, and congressional hearings exploded around the idea of a new “Islamic threat,” and this, coupled with the buildup that led to Gulf War I around Saddam Hussein, signaled a turning point in U.S. post–Cold War orientations in the early 1990s. In addition to Iraq, Iran was also singled out as an emerging threat, as were the Central Asian countries of the former Soviet republics, several Arab countries, Afghanistan, Algeria, Pakistan, Sudan, Somalia, Egypt, and other so-called hot spots around the globe.

Influential policy wonks and scholars began to produce the rhetorical frameworks for the new “Islamic threat.” In 1990, an influential article titled “The Roots of Muslim Rage,” written by the veteran historian Bernard Lewis and given book-length treatment in his influential Islam and the West, stated, the West is “facing a mood and a movement (p.155) far transcending the level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue them. This is no less than a clash of civilizations—the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both.”19 In addition, Charles Krauthammer’s 1993 piece in the Washington Post titled “The New Crescent of Crisis: Global Intifada” increased the alarmist tone that was part and parcel of the moment. More telling is a 1992 Washington Post article that argues that Islam “spreads across vast swaths of the globe that can be colored green on the television maps in the same way that communist countries used to be colored red.”20 And Douglas E. Streusand, who was then at the Heritage Foundation, wrote, “A new specter is haunting America, one that some Americans consider more sinister than Marxism-Leninism…. That specter is Islam.”21

But it is Samuel Huntington’s famous article in 1993, “The Clash of Civilizations,” published in Foreign Affairs, and then his full-length book published three years later, titled The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order, that ideologically codified and gave power and sanction to the post–Cold War consensus around the “threat” posed by Islam and the Muslim Third World. Huntington’s thesis resonated with the broader political culture. In fact, it is a thesis that not only echoes but also replicates Cold War ideologies, more so than many have realized. Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” thesis (a phrase taken from Bernard Lewis’s “The Roots of Muslim Rage”) resonates with the work of George Kennan, who is often referred to as the “father of the containment policy” for America’s Cold War and whose famous anonymous piece “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” in the 1947 issue of Foreign Affairs, heavily influenced Truman, Eisenhower, and the architects of American anticommunist policy in the Third World. Kennan argued that there is an “innate antagonism between capitalism and socialism,”22 a framework that ultimately became the ideological blueprint for the Truman Doctrine and Cold War policy, and his argument included the idea of “the West versus the rest,” as did Huntington’s, revealing not only the rhetorical and ideological links between the creation of the “Red Scare” and the “Green Menace” but also the deeply held existential need and desire for a narrative of threat that could give coherence to U.S. national identity and the West.

(p.156) In his work, Huntington argued that nations, economies, and ideologies would be less important in the new post–Cold War world than civilizations, and in particular “civilizational identities.” In the euphoria that was raging around globalization, free markets, and the decline of the nation-state in the new “global village,” Huntington’s thesis strongly suggests that the belief in a global community is a fiction and that the “West” should aggressively work to protect its interests. While Huntington discussed seven or eight civilizations, he highlighted “Islamic” civilization as the biggest threat to the West, arguing, “The underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power.”23 Huntington’s deeply Orientalist framework echoes other undercurrents within American’s post–Cold War political culture. And his rhetorical flourishes about the West no doubt give pause for their sheer sweep. Whereas the idea of “the West” during the Cold War was slightly ambiguous—including as it did the United States, its NATO allies, and the colonial powers in western Europe—after the Cold War, in a unipolar world, the idea of who the West is has clearly rested more squarely on the shoulders of the United States. So Huntington’s thesis, while privileging civilizations over nations—in this case “the West” over Islamic or Sinitic (Chinese) nations—ultimately suggests that the United States, though a nation, should stand in as the embodiment of the West to protect not only its own ideals and interests but also those of the countries of Europe and their allies the world over:

[The world] is a dangerous place, in which large numbers of people resent our wealth, power, and culture, and vigorously oppose our efforts to persuade or coerce them to accept our values of human rights, democracy, and capitalism. In this world America must learn to distinguish among our true friends who will be with us and we with them through thick and thin … and unrelenting enemies who will try to destroy us unless we destroy them first.24

