Down the River: Muhammad Ali threw his Olympic Gold Medal into the Ohio


Sketch for art installation at Weston Gallery

For several years now I have been angry with myself and with my fellow humans. We don’t have what it takes to address the critical issues we face with each other and with the species with whom we share a planet.

Charles Perrow is a Research Scholar and Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Yale and a Visiting Professor at Stanford. At his May 2012 presentation at Carnegie Mellon, I asked him point blank, “Of all the animals on the Earth, why are we the only ones who jeopardize the survival of every living creature?” He responded to me, “The human brain is wired for short-term survival. Our only hope lies with a long-term institutional mission, and it’s capacity to expand our vision, one that encompasses how we humans impact the quality of our air and water.”

The U.S. Coast Guard has a reporting system for chemical, solid waste, and oil spills called the National Response Center—a 911-call center for our waterways. Looking at the Center’s reports, there are enough incidents in a year to fill any map, and these are just the ones that get reported. Even with the Clean Water Act in place since 1972, we continue to dirty our water. If we look back another hundred years or so, our waterways, and in particular, the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, were sullied by pollution of another kind: human trafficking. To this day, “sold down the river,” implies forcible separation from family, certain hardship, and even death. Water is indeed a vehicle for slavery while the converse, “up the river,” translates into being shipped off to prison.

On my first visit to the Weston Gallery I saw the public library’s “Cincinnati Panorama of 1848.” An interactive map provides a guide to the edge-to-edge illuminated photographs of the Ohio riverfront. Pressing a button reminded me that in 1848, the river separated not just geographic states, but the states of being a slave and of a free man. Having read “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” aloud with my family as a kid, I stood there thinking of Huck saying, “We would sell the raft and get on a steamboat and go way up the Ohio amongst the free States, and then be out of trouble.”

During my childhood, Mohammed Ali was the subject of many impassioned conversations in my suburban New Jersey home, as my father greatly admired his integrity and the guts it took for him to object to being drafted into the Vietnam War. Furthermore, one of Ali’s urban legends caught my attention. Shortly after returning home to Louisville, Kentucky with a 1960 Olympic Gold Medal, despite parades and fanfare, Ali was refused service at a local drugstore counter. A white motorcycle gang chased him and a friend out of the store and onto the road. The story concludes with Ali throwing his beloved medal into the Ohio River in disgust. It just so happens that 1960 was also the year my parents married. My Italian father from Brooklyn barely “passed” for white with his father-in-law who was from Georgia. Nothing about race was clear, except that Ali and Huck Finn’s voices started to shape my worldview. That was very clear.

Today I study databases and the news as much, if not more, than paintings in museums.  A glance at Google Maps tells me that Ferguson, MO is not far from the Mississippi. I have the tools to map out toxic dumping on riverfronts—and to illustrate how the senseless deaths of young black men geographically and historically connect with the United State’s slave trade.

This is not a graceful narrative; it’s a combination of things, 1-2-3, which are happening in my world at this time. This is my America.

Posted in Digital Art, Race and Environment, Site Specific Installation, The Weight of Water, Water and Environment. Comments Off on Down the River: Muhammad Ali threw his Olympic Gold Medal into the Ohio
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