Jesse Owens: An American Life Analysis
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 escape from sharecropping, Henry Owens, having no education and no training, had no financial security. As a college student when few African Americans were even aware that they could attend college, Jesse experienced problems accompanying his lack of college preparation. In addition, there were restrictions on financial aid to athletes that, although developed from the best of intentions, created difficulties. Owens had to handle studies, employment, athletic training, and national contests to qualify for world-class competition. Younger readers will need Baker’s analysis of the college environment in this earlier world, where the odds were against an African American athlete’s ability to remain in college, the only place for a track-and-field athlete to remain eligible for the Olympics. There were few opportunities for African Americans and even fewer ways for athletes to support themselves and simultaneously compete for an Olympic position.
Owens was among the first group of African Americans outside of the boxing ring or the circus who had the chance to make a career from athletic ability. Boxer Joe Louis’ reputation had suffered after the fight with the German Max Schmeling by the time that Owens began to be noticed, and the African-American press began turning to him as a cultural hero. Some white observers, in spite of consistent praise from sports journalists, saw him as either an oddity or a racial stereotype. Baker...
(The entire section is 781 words.)