Clearly this line of alarmist, triumphalist, and hegemonic thinking has echoed and supported the views of many within U.S. policy circles, military agencies, and security apparatuses about the United States’ lead role in the post–Cold War world. But ultimately, Huntington’s ideas (p.157) have gained credence and legitimacy because they absolve the West (i.e., the United States and its allies) of any responsibility in creating a current geopolitical order in which massive inequality, wars, and poverty exist. Consistent with the post–Cold War triumphalism that sought to reinscribe American exceptionalism, Huntington saw poverty, war, and massive inequality as the result of intrinsically different—and even deficient—civilizations and their values. His ideas have ultimately become an uncritical endorsement of power and the status quo, because he refused to see the heterogeneity within and among groups and completely discounted what Edward Said argued is “the bewildering interdependence” of humans, ideas, and the march of history.25

In addition, what is interesting and often overlooked in Huntington’s work is his argument that uniform and cohesive states are stronger than those that are composed of different civilizations. In arguing this, Huntington warned America that the influx of immigrants and the various debates around multiculturalism challenge the uniformity of what it means to be American, which echoed and underscored many of the New Right “culture warriors.” He asked, “Are we a Western people or are we something else?” And he continued, “The futures of the U.S. and of the West depend upon Americans reaffirming their commitment to American civilization.”26 Clearly Huntington viewed the success of American hegemony—in particular over its archrival the “Islamic world”—as deeply intertwined with domestic questions about America’s own sense of itself and its ability to maintain a coherent “civilizational identity” amid the battles raging around race, gender, and sexuality, which have challenged the post–Cold War consensus.

In fact, as the new national Other of Islam and the Muslim Third World began to crystallize in the post–Cold War moment, U.S. nationalism, instead of seeking to subsume its racial differences within a national framework, sought to celebrate and fetishize difference as the basis of a reinvigorated U.S. expansionist posture in the post–Cold War era. This new imperial multiculturalism ultimately maintained the traditional relations of power, with whiteness still being the invisible norm (and what Huntington might have meant by a “civilizational identity”), as the celebration of a multicultural United States gave moral sanction and ethical legitimacy to the country as a global superpower. In very specific ways, imperial multiculturalism reinvigorated in a new era the (p.158) older arguments of American benevolence that arose in the post–World War II moment. But instead of the racial liberalism that defined U.S. Cold War policy against the communist “menace,” the new imperial multiculturalism assumed the logic of Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” thesis and projected a multicultural America as an entity against the panracial enemy and threat of Islam.

With the United States embodying the West, its renewed and redefined multicultural identity has echoed and edified American exceptionalist ideas about the country’s role and position in the world. As the United States has sought to protect the world from the supposed threat of Islam and the Muslim Third World, the new multicultural and cosmopolitan nationalism has positioned the United States as a representative embodiment of the world, giving it an implicit mandate to lead and dominate in the post–Cold War moment. Imperial multiculturalism could then disarm critics of U.S. foreign policy, intervention, and war by appealing to the democratic and pluralistic image of the United States, thereby suffusing U.S. policy with a moral righteousness and a benevolent flair.

But with the country’s peculiar history of slavery, which continues to haunt any semblance of U.S. triumphalism, Blackness continued quite predictably to play a central role in the reconstitution of the United States in the 1990s. The use of Blackness as an imagined symbol of democracy has its roots in the U.S. Information Agency’s Cold War propaganda campaigns and the widespread belief that Jim Crow and segregation were America’s Achilles’ heel in the Cold War, as racial violence on Black peoples was seized upon by a skeptical Third World. As a result, Black faces were strategically placed in positions of visibility, for as Adam Clayton Powell told Eisenhower, “One dark face from the US is of as much value as millions of dollars in economic aid.”27 As the United States worked to frame itself as a racially harmonious place during the era of decolonization, the racial liberalism of the Cold War placed Blackness front and center, and so did the imperial multiculturalism of the post–Cold War era.

Whether it was the meteoric rise of Colin Powell as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George H. W. Bush or the emergence of Denzel Washington in the 1990s as the paradigmatic cinematic citizen–soldier (Glory, Courage under Fire, Crimson Tide, and The Siege) (p.159) that paralleled Sidney Poitier’s appeal during the Civil Rights era, the embrace of Blackness signaled a shift in the politics of race in the post–Cold War moment. But it was the embrace of the Black Muslim Muhammad Ali as national hero that arguably did the most penetrating ideological work. As the United States redefined its national identity through the idea of multiculturalism and against the new threat of Islam and the Muslim Third World, the embrace of Ali sought to domesticate Black Islam, as he became a central component in the drive and desire for consensus. And in the highly celebrated 1996 film When We Were Kings, Ali became the proxy for reconstituting America in this troubling and telling moment.

When Were We Kings?

Winner of the 1996 Academy Award for Best Documentary, When We Were Kings captured the famous 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” fight in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), between champion George Foreman and challenger Muhammad Ali. As suggested by its title, the film is framed as both a triumphalist “Back to Africa” narrative and a celebratory “Black Power” spectacle of the 1970s, as it carries a nostalgic impulse behind it, suggesting an idealized preslavery Africa that attempts to tap into and unites the anticolonial nationalisms of Africa and the Black Power movement in the United States. Even though both movements had for the most part been destroyed and their utopian possibilities undermined by the CIA and FBI, respectively, as well as by U.S. Cold War policies, When We Were Kings nostalgically and awkwardly tries to rekindle that spirit of those movements with its pastoral, exoticizing, and even romanticizing images of Zaire/Congo. Including an all-star concert of Black performers from throughout the diaspora, such as James Brown, B. B. King, Miriam Makeba, Celia Cruz, Bill Withers, and the Spinners, the narrative arc of When We Were Kings follows the charismatic Muhammad Ali as he tries to regain the heavyweight championship for the first time since it was stripped from him for his refusal to fight in Vietnam in 1967.

Throughout When We Were Kings, the fight as event is played as a Black Power spectacle back in the motherland of Africa. There is footage of Ali on the plane to Zaire/Congo marveling at Black pilots on (p.160) a Black airline, the reception of Ali at the airport, the support of the people during his stay in Africa, and various talking heads, including Don King, George Plimpton, Norman Mailer, James Brown, and others who consistently reference and talk about the significance of the fight in racial terms. But in the end, the Pan-African and Black Power veneer is just that, for Ali and the rest of the players in the film are deafeningly silent on the political history of the U.S. involvement in Zaire/ Congo. By the time of the film’s release in 1996, it ultimately plays as imperial cinematic wish fulfillment, celebrating America’s Cold War liberalism not through the typical narrative of Martin Luther King and his “I Have a Dream Speech” but instead through Muhammad Ali, who came to embody the ideal of Black Islam after Malcolm. As a result, When We Were Kings resonates deeply with a sense of post–Cold War U.S. triumphalism, as the country was reflecting on its past in order to define itself for its future as the lone superpower in a unipolar world.

In fact, the film’s Pan-African veneer serves as a substitute for any substantive engagement with the political and cultural context of the fight, sidelining any real engagement with larger political concerns. And even though the film centers on Ali, a purportedly politicized figure, there is very little engagement with him and his political voice. Yes, Ali is shown speaking, with his monologues and soliloquies meant to convey his wit and his outspoken persona. And though fragments of Ali speaking about race fall into thematic line with the film’s celebratory Black spectacle, they are substituted for any real engagement with the setting and context of the time period of the fight—namely, 1970s Africa and the immediate post–Black Power period in the United States. Without placing Ali’s few and brief comments about Africa or Black peoples in the United States within this larger framework, the film ultimately relegates those comments to the status of Ali’s other rants in the film, from his joking with Howard Cosell to his mocking of George Foreman and even his monologue about the importance of dental care for young children. In keeping with the general apolitical nature of the film despite its Pan-African veneer, the presentation of Ali is as a character, not as a figure of tremendous ideological import who fundamentally altered the political landscape in the mid- to late 1960s.

In addition, the political history of Zaire/Congo is never dealt with. And when we consider the central place that the anticolonial movement (p.161) played in freeing the Congo, not only within the Afro-diasporic imagination, but also within American Cold War designs, this silence is all the more troubling. As the first democratically elected prime minister in the newly “independent” Congo of 1960, Patrice Lumumba was a hero not only to the African continent but to the whole Third World. He represented the defiant utopian possibilities of anticolonial nationalism and the spirit of Bandung. But the Congo was the richest country in natural resources on the continent of Africa and perhaps in the world, making Lumumba a man with many enemies. Viewed by the U.S. security establishment, namely, former CIA director Alan Dulles, as “Castro or worse” in 1960,28 Lumumba would write in his last letter from his prison cell, “We are not alone. Africa, Asia, and free and liberated peoples in every corner of the globe will ever remain at the side of the millions of Congolese.”29 Within ten weeks of being elected as prime minister, Lumumba was kidnapped, after which he was kept in hiding and, following a brief escape, brutally assassinated at the behest of the American CIA.

