The Soul of a Butterfly, by Muhammad Ali and Hana Yasmeen Ali, Read by Ossie Davis and Hana Yasmeen Ali, Simon & Schuster Inc., 2004
Like many, I was stunned to see Muhammad Ali lighting the torch in Atlanta at the 1996 Summer Olympics. He’d been out of sight so long that his shaking, palsied appearance was a reminder of his illness and his actions were a testament to his remaining strength and durability. Seeing him, I felt my eyes tear up in both sadness and hope.
Which makes this book such a disappointment. I wanted to enjoy The Soul of a Butterfly more than I did, because I, like a lot of people, have warm feelings for Ali. This is in part because he’s been such a long-standing fixture as long as I’ve been alive and also because he’s clearly a sweet, good person. But like many uplifting books, Butterfly just isn’t that interesting.
I don’t mean to imply that interesting equals a string of tragedies, but like many a book subtitled in such a Chicken Soup fashion (Reflections on Life’s Journey) this one is filled with exhortations to never let go, never give up, keep on chasing that rainbow, etc. etc. ad nauseum. That kind of thing is inherently dull, unless you are some sad sack in the market for some uplift. When Ali says he was forced to choose between following his head and following his heart and that he chose to follow his heart, that’s all fine and good, but that’s the kind of thing typically said by people who’ve had more success in life than failure. If you chose to follow your heart and ended up a quadruple amputee, chances are you often think bitterly how much better it would have been to follow your head.
When Ali late in the book muses about whether or not he is beloved enough to walk through the Sudan and convince people to lay down their arms and come to a peace equable to all sides, it is a bit of cringe-inducing naivete. “If you keep a positive mind and optimistic outlook on life, negativity loses its power to make you unhappy,” sounds all fine and good and would fit on a coffee mug, but it is a hair simplistic happy talk when people are coming at you with machetes.
It’s impressive that Ali can remain so upbeat, so positive in the face of his affliction with Parkinson’s, and it’s touching that he wrote this book with assistance from his daughter. But neither of those things makes this book better than it is, nor as good as it could have been. Someone who has lived through as much as Ali, who’s been as involved in civil rights struggles, the Olympics (twice), professional boxing, a Supreme Court battle, the Special Olympics, and with peace organizations, has an interesting, even compelling story to tell. But this book does not tell it.
Which is not to say that The Soul of a Butterfly is uninteresting. For those who know little of Ali’s life, growing up after his heyday, it’s entertaining to hear it firsthand. Of course, celebrity autobiography are always suspect for their narrower focus than an outsider’s view, but there is an intimacy in a self-told story that is impossible to replicate. It’s a peek behind the curtain and that always has its appeal.
And so we are told of how the theft of Ali’s bike when he was a child prompted him into boxing. He tells of going to a local policeman to report the crime, then sobbing to the officer that he’s going to whip whoever stole the bike. The policeman, who ran a gym teaching kids to box in his spare time, opined to Ali that he better be able to fight before he went around making threats. Thus, The Greatest Boxer of All Time was born. In a time of racial segregation, there is an especially confidence-building first fight against a white boy, which Ali wins handily.
This led into what is perhaps Ali’s seminal childhood moment, challenging the neighborhood bully. The lesson, he tells us, was to face down your fears. If you lose, you know you weren’t strong enough, and if you win, you know you were. Better to know than to crawl in the state of dread, uncertainty haunting you. “We are only brave when we have something to lose and we still try,” Ali writes. “We can’t be brave without fear.” This overcoming of fear allows him to fly in a plane, despite his fears, to Rome to participate in the 1960 Olympics.
An amusing anecdote from Ali’s visit to New York on the eve of his departure for Rome, is that for a boxer so well known for his footwork in the ring, Ali can’t dance, a fact exposed in Sugar Ray Robinson’s nightclub in Harlem. Later when Robinson blows him off outside his club, Ali vows that when he becomes The Champ he will never turn fans away, especially children. He recognized then and now that even if athletes are not the ideal choice for role models, society makes them into objects of admiration to children. Becoming The Champ carried with it a burden of responsibility, he notes. Would that more ephemeral celebrities recognized such responsibility.
What’s interesting to note is how little throughout the book Ali discusses what occurs in the ring. Of his fights, we are only ever given the buildup to them and maybe one or two small facts about them, like how he ran right out and hit George Foreman immediately in their fight. But there is no in depth consideration of what he’s most famous for. The book is primarily about Ali’s spirituality and only sketchily biographical where those details are illustrative of the more religious points he’s making.
There is very little in Ali’s spiritual conversion to Islam that is particularly fascinating or mind-blowing. Ali claims at one point that he’s no Islamic scholar and his recreations of the points made by certain speakers don’t go beyond the why-is-Jesus-always-painted-like-he-was-white level. If you have even a thumbnail understanding of the Nation of Islam, there are very few surprising twists to this story. Of course, as an atheist, I’m perhaps less the audience for this kind of conversion and enlightenment tale than many others. Ali’s Islam nowadays is of the mainstream Sufi sect, perhaps the most lyrical and beautiful of that religion, and he speaks more in terms of spirituality than religion per se.
There are occasional quotes of poems Ali likes and ones he wrote which would probably be better left out, as they have a terminal weakness for easy rhymes and simple couplets. He is also a bit too self-congratulatory for my tastes, but what can you expect from a boxer once nicknamed The Mouth. Of course, as he once said, “It ain’t bragging if it’s true,” so there you go. He does address this quality, claiming it was his way of getting people’s attention so he could propound his real agenda: his beliefs of acceptance, black pride, peace, love, and determination. Consider him in relation to Mike Tyson who boxes to beat the hell out of people or George Foreman who apparently used boxing as a springboard to the lucrative career selling grills.
The recently deceased Ossie Davis, while a fine actor, was perhaps a poor choice for reading audiobooks as his patented gravelly bass became progressively rougher and more phlegmatic as each chapter moved along, at times a husky whisper or distempered growl. This grumble does at least lend what might be cornball homily a certain rough-hewed beauty. As an interesting sidenote of coincidence, Davis died the same day as Max Schmeling, the Nazi boxer who lost to Joe Louis in their second bout.
The inclusion of snippets of reflections on Ali read by his daughter Hana Yasmeen Ali, in fact all the parts she reads, don’t seem to serve any real purpose at all. One wonders if this was the bulk of her contribution or if she had other editorial duties. She pops up and gives us a couplet, a paragraph, a tiny anecdote, unattributed Sufi wisdom, and then we’re back to Davis’ reading of the main text. There’s no point and they’re just sort of distracting from the story, like little interruptions by a child.