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Journal of Asian American Studies 4.3 (2001) 193-208
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"The Asiatic Black Man":
An African American Orientalism?
In 1966, a group of reporters in Miami asked Muhammad Ali, then the heavy weight boxing champion of the world, what he thought about the Vietnam War. In what would become the most famous of his many public statements concerning the war, Ali responded: "Man, I ain't got no quarrel with the Viet Cong." 1 Later, in an interview with Sports Illustrated, Ali expressed his solidarity with the Vietnamese people in racial, political, and religious terms: "Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs? . . .I either have to obey the laws of the land or the laws of Allah. I have nothing to lose by standing up and following my beliefs. We've been in jail for four hundred years." 2 For his refusal to don an American uniform, Ali was sentenced to five years in prison, received a ten thousand dollar fine--the maximum possible--and was banned from boxing. Later, the Supreme Court vindicated Ali, but not until three and a half years of his boxing career had already been lost to the ban. 3
Today, thirty years later, Muhammad Ali is remembered for being one of the most powerful "voices in the wilderness" against the Vietnam War. Less known are the complex ideological and historical currents within the Nation of Islam which informed Ali's understanding of the relationship between what he called the "brown people in Vietnam," and the "so called Negroes" in America. The Nation of Islam, to which Muhammad [End Page 193] Ali belonged, has had a long and profound engagement with a variety of Asian groups and individuals and, like its fellow African American Muslim group, the Moorish Science Temple, has itself embraced an "Asiatic" identity. As Muhammad Ali declared while on a Louisville radio show: "I am not a Negro. . . I am Muhammad Ali. . . And I am an Asiatic black man." 4
Allah's Asiatic Army
In order to better understand the genealogy of Ali's statements from the 1960s, we must turn back the clock to the early 1940s, to a man whom Ali referred to as "the Messenger of God": Elijah Muhammad. Like his future disciple, the prophet and long time leader of the Nation of Islam was arrested for refusing to serve in the American military. On December 18, 1942, Muhammad was sentenced to one to five years in federal prison by the U.S. District Court in Washington D.C. Transcripts from the trial reveal the degree to which Elijah Muhammad's attitudes towards the Japanese presaged Muhammad Ali's feelings of solidarity with the Vietnamese. According to government sources, the Nation of Islam leader declared to a gathering in Chicago on August 9, 1942, that: "The devil [i.e. white people] will trick you into believing that you will have to fight for him, but don't pay any attention to him. His time is up. You should pay no attention to what he says about registering for the draft because he can't force you do to a thing. His laws don't mean a thing." On August 16, he announced: "The Japanese are brothers of the black man," and on August 30, he stated: "The Asiatic race is made up of all dark-skinned people, including the Japanese and the Asiatic black man. Therefore, members of the Asiatic race must stick together. The Japanese will win the war because the white man cannot successfully oppose the Asiatics." 5
Elijah Muhammad's view of the Japanese as "Allah's Asiatic Army," as he put it, may be traced to several interrelated factors. During the first half of the twentieth century, Japanese military victories over Western nations inspired a sense of pride among many non-white observers. After the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05...