What was the effect of the black fighter, Joe Louis' victory over his white opponent in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Angelou is able to illuminate the stakes as being high for African- Americans when Joe Louis was about to fight for the heavyweight championship against Primo Carnera.  It was clear that African- Americans saw more at stake than just a mere fight.  Their dialogue before the fight begins reflects this. Statements like "I ain’t worried ‘bout this fight.  Joe’s gonna whip that cracker like it’s open season" and  “He gone whip him till that white boy call him Momma" reflect the level of hope and aspiration African- Americans placed on the fight.  It was a moment in which the scales of racial justice can be righted as an opportunity for a person of color to openly challenge the White establishment that had silences so much in way of African- American voice.

When Primo Carnera does launch into Louis and causes him to go on the ropes, it causes a debilitating effect in all of those who are listening to the radio.  The emotional let down was real and perceptible:

My race groaned.  It was our people falling.  It was another lynching, yet another Black man hanging on a tree.  One more woman ambushed and raped.  A Black boy whipped and maimed. It was hounds on the trail of a man running through slimy swamps.  It was a white woman slapping her maid for being forgetful.

This becomes the effect of the fight on African- Americans. When Joe is losing, it is confirmation of all that is wrong with their lives.  Louis carried with him the weight of expectations to do what millions of African- Americans wanted to do in terms of fighting to get an equal shot and an equal opportunity.

This effect is heightened when Louis wins.  Louis' victory was shared with African- Americans, internalized as if they had won:

Champion of the world.  A Black boy.  Some Black mother’s son.  He was the strongest man in the world.  People drank Coca-Colas like ambrosia and ate candy bars like Christmas... Joe Louis had proved that we were the strongest people in the world.

The instillment of pride in what it means to be African- American becomes the effect of Joe  Louis' victory.  When he defeats Carnera, African- Americans feel that they have been victorious.  For a brief moment, the struggle in being Black in America is lifted with Louis' victory.

Read the study guide:
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

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