Louisville’s Ali

My husband jokes that living with someone from Louisville is like living with a Canadian, our accents are slightly off and the minute you mention anything with a possible connection we jump to point it out. “Oh, you like to watch the news? Did you know that former anchor Diane Sawyer is from Louisville?”

We are tribal, we travel in a pack. The first time I took my husband to New York to meet some of my Louisville friends he was excited to find out that someone else also had a new boyfriend. He thought there’d be someone else not from Louisville. Except, our tribe prefers intra marriage. The friends I took him to meet were my best friend from high school, his boyfriend (now husband), who was my college roommate, his sister, who had been best friends with his boyfriend since middle school (where I met her). Oh, and her new boyfriend (now husband) also from Louisville.

When we took our baby daughter to meet her these friends my husband joked, “Well, finally, I have someone else not from Louisville.” My roommate cradled my daughter and looked in to her eyes, “Hmph,” he said, “not really.” I think it made my husband nervous.

My college roommate? His sisters live next door to each other back in Louisville. His husband? For a long time his older brother and mother lived next door to each other in Louisville. My friend’s husband? I grew up down the street from his first wife, her brother had been best friends with my roommate’s now deceased boyfriend. Don’t try and follow, there’s no need, we know who we are.

There is plenty to be proud of in Louisville: Churchill Downs and the Derby, Frederick Law Olmsted designed parks, the Louisville Cardinals. The Hot Brown sandwich was invented in Louisville, as was Benedictine spread (look it up). According to some, the cheeseburger was invented in Louisville.

Jennifer Lawrence is from Louisville, as are Tom Cruise and Ned Beatty. Hunter Thompson was from Louisville, and so was Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis (also, a Jew, so double bragging points for me).

Our main claim to fame though is Muhammad Ali.

When I was five my family lived in Tanzania. I remember going to the market with my mother. “Where in America you from” The man asked. “Louisville, Kentucky,” my mom answered. “Oh!” He said, a smile widening his face, “Louisville, Ali, yes?” He did a quick boxing jab, “ALI!”

Ali was our pride and joy.

I am not naive about Louisville and Ali. It was a Louisville restaurant that refused Ali service causing him to toss his Olympic Medal in to the Ohio River. Although Kentucky remained part of the Union, Louisville has the Northernmost statue to the Confederate dead. It is just now, in 2016, being removed from the campus of the University of Louisville. When I was in college the dorm closest to the statue was finally renamed, it had been Confederate Hall. A dorm where African American students were expected to live was called Confederate Hall, in 1988.

Another Louisville Olympian, Mary T. Meagher, trained at a segregated pool blocks from my home.

I’m sure to this day there are those back home who are angry at Ali’s refusal to be drafted, angry at his conversion to Islam, angry at his holding a mirror up to the ugly side of Louisville, the ugly side of the country.

But for most of us, he was our pride and joy.

If you drive around Louisville you’ll see big signs with famous Louisvillians. They say  “Bob Edwards’ Louisville” “Jennifer’s Louisville” and of course, “Ali’s Louisville.” They don’t direct you anywhere, they don’t point out different points of interest, they just command you to look. This is what we make in Louisville, what does your city do?




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