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After the death of Muhammad Ali, Bob Costas, moralistic blowhard, decided he needed to set the record straight on Cassius Clay, a complicated Kentuckian who turned against slavery even though he was born into the slaveholding class. Costas needed to call Clay an abolitionist. Ta-Nehisi Coates rebukes Costas, noting correctly that Clay was not an abolitionist, but rather a complicated individual who bravely moved against slavery, even though it was against the interest of his class and society, even while he was still actually selling slaves.

Even as Clay freed those people whom he personally held enslaved on his estate, he “retained in slavery a number of Negroes who were attached to the estate without being his personal property.” When you are black and your namesake is literally a slave-holder, there is nothing ironic about calling it a “slave name.”

Now, I find Clay heroic. Clay did not ask to be a slave-holder. He was born into slave-holding and, at great financial loss to himself, freed those he personally held in bondage. This was not a small thing—collectively, enslaved people, represented the greatest asset in the country at that time. Clay, himself, took a $50,000 loss—in 1860 dollars—in order to live out his principles. He went even further—loudly denouncing slavery as evil, and thus constantly courting danger. This isn’t enough for Bob Costas. Clay can’t be a brave and complicated human. Clay has to be the wholly innocent, wholly righteous white guy in the black movie.

But Muhammad Ali would not define himself through Clay’s legacy. Ali was more interested in the legacy of Emily, the enslaved woman whom Clay sold away. That was the entire point of Ali changing his name. Unfortunately none of that could save Ali from Bob Costas’s need to be all loud an the smug of chorus of “Well, actually…” that must dog us all into our very graves.

Coates really sums up the problems with Costas, who it sounds like will mercifully retire soon. I know I just can’t wait for his simplistic monologues during Olympics coverage this summer…

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