Jesse Owens: An American Life Critical Essays

William J. Baker


(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

Baker’s biography of Owens, although not written specifically for young readers, has an appeal for young people who are interested in athletics and in the achievements of African Americans. As an unbiased, book-length biography of this famous figure, it offers more than standard treatment of the famous 1936 Berlin Olympics.

The book captures the excitement of athletics without neglecting the issues of politics and athletic payoffs. Baker sympathizes with African Americans without condescending or encouraging self-pity, and he introduces the origins of the connections between athletics and show business. This biography also attempts to set the record straight regarding certain famous journalistic interpretations of the political events surrounding the Olympics hosted by the Nazis. The overall story, however, remains personal and thus is an example of one individual’s success in overcoming adversity and racial prejudice to achieve athletic greatness.

The Jesse Owens of this book is a living human, not merely a record-breaking oddity whose achievement has been surpassed in the days of steroids, sports medi-cine, and technologically enhanced athletic training. He is observed in context, being presented from Baker’s point of view as one of a number of African-American athletes who deserve lasting recognition. In Baker’s eyes, Owens’ personal struggle is worth the status of pioneer similar to that of Jackie Robinson in major league baseball, even though Owens’ personal manner was less confrontational. Despite his avoidance of identification with the Civil Rights movement, Owens was dealing with racial problems in a more traditional manner, with survival techniques learned in an earlier era.

This portrait also reveals that persistent financial problems took Owens’ constant attention, many of which were related to factors beyond his control. Even after the family’s...

(The entire section is 781 words.)