Champion Essay - Critical Context

Chris Mead

Critical Context

Carefully researched and accessible to teenage readers, Mead’s interpretation of Louis’ life, personality, and position in boxing is one of the best to appear. Louis’ own autobiography—Joe Louis: My Life (1981), cowritten with Art and Edna Rust—is disappointing for its lack of dimension. Barney Nagler’s Brown Bomber (1972), containing the views of an experienced sportswriter, lacks historical setting and con-textual depth. Gerald Astor’s “ And a Credit to His Race”: The Hard Life and Times of Joseph Louis Barrow, a.k.a. Joe Louis (1974) and Roi Ottley’s New World A-Coming: Inside Black America (1943) touch interestingly on racial prejudices but fail to achieve a balanced view of Louis’ life.

There is, in fact, a common theme in several of these works that Mead wisely rejects: that Louis heroically reached the pinnacle of his sport only to go into a sad decline, nagged by marital and financial troubles, using cocaine, and ignominiously employed as a Las Vegas casino greeter. On the contrary, Mead convincingly reveals that Louis loved every minute of his championship. He earned considerably more for a major fight than the president earned in a year, and Louis enjoyed spending. If he sometimes wished that he had the capacities requisite for an outspoken African-American leader, he was no “Uncle Tom.” In fact, more than anyone else of his time, he had publicly served as a model for his race. Of all African-American athletes, Louis became the best known, but he also won the admiration of the white public. Most of this credit he richly deserved; if some popular characterizations of him were attributable to misconceptions, Mead suggests they did little to dampen Louis’ pleasure in his notoriety. This complex portrait of racism is a valuable educational tool.