by Steve Corbett – Gonzo Today Contributor
Raising white-taped fists as fast as a whiplash, Muhammad Ali leaned close to me, contorted that famous face and threw a crushing question.
“Did you just call me nigger?”
Stunned by Ali’s staggering verbal blow, I shook my head, lowered my hands and stood speechless.
Putting on a soft smile, Ali turned away, slipped on his boxing gloves and strolled to the Reading, PA, ring to fight a three-round exhibition bout with Billy “Thumpin” Hines, a Black state prison inmate serving a life sentence for murder. Later that year, in September 1977, Ali beat Ernie Shavers in a brutal 15-round decision to retain his heavyweight title.
Back then I worked at the State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill as a drug and alcohol counselor. I also briefly worked there as a boxing instructor and sparred a couple of rounds with the killer.
Decades later I read how Ali unloaded the same hot question he threw at me when he encountered other white reporters during his legendary career and life fighting racism and oppression.
Ali’s message remains tattooed in my brain.
The N-word has knockout power.
White people aren’t supposed to use the word. I adhere to a voluntary ban and stay away from the slur in radio or television interviews about my novels, Blood Red Syrah and Paddy’s Day in Trump Town. That makes talking about the relevance of the books difficult. My stories attack racism. And my white racist characters drown in their use of the word.
My self-imposed ban also makes it impossible to quote Ali.
Nigger also exists as a term of defiance. Black people who use the word understand the extreme difference in usage from those who denigrate them with hatred, superiority and white supremacy. America needs all the Black men and women we can get to reclaim the word, turning oppression around on whitey.
Either way, using the word as a weapon is a powerful assault – in my case a way to pummel racists and racism. I deliberately wrote every letter of the word to convey the depth of my characters’ evil.
If you’re smart you’ll learn from me the way I learned from Ali. And you’ll do something about people who stab Blacks behind their backs with a word that feels like needles stuck into a beating heart. My books about white injustice and tribal ethnic hatred are about us. If we ever hope to evolve, we need to know what goes on inside dangerous minds.
Although my novels require depictions of physical and emotional violence, too many knee-jerk liberal readers reject reality-based conflict. Too many otherwise bright readers turn away from graphic depictions of racism, sexism, homophobia, animal cruelty, physical violence and other abhorrent human behavior.
Some publishers now hire sensitivity readers to screen novels for any cruel portrait of life and death. They snub characters and drama that might upset readers. I alone create characters and plots about crucial discord. I am my own best sensitivity reader. What I need – what all writers need – are readers and thinkers sensitive enough to face the failings of our increasingly volatile society and take action to change the system for the better.
In Blood Red Syrah and Paddy’s Day in Trump Town (Avventura Press) I gave life to outrageous characters to illustrate the mean-spirited prejudice that infects countless people across the country. My depiction of white identity should grate against goodness and make decent readers uncomfortable. Black readers and other people of color might feel particularly uncomfortable.
Please stay in the fight the way Ali stayed in the fight.
As for white folks, it’s always best to face the haters in books before you face them at work, across the dinner table at home or, worse, in the mirror.
I learned a priceless lesson when I went nose to nose with Ali.
The Greatest’s best punch was the mighty hammer of truth.