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The rise of boxer Joe Louis

This is an excerpt from Sport in America, Volume II by David Wiggins.

As musicologist Paul Oliver argues, Louis's heroic climb from the cotton fields of Alabama to boxing fame encapsulated the appealing drama and seeming invincibility of traditional African American ballad heroes like John Henry. Indeed, Louis was the only Depression-era athlete that popular blues artists commemorated in recorded songs. As a man who faced the prospect of punishment alone in the ring, he enacted through sport the same kinds of struggles confronting many of his fans. Houston singer Joe Pullman's recording, entitled “Joe Louis is the Man,” was the first song to honor Louis's toppling of Carnera. Although Oliver describes Pullman's creation as a “naïve piece of folk poetry,” it captured the essence of Louis as the archetypal New Negro. While revering the Bomber as “a battlin' man,” it also noted that he was “not a bad dressed guy,” and that even though he was “makin' real good money,” it failed to “swell his head.” Just as Pullman celebrated “powerful Joe” in his performance, the husky-voiced Memphis Minnie McCoy of Chicago recorded “He's in the Ring (Doin' the Same Old Thing)” as a tribute to Louis's two-fisted “dynamite.” The mix of Memphis Minnie's throaty lyrics, her guitar, and Black Bob's pounding piano emphasized the indestructibility of Louis, who knocked out his opponents with remarkable consistency to the delight of his poor and working-class fans. As a rallying point for black communities across the nation, the figure of Louis served to unite the ethereal realm of diasporic politics with the everyday troubles of African Americans.

Louis received a hero's welcome from the black community at Grand Central Station in New York City in the middle of May 1935. As the black press included photos of Louis in chic suits enjoying the finer things in life like driving brand-new cars, he moved beyond his station as prizefighter to become both celebrity and socialite.64 His bodily display of impeccable fashion was one of the most integral aspects of his gendered performance of black pride, since it allowed him to transgress racial norms, moving beyond the ubiquitous black identity of poor worker to showcase his wealth and individuality. One black correspondent praised Louis for looking the part of fistic champion in “his street togs,” while another carefully itemized the boxer's wardrobe of a “dozen suits, nine pairs of shoes, two dozen shirts, 100 neckties, ten hats, six coats and countless sweaters, zippercoats, [and] suits of underwear and pyjamas.” Likewise, newspaper ads for Murray's Pomade, a popular hair straightener, reinforced Louis's reputation for being not only a great fighter but also “one of the best dressed men in America.” As the text of the advertisement claimed, Louis strived to be “well-groomed” both in and out of the ring. The company encouraged the reader to support Louis and to buy their product, since doing both would enable a man to take on the young boxer's power and panache in his everyday life. As the consummate New Negro, Louis reinforced his manhood through his prodigious consumption and street-hip style, offering an optimistic vision of the possibilities of black urban America.

Part politician, part pop idol, and part philanthropist, Louis spent a busy week in the Big Apple meeting with civic leaders like Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia, shaking hands with boxing legends like Jack Dempsey, and attending a series of charity benefits. Trading in his trousers for workout gear four times a day, Louis also starred in a promotional, vaudeville show at the Harlem Opera House, scoring one of the biggest draws in the history of the theater. With a kick-line of pretty dancing girls in the background, he sparred, skipped, and punched the heavy bag to the delight of packed houses. However, the respite was short-lived. With only a month left before the Carnera fight, Louis left for his training camp in Pompton Lakes, New Jersey.

Black correspondents painted an idyllic picture of the countryside estate where Louis prepared for battle, emphasizing its connections to old American gentility, while also touting its modern conveniences. Celebrating Louis's role as the temporary master of the “Big House,” they cloaked him in a mantle of both bourgeois respectability and technological efficiency. According to local lore, George Washington had slept there, and black writers claimed that Louis now occupied the same room where the first president had stayed. Reputedly “one of the most famous fistic training grounds in the world,” the camp was “[n]estled in a nature-scooped nook of the Ramapo Mountains,” yet close enough to the city of Patterson to offer all of the amenities of rural and urban life combined. Although Louis spent most of his days working out, in his few moments of leisure time he supposedly enjoyed freshwater fishing, boating, golfing, and even horseback riding. The training camp itself became an expression of not only Louis's nobility and modernity, but also the dignity and advancement of his people.

More Excerpts From Sport in America