Saturday, November 4, 2023

Q&A with Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith


Randy Roberts



Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith are the authors of the new book Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X: The Fatal Friendship. It's a young readers' adaptation of their book Blood Brothers. Author and editor Margeaux Weston also contributed to the young readers' edition. Roberts' and Smith's other books include A Season in the Sun. Roberts is the 150th Anniversary Professor and Distinguished Professor in Purdue University's history department. Smith is the Julius C. "Bud" Shaw Professor of Sports History and associate professor of history at Georgia Tech.


Q: Why did you decide to create a young readers’ edition of your book about Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X?


RR: We thought it was a good story at this moment in time. These are two of the most dynamic, articulate people—next to Martin Luther King Jr., I would put these two. It’s a story of friendship, and why people divide. It really would appeal to young readers.

Johnny Smith


JS: I would echo the point that it’s timely. If you read the words of Malcolm X, he talks about resistance, about police brutality, he resisted inequality, it’s relevant to today. There’s an urgency in America, and this story speaks to it.


RR: These are persistent problems. What we’re going through today, we have gone through before. We have to be willing to speak out, or we can slide backwards.


Q: So that leads into another question: what do you hope readers take away from this version of the book?


JS: I want young readers to see the particular story of Cassius Clay becoming Muhammad Ali. He’s a self-defining man—he resists the establishment in the world of sports. He’s asserting a certain degree of freedom, but there are limits on his freedom. He followed Elijah Muhammad [of the Nation of Islam], although over time, Ali would break away from Elijah Muhammad.


A real point young readers can take away is that throughout history there are powerful Black folks who used their platform for change. Kids of all backgrounds can learn from this. Our sports world has never been divorced from this issue.


RR: We don’t know who the next leader is going to be. Muhammad Ali was dyslexic, not a student, but he became one of the most important, dynamic speakers of his age.


Q: How would you describe the relationship between the two men?


JS: When Cassius Clay first met Malcolm X in 1962, he introduced himself and said, “I’m Cassius Clay.” Malcolm X didn’t know who he was. It shows that his focus was on growing the Nation of Islam.


Malcolm begins to see the potential of the boxer, and in the talent of Cassius Clay to grow the audience of the Nation of Islam in embracing Black nationalism.


Also, Malcolm begins to question the nature of the Nation itself. He’s bringing Cassius into the fold while he has doubts about the leadership of Elijah Muhammad.


When Cassius Clay wins the championship, Malcolm was on the outs with Elijah Muhammad. Cassius Clay has to make a choice—Elijah Muhammad or remain at the side of Malcolm X. It’s complicated—the politics of the Nation of Islam, of the civil rights movement, hammering away at the relationship. You can’t escape the pressures from the political side.


RR: Young adult novels often revolve around hard choices. We know in hindsight which way Ali went, but for young readers, there are a lot of hard choices to make.


Q: What would you say are some of the biggest changes between the two versions of the book?


JS: This was our first attempt to write a book for a younger audience. We give full credit to Margeaux Weston—we learned a lot collaborating with her.


The biggest change was the language. In the original book, there’s violence in the boxing ring, in the streets through the South. It takes experience to know how to communicate to young readers, and how to communicate difficult conversations around race in America.


Young people need to know these stories. There are no two better icons to teach them about the civil rights movement than Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali.


RR: Margeaux helped us so that for young readers, it’s more in their language, not a historian’s language. It’s shortened, but not dummied down.


Q: What are you working on now?


RR: Johnny has a book coming out, and we’re working together on a book about Joe Louis and World War II. It deals with many of the same things as Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X.


JS: We’re really excited about the Joe Louis book. It will be our fourth book together. It’s a great partnership—so far Blood Brothers was the most successful. The value and joy of collaborating with Randy is that an idea becomes not just Johnny’s idea or Randy’s idea but our idea.


You have to find subjects that excite you. The life of a writer can be lonely. But it’s been a great journey writing stories with Randy.


RR: Sometimes you’re going to the archives or to a distant town—it’s so much more enjoyable to have a colleague.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith.

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