Thursday, October 28, 2010

Randy Roberts' "Joe Louis: Hard Times Man"

Randy Roberts is distinguished professor of history at Purdue University. His books include biographies of the boxers Jack Dempsey and Jack Johnson (both nominated for Pulitzer Prizes); a history of American sports since 1945; and books on Charles Lindbergh, John Wayne, and the Vietnam War.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Joe Louis: Hard Times Man, and reported the following:
Perhaps it was the size of the font, the fact that it is a smidgen larger to make it easier on the eyes. Or maybe there were a few words that got by me in the revision stage. Whatever the case, the heart of Joe Louis: Hard Times Man crept off of page ninety-nine and lodged itself at the very top of page one hundred. Discussing the importance of Louis to African Americans, I write, “Joe Louis communicated a message more socially ecumenical than those propagated by the NAACP and Communist Party, and more individually uplifting than those espoused by Elijah Muhammad and Father Divine. More than any man, any force, of the generation, Louis confirmed full black equality, even, some asserted, superiority. In the ring he did not ask for respect or equality; with his fists he demanded and received it.”

To put the point another way, and in a more vivid context, in the first Max Schmeling and Joe Louis bout, Joe was being badly beaten by the German fighter. At the same time, African American singer Lena Horne was performing in Cincinnati’s Moonlite Gardens, trying to entertain an audience and sneaking backstage as often as possible to listen to the radio call of the fight. By the end of the evening her face was streaked with tears and her performance was suffering. The defeat of Joe Louis was that important to her. Her mother was outraged, scolding that Lena didn’t even know Louis. “I don’t care, I don’t care,” Lena yelled. “He belongs to all of us.” Joe Louis belonged to her and twelve million other black Americans in the 1930s. And by World War II he belonged to all Americans.

The quote from page ninety-nine (plus a few sentences) and the Lena Horne story conveys what I attempted to achieve in Joe Louis: Hard Times Man. The book is the dramatic story of the heavyweight champion who reigned longer and defended his title far more often than any other heavyweight titleholder. It covers his fights, loves, tax troubles, and other experiences against the backdrop of the Great Depression and World War II. But it also addresses what Joe Louis meant to millions of black and white Americans during those years. He was so important that he could lift up or break the heats of millions of Americans.
Learn more about Joe Louis: Hard Times Man at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue