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Herbert L Calhoun
- Publié sur Amazon.com
This is one of those rare books bought for one reason and then one discovers later that there are larger reasons that entirely eclipse the original ones. To my great surprise and delight, it turns out that this book is as much about the international politics of race and ideology as it was about pugilism. Thus this is not just a report on a one-round boxing match heard around the world, whose outcome in any case is well known by most even before reading the book: Louis beat Max Schmeling with such a vicious attack that it broke several ribs and had many observers thinking that Joe Louis Barrow must have been a man possessed by demons. No, it is not a story just about that one-man, two-minute demolition squad, but about the state of the world as seen through the eyes of a skilled biographer of sports history. And about his views of what the fight meant to two competing societies.
The stage for this, the second of the two fights between two "intellectually challenged" protagonists, could not have been more pregnant with meaning or more heavily imbued with dramatic significance. At the time the world community was deep in the throes of an international depression, in which images of male impotence abounded. Boxing loomed large as a surrogate to fill the gap of male lost self-esteem and as a "stand-in" for national virility among men with bruised, diminished and weakened egos. Thus the gladiators in the ring of Madison Square Garden on the night of June 22, 1938, were part of the global pre-fight between German Nazism and American democracy. For the multitudes on both sides of the Atlantic with lost jobs, and lost self-esteem, boxing: male power, mano-y-mano, framed an essential aspect of the national identity.
Nazi Germany and "democratic" America became engulfed in, and swept up by the emotional hysteria of the Max Schmeling-Joe Louis fight. To both nations it was not just a defining moment in history, but also a showcase of the defining qualities of their respective political systems: their ideologies, their ways of life, and the meaning of boxing to their respective societies. In short, the fight took on a distinctive life of it's own. It was a "hyper reality" in which both fighters had a lot to prove. Even as a winner, who was "on the down side of" a career that included having won the world Champion in 1930 while still being "counted out" on his back, Schmeling, as a winner of the first fight, still had as much to prove as Louis did as a loser: Schmeling had to prove that his win over Louis and his earlier Championship belt were not flukes. Louis had to prove that they were.
As far as German domestic politics were concerned the stakes also could not have been higher. At the 1936 Munich Olympics, Jessie Owens, another Black American, had severed the proverbial racist limb Hitler had so boastfully but precariously "walked out on." Owens had single-handedly embarrassed Hitler's claims of Aryan racial superiority by winning four gold medals. Lucky for Hitler, Schmeling, had that very same year, won the first fight against Louis, and had in part restored if not completely redeemed this Munich lost of face. By unexpectedly beating Louis in a 12-round knockout, the Owens insult and Aryan lost of face, had not only been redressed, but had made Schmeling the temporary reigning hero of Nazism.
For the U.S domestic situation, the fight was a great deal more complex than it was for Germany. And my hat goes off to the author for making a heroic effort to finesse the many glaring challenges and contradictions the fight presented to an American nation only slightly less racist than Nazi Germany. Just like as was true for Jews in Germany, racism was the defining quality of a vicious caste system based on race for Blacks in America. It seems more than just a little ironic that Louis, a black male, was thrust onto the international stage to carry the mantle of male virility for a Nation that hated blacks with a passion. It was not unlike asking Frederick Douglass, a runaway slave to speak on behalf of the Fourth of July celebration at Rochester New York's Constitution Hall in 1852. Although Louis was probably the perfect vehicle for doing so, white Americans still remained ambivalence and very nervous about "having to root" for a Black male symbol of American virility and as the hero of their nation at a time that the male ego was so diminished. The specter of Jack Johnson and his wife wives and consorts running around the country like he was King of the world, kept agitating and haunting the collective American mind. Most white Americans, including Jews (who were a fixture in the boxing world as its managers, owners, agents, and trainers), were thus caught like a vise grip between their own white supremacist views, their visceral hatred of Negroes, and the anti-Semitism of Hitler.
The author nevertheless proved his mettle and that he was up to the task of this rather profound challenge and the mental and literary jujitsu needed to carry such a narrative forward without injuring American sensitivities and sensibilities, or indeed doing further harm to the U.S. image of those (and these still) embarrassing times. With timely changes in voice, and in the names given Louis (depending on the context Louis was referred to in no less than 16 different ways, as: "our Joe," the Black people's champion, the Black Champion, a credit to his race, the chocolate champion, an American hero, the Brown Bomber, a champion of democracy, the first African American Superman, African American folk hero, an anti-fascist hero, American Champion, an American icon, a symbol of African American political awakening, or the first African American hero seen as an American standard bearer, to he's no Jack Dempsey or Gene Tunney), Erenberg was largely able to avoid a head-on collision between American racism against Blacks and Hitler's racism against Jews.
Altogether, the politics of race on both sides of the Atlantic made the fight such a complicated affair for the American mind to process, that the fight itself almost became anti-climatic. President Jimmy Carter in recalling this fight, recounts what happened in his hometown of Plains Georgia, where, while two Negroes were invited, as many as fifty showed up on his family's front porch to listen to the fight on radio. Once Louis had Ko'ed Schmeling in one round, the Negroes all quietly and respectfully returned to their homes on the other side of the tracks, whereupon all hell broke loose in a paroxysm of jubilation that did not stop until daylight.
But as the author skillfully notes, as heavy and as palpable as the racial message was, and given that race in America trumped nationhood, the larger backdrop for this fight was international rather than domestic politics. On the global scene, these fighters were nothing if not proxies for their respective political systems, which at that very moment were making preparations for the Second World War. Thus in this larger sense, for one day, the boxing arena became a mere prelude to a multigenerational struggle between America's racist Democracy and Germany's racist Nazism. The question the fight begged for the American racial caste system was: How could "Hitler's racist Nazism" against Jews be wrong and "America's racist democracy against blacks be right?"
Even though Hitler and Nazism have been gone for more than half a century, and America is on the verge of electing its first black President, that question still remains an open and an unanswered one for American society. This author nevertheless did his job well. What a worthy effort. Fifty stars