The worldwide reaction from the nonwhite world was stunning. Not only did Black peoples in the United States storm the United Nations building in New York, with street clashes breaking out, but also Third World communities in Europe, as well as Asia, Africa, and Latin America, vehemently protested and challenged their leaders to raise the question of Lumumba’s ouster and assassination in international forums. In fact, Malcolm X continued to raise the issue of the Congo even after Lumumba’s assassination, calling out the CIA and their support of Moise Tshombe and Joseph Mobutu (who was head of the military at the time) several times in the context of American imperial aggression in the Third World. Malcolm X said, “Lumumba [is] the greatest Black man who ever walked the African continent.”30

With American and European leaders bombing the Congo in the years after Lumumba’s assassination, Joseph Mobutu seized power there in 1965 with the backing and support of the United States and was viewed as “the most important piece in the jigsaw of U.S. Cold War strategy.”31 Known as “America’s tyrant,” Mobutu began to “Africanize” the country in the late 1960s and early 1970s, changing the country’s name to Zaire in 1972 and the capital from Leopoldville (after the former colonial Belgian king) to Kinshasa. Mobutu also changed his own name (p.162) to Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wu Za Banga, a symbolic rebirth that linked him to the newly born nation-state of Zaire. As leader, Mobutu was immensely corrupt and brutal, as he and his backers raped the country, making him one of the seven wealthiest men in the world. And at the time of the “Rumble in the Jungle,” in 1974, the United States was still providing Mobutu with bodyguards.32

But When We Were Kings contains very little regarding any part of this history. Except for a quick montage that links Black protestors in the United States during the Civil Rights movement with a brief history of the Congo and a brief but telling glimpse of Lumumba in handcuffs when he was arrested by the coup leaders and described as a “Red,” When We Were Kings ultimately reveals its ideological orientations by implicitly endorsing the United States as a moral force of good around the world. That the iconic Civil Rights moment had passed (both in 1974 when the fight took place and in 1996 when the film was released) When We Were Kings positions the United States and its Cold War involvement in the Congo as just. By linking the overthrow of Lumumba as a “Red” with the images of Civil Rights protesters in the United States, not only does the film endorse the logic of Cold War liberalism, which thwarted Third World decolonization and Black internationalist impulses by tying Civil Rights to anticommunism, but it also positions the United States as a benevolent beacon of democracy and human rights by suggesting that the overthrow of Lumumba and the installation of Mobutu were justified.

So despite the blind euphoria about a Black Power celebration in Zaire at the time of 1974’s “Rumble in the Jungle,” Ali’s refusal in the film to speak out about this history and the United States’ role within the Congo seems incredible. Why would he remain so silent about all that was happening? Considering the climate of the 1990s and the post–Cold War ideological battles that were raging around America’s Cold War past and its role in the future, we get a better sense of why this film was so celebrated and perhaps how to better understand Ali’s silence. As the cultural critic Grant Farred points out, Ali “prais[ed] the post-colonial world fulsomely. His endorsement of Africa was not only a demonstration of loyalty to the Third world, but it was also an articulation of his opposition to the American mainstream.” Farred continues by saying, “Ali understood how his critiques would resonate for (p.163) mainstream America—it would confirm their Orientalist perceptions and implicitly make him a traitor to the Third World nation-state.”33

If Farred is correct that Ali was silent because he did not want to confirm the “Orientalist” stereotypes that the American mainstream held of the Third World, then in 1990s America—let alone 1974 America—this silence is profoundly problematic, because it actually confirms what the American mainstream believes about American exceptionalism and the United States’ relationship to the rest of the world. That is, to a triumphalist American nation, When We Were Kings confirms that if there was a relationship between the United States and Zaire, then it was a benign and benevolent one—a political, economic, and diplomatic relationship that benefited both countries and spread democratic rule in Zaire. And if Mobutu was ruthless, it was not because of America’s involvement in the overthrow and murder of Patrice Lumumba and the United States’ central role in installing and backing Mobutu when he seized power, but rather because of the political immaturity of Zaireans in particular and Africans in general. In this way, When We Were Kings absolves America and also Europe of any complicity or responsibility in the Congo’s affairs, suggesting that Mobutu’s style of leadership was a result of a “backward,” “violent” country, confirming to a post–Cold War American audience what they are already inclined to believe about the Third World in general and African states in particular.

