At Home and Abroad: Cooper Harriss on Muhammad Ali image
S3 E4 · Interactions – A Law and Religion Podcast
At Home and Abroad: Cooper Harriss on Muhammad Ali
22 Plays
10 months ago

There are few figures so engrained in pop culture and world history like Muhammad Ali. Along with being one of the best professional heavyweight boxers in history, Ali was a civil rights and anti-war activist, a follower of the Nation of Islam, later converting to Sunni Islam, an author, and an artist.  Beyond these titles though, Muhammad Ali stands as this almost mythological figure; a symbol, supported by all the literature, films, theater, and artwork that exemplifies his life and impact. It’s like Muhammad Ali always said, “I am the greatest.” 

In our finale, Matt Cavedon and Ira Bedzow speak with Cooper Harriss of Indiana University. Harriss is an associate professor in religious studies and an adjunct professor in comparative literature, folklore, and ethnomusicology. His research focuses on the relationship between religion and major cultural figures in American history, and how they defined the culture then as well as today. Harriss has written about Ralph Ellison, Kurt Vonnegut, Nat Turner, Zora Neale Hurston, and Muhammad Ali. 

In his essay, “On the Abroad of a Different Home: Muhammad Ali in Micro-Scope,” Harriss uses the history of the athlete, as well as how his life is represented in media, to explore how the selectiveness of identity can paint specific pictures of an individual. The three begin by discussing why Harriss chose to write about Ali, explaining how Ali acts as a symbol for post-war American religion. The conversation then shifts into the art meant to illustrate the life of Ali, from work that highlights a certain span of time, such as all the film biopics that follow Ali between 1964-1974, to work that focuses on a specific moment, such as in Will Power’s play Fetch Clay, Make Man. And along with discussions of how white popular memory and black popular memory remember Ali, as well as the ways “irony” and “double cross” relate to the athlete, the three consider the question: How do we explain our identity, or is there no such thing; only perception?

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