Author and activist Mike Marqusee passed away on January 13. A common theme in the obituaries was that he was a writer of remarkably diverse interests. Marqusee himself wondered if this wide-ranging nature of his work would lead specialists to discount it. But one specialist in a subject he covered, the history of sport and race in the 1960s, answers to the contrary: Marqusee was a journalist whose work is respected by scholars, and a scholar whose work is loved by students.
The news arrived by Facebook post that Mike Marqusee had died, losing his battle with cancer at the age of 61. Historian David Roediger shared the obituary written by Colin Robinson for The Guardian. Sitting no more than six inches away from my computer was a copy of Marqusee’s book Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties (1999). The book had yet to make it back on the shelf after the fall semester. As in years past, it had been on the students’ reading list for my seminar, “Race, Sport, and Society.”
To anyone with eclectic tastes, Marqusee’s writing career was enviable – his work moved among subjects as varied as cricket, art, music, and Zionism. “He sometimes speculated that such eclecticism resulted in his work being undervalued by specialists,” Robinson writes in his tribute. “If that was true, those in error failed to see how his range of interests often enabled one sphere of knowledge to provide an exhilaratingly original insight into another.”
Robinson’s words describe exactly the riches of Redemption Song. While Marqusee wrote buckets of good stuff, it is his book on Ali that will remain at center stage for me. As I wrote last spring for the Journal of American History, in an essay on the state of the field of sport history, I can think of no other book that better demonstrates the power of scholarship about sport.
Without question, to write about the history of boxing is to enter a rich field of work. Relatively early on, Elliot Gorn’s work on boxing showed just how beautifully sport history could transcend sport itself, particularly in revealing the cultures of racial politics. For the vigilant scholar, boxing offered a range of consequential racial dramas populated by a series of prominent athletes. Whether reading Randy Roberts’s carefully researched histories of Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, and Joe Louis, or Michael Ezra’s more recent take on Ali, work on boxing has enabled sport history to take seriously topics that range from masculinity to national identity to – of course – violence.
At the center of the scholarship on boxing, and on sport in general, stands Muhammad Ali. A complex and colorful character who came to personify an era of domestic and global revolution, Ali – arguably the most renowned athlete the world has ever seen – has been at the center of so many celebrated works, from Gorn’s edited collection Muhammad Ali: The People’s Champ to David Remnick’s smart biography, King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero.
Marqusee the eclectic writer not only ventured into this rich field of boxing scholarship, he doubled down and wrote about Ali. His work stands alone. Marqusee posed Ali as a gateway to the radical politics and culture of black life in the 1960s, offering a spectacular panorama of the era, from a history of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam to the influence of Malcolm X and pan-African ideologies on militant black movements in the U.S. For Marqusee, the only Ali that mattered was the radical Ali, a figure who helped fuse the rising militancy of Black Power with the growing tide of anti-war sentiment. In contrast, the Ali who stood in Atlanta in 1996 to light the Olympic flame, the Ali who accepted a new gold medal to replace the one from the Rome Olympics, which he allegedly had thrown into the Ohio after being refused service at a restaurant, did not matter. For Marqusee, this newly imagined and patriotic Ali could not, and should not, overshadow the combative politics that were so entrenched in his coming of age as an athlete. In Redemption Song, Ali stands tallest as the young man who transformed himself from Cassius Clay into something America had never seen before. Marqusee’s book is near flawless in presenting the life of this athlete as the ideal window to view a decade of social turmoil.
To say that Redemption Song blows students away, each and every semester, would be a gross understatement. In addition to their love of the book’s central characters, their awe and admiration for Ali, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, and so on, they are in wonderment of the book, a reaction that can be hard to get from undergraduates. They are amazed by what they take away from reading it. They are amazed by how much more they know because they have read it.
Without question, Redemption Song will remain on my syllabus for many semesters to come. And while Marqusee’s career has been sadly cut short, there is no doubt that his legacy is clear for anyone interested in thinking about sport in historical, political, social, and cultural terms. Rest in peace, Mike.
Amy Bass teaches history at The College of New Rochelle. She is author of Not the Triumph But the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete, and earned an Emmy Award in 2012 as supervisor of the Research Room for NBC’s Olympics coverage. Amy tweets at @bassab1.