Almost more troubling is that American Cold War policy had a logic of its own. That is, if in fact there was a deep and violent relationship between the United States and the Congo (which there was), then it was a price worth paying, because it was the lesser of two evils—either support a dictator or endure “communism” and Lumumba in the Congo. This was classic Cold War logic in the era of decolonization, a logic that argued that communism was a bigger threat to the Third World than colonialism and ultimately that true democracy, decolonization, and Third World sovereignty had to be sacrificed in the interests of global capitalism and the spread of American-style rule.

When We Were Kings uses Mobutu’s treatment of “criminals” to try to show him as a feared and repressive leader. But for an American populace weaned on the fears of “Black criminality” in the “War on Crime” sagas of the Reagan–Bush–Clinton 1980s and 1990s, that characterization of Mobutu wouldn’t necessarily position him as repressive but rather as (p.164) rational and right. The documentary doesn’t tell us who these so-called criminals were, nor does it give us any idea about the dissidents, political opponents, critics, and activists who were being silenced, imprisoned, tortured, and killed by Mobutu in order to maintain power and order for his international backers. In fact, it is the figure of Mobutu—“America’s tyrant”—who literally and ideologically contains everyone in the film because of the fear he inspired. In this way, Mobutu, as proxy, is the conduit for American imperial power and the simultaneous erasure of America’s role in the Congo.

Farred also astutely points out that Ali’s radical outspokenness made him a hero of the Third World. And when he went to Africa and Asia, he was not only embraced by the people but also inadvertently gave legitimacy to dictators such as Mobutu, Suharto, and Marcos and deflected their actual relationships with the United States. Farred argues that Ali gave Third World nations “an artificial unity,”34 which in turn silenced dissent and political opposition in the period leading up to the fights in Zaire, Indonesia, and the Philippines.

When seen through the lens of When We Were Kings, Ali’s refusal to speak is disheartening, in the 1970s, the 1990s, and even now. Ali had always spoken truth to power, sifting through the ideological rubble and galvanizing the antiwar and Black Power movements in the post-Malcolm phase of the mid- to late 1960s. He had made some of the most astute and insightful political observations of the Johnson and Nixon regimes, yet in Zaire, Indonesia, and the Philippines, he couldn’t—or wouldn’t—craft a critical political vocabulary that simultaneously positioned him as a Third World populist and also critiqued dictatorial rule and puppeteering for U.S. Cold War interests. Instead in When We Were Kings, Ali is the rebel without a cause—silent and muted, a posture that anticipated his place in post–Cold War and post-9/11 America.

In When We Were Kings, Ali says, “Look at George—he’s an American.” But in 1990s America, so too was Ali. In 1974 though, the distinction Ali created between himself and Foreman was part and parcel of his strategy for almost all of his fights, particularly when it came to Black fighters. They were the establishment; Ali the rebel. They were Americans; Ali was Black Power. They were Toms; Ali was the Field Negro. But in the 1990s, through America’s embrace of Ali and the lens of color blindness, that moment of When We Were Kings seems so anachronistic, (p.165) so out of place. For both Ali and Foreman seem like Black men from America going into that Heart of Darkness—and like Conrad’s Kurtz, Ali was supposedly the skeptic. But in the 1990s, the film positions Ali as unaware of the history of the Congo, about Lumumba, America’s Cold War designs there—or even the worldwide uproar over Lumumba’s forced and violent removal from power and his brutal and ghastly murder with the backing of the CIA.

Ultimately When We Were Kings is celebrated because Ali is seen through the lens of color blindness and the prism of the neoconservative thought that reframed the 1960s and Black Power as a failure and Civil Rights as the pinnacle and endpoint of race in the post–Cold War moment. And when the challenges to white privilege and historical truth erupted in the early 1990s through the “culture wars,” history—we were told—is told from the perspective of the victors, and we should all accept it. Not simply a history told about “dead white men,” but a history and a present told through living white men about everyone else.35

The End of History?

In many ways, through his embrace as a national hero, Muhammad Ali has come to embody the reinvigorated ideal of U.S. national identity in the post–Cold War era. By suturing the gap between 1960s racial discontent and 1990s multicultural consensus, Ali became the rallying point and the redemptive figure who healed the open wounds of the 1960s and their ideological legacies that erupted in the 1990s around “identity politics,” multiculturalism, and the challenges to the white power that America is predicated upon.

