Rewriting Ali: Me, We

August 4th, 2012


Never read a Jonah Lehrer book, peeped a James Frey lie, or knowingly bookmarked a Jayson Blair article. While fraud soaks the roots of some great literature, the truth is always better, even if/when it shakes our realities.

Alex Haley’s Roots calls into question the Autobiography of Malcolm X (Exhibit A). But like Martin Luther King’s “long arm of justice,” truth is an enduring friend (or patient foe).

Muhammad Ali must have known this when he was out reciting “his” poetry, some of which he most likely did not write. He made a name for himself by mastering the sweet science, he impressed with his sweet poetry, but he became legend for his strong moral stance.

It’s why Mos Def, I mean Yaslin Bey, channels the champ with dramatic flair. In the new Louis Vuitton ad, he pays homage to Muhammad Ali’s slick-talk and biting wit by reciting Ali’s poem known as Rumble In The Jungle, which was designed to taunt George Foreman before the big 1994 fight in Zaire.

Mr. Def stands in the center of a boxing ring for a bout of Ali-inspired spoken word, while artist Niels Shoe Meulman paints the canvass with the word, “Word.” It’s nicely shot and well done.

But Ali’s other poem would have been well-used here. His biggest piece of work was also his smallest and least provocative. A little two-piece that went like this:Me, We.

Much has been made of the Champ’s quotables. Here are a few of his most known, courtesy of Jorge Rivas at Colorlines. But even there, his Me, We was sidestepped in favor of some of his other zingers.

Journalist George Plimpton laid out the scene when he first heard the poem on When We Were Kings. As Plimpton tells it, Ali was delivering a Harvard commencement speech, when someone shouted, “Give us a poem.” And everyone quieted down. Ali’s poem was, Me, We.  See video below.

But Ali may not be the author of the greatest poem of all times. Gary Belkin, who was a comedy writer for Sesame Street and the Carol Burnett Show, claims to have ghost-written the words.

In an interview with The New York Press in 2002, he describes a scene where he argued with Plimpton over the claim. And then he explains how he later saw Plimpton re-writing history.

“Years go by, and I’m watching the Ali documentary When We Were Kings, and there’s Plimpton quoting Ali by reading one of my poems,” Belkin said. “He didn’t even do the poem right.”

The shortest poem in the English language up to that point was The Antiquity of Microbes, which was likely written by Strickland Gillilan depending on who you ask. It went like this:

Adam Had Em!

Shel Silverstien, a poet in the order of Theadore Geisel, wrote the same poem with the title Fleas. Microbes? fleas?  Did Mr. Silverstien Plagerize? Or, a remix perhaps?

In the case of Ali, he is no Jonah Lehrer or James Frey. While he is most widely credited for writing the poem, he likely did not. For most who were inspired by Ali, it is more important that he was the one who said it, that he took the thing and spread it to the world. The poem represented him and all that he stood for, one representing many. The people’s champ.

And I wish Mr. Bey would have recited this poem in the commercial, instead of reinforcing his trivial trash talk. After all, he was a man who floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee. But he will really be known for his fighting philosophy:










3 Responses to “Rewriting Ali: Me, We”

  1. M Rubin says:

    The poem, in fact, was not “me, we” – rather it was, as Gore Vidal recalled “Me? . . . Whee!” with a rather elongated “ee” sound (“wheeeeee!, perhaps making it not so short after all). I know this for certain because (a) I was among the 1100 folks present; (b) I recently listened again to a tape of the entire speech and Q and A session during which Ali recited the poem; and (c) Ali introduced the poem by stating “this poem explains how it feels to be as great as me. This is it:”

    Ali is many things to many different people. The different versions of the poem that have appeared over the years reflect the different views people have of the Greatest of All Time – Ali the Humanitarian (“me, we”); Ali the narcissist (“me, oui”). And, who knows? — Ali is/was certainly clever enough to recognize the versatility of the sounds in his poem and may have delivered it with different intent and meaning on other occasions. But on the day he made the poem famous, he clearly intended to express the joy of having a life well-lived

  2. Dona says:

    It is very interesting how the interpretation affects the words. I liked M. Rubin observations about the different perceptions people can have of Ali’s words. However the intended meaning, the union of this two words is powerful.

  3. Estella says:

    Ali — the Fighter/Poet
    Ali — the Poet/Fighter
    Ali — Me/We.
    Sums it all up in just a breath. I am you and you are me.

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