Wednesday 30 March 2011

Book Review of In Black and White: The Untold Story of Joe Louis and Jesse Owens

There are few biographies that opt to feature a parallel chronology of the lives of two people. Such are the demands placed on the author to deliver a meaningful enough summation on one character that the addition of a second seems at once a daunting, near impossible concept.

In many ways such an undertaking will lack a central focus unless both protagonists are linked inextricably in their raison d'etre or their rivalry or other binding phenomena as were say Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin. Both of the subjects must be similar yet paradoxically they must be sufficiently dissimilar, if not discordant, in order for the author to wax and weave grandiloquent on coincidences and ironies which will litter the narrative.

Award winning sports author, Donald McRae chooses this format for his recently released treatment of the life and meanings of two of the greatest sporting icons of the twentieth century; Joe Louis and Jesse Owens. For if Muhammad Ali and Pele bear the mantle of greatest athletes in the second half of that century, then as surely Louis and Owens bestride the first fifty years.

Joseph Louis Barrow and James Cleveland Owens were born eight months and a few miles apart in the southern state of Alabama. They would die a year apart, Owens in 1980 and Louis in 1981. Both had antecedents enmeshed in the brutal history of slavery and the painful world of sharecropping.

Both men rose virtually from the depths of nothingness to ascend the dizzyingly, rarefied heights of world fame by virtue of their athletic prowess, Louis with the crushing fury of his fists and Owens with the velocity of his legs.

One quiet and seemingly diffident, the other ebullient and never complete without a trademark smile. One was a phenomenal boxer while the other was a peerless athlete but both were linked in the maelstrom of the social and political evolution of African-Americans for they both transcended the veneer of being mere sportsmen to bear the burdens of and inhabit the sort of status reserved in the past for political figures.

Although McRae does not mention it, both men were known better to the white American public than black intellectuals like W.E.B. DuBois. What McRae reminds us of, is just how important these men were.

But although McRae's title refers to the 'Untold Story,' there is little here that the discerning boxing aficionado does not already know about Joe Louis. From his glorious, record setting title reign to his inglorious descent into tax difficulties and mental maladies.

It is Owens who probably is the lesser known of the two and McRae does well to focus, diary style, on both men's highest points in the 1930s. For Owens, it was his extraordinary performance at the summer Olympic games held in Berlin in 1936 where before the Nazi elite, then in the midst's of fashioning an idealized racial state, he conquered all opposition to win a then unprecedented four gold medals.

Louis, who just weeks earlier had been shockingly defeated by the German fighter Max Schmeling, would vindicate himself two years later by battering Schmeling in a single round.

By their deeds both men finally put to rest Hitlerian notions of Aryan superiority and Black inferiority. Yet as McRae, a man of white South African origin recounts, both lived in a racially segregated America, which perpetuated and reinforced assumptions of Black inferiority.

It was Louis and Owens, we are reminded, who paved the way for the unbanning of blacks from baseball, basketball and American Football. Yet, these truly revolutionary figures were not revolutionary enough for their sporting descendants of the 1960s who derogatorily labelled them as 'Uncle Toms;' pacified stooges of the white establishment never mind that the circumstances of the times in Louis and Owens heyday dictated that militant stances within the sporting field were virtually impossible to contrive.

If by 'Untold Story' McRae is referring to the personal friendship between both men, then only few would be impressed by the revelation that Louis introduced Owens to his high class tailor or that both men were inducted simultaneously into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame.

Nevertheless, it is as a sympathetically written record of the lives of both; sporting gods on the one hand and fallible men on the other, that McRae's book succeeds. There is Owens, impecunious even after his Berlin victory, and hounded out of amateur athletics by the despotic machinations of Avery Brundage, the patrician chairman of the International Olympic Committee and aptly referred to as 'Slavery Avery.'

Owens was forced over the next few years to race trains and horses in a series of grotesque exhibitions. Which reader can fail to travel in time forty years ahead and then weep at the thought of lesser men earning million dollar cheques?

Read about Louis combating the American Inland Revenue for a spiralling amount of income tax back payment and empathize with the man who donated whole portions of his ring earnings to an Armed Service of the United States military which employed persons of his race only as cooks and mess boys.

The reader, however, can hardly fail to chastise Louis for his childlike ineptitude in taking care of his finances when his earning power was at its zenith. There are anecdotal vignettes like where Owens steps in front of Louis who is being confronted by a redneck who wants to add the 'Brown Bomber' to his self-styled 'Hit-a-Nigger-a-Week' list. It is Louis who has to hold his friend back when the normally calm Owens takes umbrage at his slurs and smashes a bottle on a table in anticipation of 'glassing' his foe.

In Black and White: The Untold Story of Joe Louis and Jesse Owens ultimately is an expertly crafted narrative of the lives of two of the foremost sportsmen of recent times and although it unearths little of which is unknown about both subjects, it melds the stories of two icons from a bygone age whose excellence in their chosen professions and wider importance in terms of the development of race relations in the United States cannot be dimmed by the passage of time.

Adeyinka Makinde (2002)

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