In this way, the embrace of Ali stood as a national rejection of Black Power politics and an uncritical endorsement of Civil Rights, because Ali came to embody a redefined U.S. nationalism, healing the wounds of the nation’s troubled past while being the redemptive figure who has helped America transcend its racist legacy. That Blackness, and in particular Ali’s radical past, would become a unifying force in the era of imperial multiculturalism in many ways anticipated the Obama presidency by presenting America as an inclusive and enlightened place, on a linear and evolutionary trajectory toward national self-realization. In (p.166) this way, nostalgia and America’s collective memory of Ali have made him an icon for an era when America was coming to terms with its racial politics, and because of his courage, America is now a better place, able to transcend the limits that its own racism once imposed upon it. Ali is therefore lionized as a hero, someone who represents both a bygone era and the possibilities for a progressive future one.

Ali’s recuperation as national hero in many ways paved the way and became the symbol for a broader redefinition of U.S. national identity around this new imperial multiculturalism, reemboldening and reinvigorating U.S. foreign policy in the post–Cold War moment when the U.S. security state declared that the “Green Menace” of Islam and the Muslim Third World are the new enemy that would define U.S. national identity even before 9/11. But in this new global order that the United States claims to defend, Ali’s embrace as a national hero reveals troubling issues around the history and legacy of Black Islam and Black internationalism. For it is through Ali that the United States sought to domesticate Black Islam and strip it of its internationalist impulses, and fracture it from the larger Third World of Africa and Asia. For just as Cold War liberalism fractured the Black Left and its internationalist impulses from the Third World by imagining “Negroes as Americans” and tying Black destiny to the American national project through an embrace of anticommunism and Civil Rights, the embrace of Ali as a national hero suggests something similar in regard to the history of Black Islam and its relationship to the Muslim Third World in the post–Cold War era.

Despite the repression of the Black Left brought on by the Cold War and its racial liberalism, Malcolm X and Black Islam continued the tradition of linking Black liberation in the United States with the Third World and providing a trenchant critique of U.S. domestic racism and its imperial foreign policy, viewing that policy as an extension of European colonialism. Ali was an extension of this tradition that Malcolm established as part of the Muslim International, a tradition in which Black Islam saw the Muslim Third World of Mecca, Bandung, Egypt, Algeria, Iraq, and Palestine and their political orientations and anticolonial struggles as deeply informing Black liberation struggles in the United States. By viewing Islam as the link between Africa and Asia and between Black peoples in the United States and peoples in the broader Third World, Ali, like Malcolm and the history of Black Islam, tied (p.167) Black political fate not to the U.S. nation-state but to the fate of the peoples in the Third World.

The embrace and recuperation of Ali as a national hero in the 1990s, then, sought to domesticate and contain Black Islam within a U.S. nationalist framework and to fracture Black Islam from the larger Muslim Third World, undermining and weakening the possibilities of the Muslim International. In many ways, embracing Ali and domesticating Black Islam were direct responses to the deep imprint and influence that Black Islam has left on Black political culture in the post–World War II era, whether it be through Malcolm X and his Muslim Internationalism, through its influence on RAM, SNCC, and the Black Panther Party, or through figures and movements such as Fanon, Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Bandung Conference, the poets and writers of the Black Arts Movement and more recently of hip-hop culture, in which Black artists defiantly challenged U.S. racial domination, militarism, and imperial power. For Black Islam became a significant vehicle toward an expansive Black internationalism that not only challenged the containment of Black freedom within United States institutions and frameworks but also refused and resisted Black underwriting and sanctioning of U.S. foreign policies and empire building.

By embracing Ali as a national hero, domesticating Black Islam, and undermining its desire to imagine Black freedom outside the United States, the post–Cold War consensus sought to destroy a historical legacy in which Black Islam provided a framework for Black redress, such as when Malcolm X made a call for “human rights” over “civil rights.” Equally important, the embrace of Ali and the containment of Black Islam fractured it from the politics of the Muslim Third World, betraying a whole legacy in which Black political culture and the Muslim Third World were deeply intertwined. The post–Cold War moment sought to create a context in which Black political culture in general and Black Islam specifically viewed the Muslim Third World as not only having no bearing on Black freedom but as antithetical to it. By stripping Black Islam of its internationalist legacy and seeking to contain the imagining of Black freedom beyond the United States and in solidarity with Africa and the Muslim Third World, the new post–Cold War consensus sought to tie Black Muslim freedom to the project of U.S. nationalism at a time when the United States has been at war with the (p.168) Muslim Third World, fracturing and undermining the possibilities of the Muslim International.

While Black Islam has long been held captive within a U.S. nationalist framework, a prisoner to the larger edifice of post–Cold War empire building, the post-9/11 moment has only served to intensify the U.S. security state’s containment of it. As the post-9/11 climate sought Black sanctioning and underwriting of U.S. imperial policy and empire building in the Muslim Third World under the guise of the “War on Terror,” the fears of Black Islam and Black internationalist postures toward the Muslim Third World have sparked tremendous national anxiety. For just as the United States sought to contain Black radicalism through mass incarceration in the post–Civil Rights era, so has it reanimated its carceral imagination in the post-9/11 era and returned to the prison as the site within which to crack down on and destroy the historical legacy and interpretive possibility of Black Islam.


(1.) bell hooks, “Eating the Other,” in Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston: South End Press, 1992), 31.

(2.) Dyson, Making Malcolm, 148.

(3.) Herman Gray, “Remembering Civil Rights: Television, Memory and the 1960’s,” in The Revolution Wasn’t Televised: Sixties Television and Social Conflict, ed. Lynn Spigel and Michael Curtin (New York: Routledge, 1997), 350–56.

(4.) Quoted in Marqusee, Redemption Song, 9.

(5.) Quoted ibid, 9.

(6.) Quoted ibid, 9.

(7.) Grant Farred, What’s My Name? Black Vernacular Intellectuals (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 35.

(8.) Carmichael, “Black Power and the Third World,” 91.

(9.) Quoted in Farred, What’s My Name? 53.

(10.) Quoted in Thomas Hauser, Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991), 82.

(11.) Quoted in Marqusee, Redemption Song, 175.

(12.) Quoted in Farred, What’s My Name? 33.

(13.) Quoted ibid., 215.

(14.) See George Herring, “America and Vietnam: The Unending War,” Foreign Affairs, Winter 1991/92, accessed on July 11, 2011, www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/47440/george-c-herring/america-and-vietnam-the-unendingwar.

(15.) Quoted in McAlister, Epic Encounters, 245.

(16.) See Richard Dyer, White (London: Routledge, 1997).

(17.) See David A. Hollinger, Postethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism (New York: Basic Books, 2000); Todd Gitlin, The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America Is Wracked by Culture Wars (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1996).

(18.) Charles Krauthammer, “The Unipolar Moment,” Foreign Affairs: America and the World, 1990–91, accessed on July 11, 2011, www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/46271/charles-krauthammer/the-unipolar-moment.

(19.) Bernard Lewis, Islam and the West (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 60.

(20.) Quoted in Leon T. Hadar, “The ‘Green Peril’: Creating the Islamic Fundamentalist Threat,” Cato Policy Analysis 177 (August 27, 1992), accessed on July 11, 2011, www.cato.org/pubs/pas/pa-177.html.

(21.) Quoted ibid.

(22.) “X” [George F. Kennan], “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.”

(23.) Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, 217.

(24.) Quoted in Robert Kaplan, “Looking the World in the Eye,” Atlantic (December 2001), accessed on July 11, 2011, www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/2001/12/kaplan.htm.

(25.) Edward W. Said, “The Clash of Ignorance,” Nation (October 22, 2001), accessed on July 11, 2011, www.thenation.com/article/clash-ignorance.

(26.) Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, 307.

(27.) Quoted in Von Eschen, Race against Empire, 148.

(28.) Quoted in Kegan Doyle, “Muhammad Goes to Hollywood: Michael Mann’s Ali as Biopic,” Journal of Popular Culture 39, no. 3 (June 2006): 398.

(29.) Quoted in Ludo de Witte, The Assassination of Lumumba (London: Verso, 2001), 185.

(30.) Malcolm X, By Any Means Necessary, 64.

(31.) Doyle, “Muhammad Goes to Hollywood,” 398.

(32.) See ibid., 383–406.

(33.) Farred, What’s My Name? 245.

(34.) Ibid., 246.

(35.) In fact, When We Were Kings embodies this through a narrative device, telling the fight in flashback primarily through the experiences of two white men— Norman Mailer (of “the White Negro” fame) and George Plimpton—for they become the frame and lens through which we “remember” Ali and the tumultuous period of the 1960s and early 1970s.