In 1936 Joe Louis faced off against Max Schmeling. Louis was young and undefeated. More significantly for our purposes, he was the pride of his people. The shadow of Jack Johnson still loomed -- a man who had lived a sordid life, consorted with white women, and drove the country to riot. Unlike Johnson, Louis was a "credit to his race." He was clean. He didn't trash talk. He handled his business in the ring and humbly returned to his corner. He was distinctly aware of his status as a standard-bearer, an ambassador, for his people, and his people loved him for not embarrassing them.
Schmeling was 30 years old when he met Louis, and was considered to be on the southern slope of his career. This belief was shared by Louis's camp:
Louis took training for the Schmeling fight none too seriously. Louis' training retreat was at Lakewood, New Jersey, where Louis was introduced to the game of golf -- later to become a lifelong passion. Louis spent significant time on the golf course rather than training. Conversely, Schmeling prepared intently for the bout. Schmeling had thoroughly studied Louis's style, and believed he had found a weakness: Louis's habit of dropping his left hand low after a jab.
Indeed Schmeling had found a weakness:
Schmeling spent the first three rounds using his jab, while sneaking his right cross behind his jab. Louis was stunned by his rival's style. In the fourth round, a snapping right landed on Louis' chin, and Louis was sent to the canvas for the first time in his twenty eight professional fights. As the fight progressed, stunned fans and critics alike watched Schmeling continue to use this style effectively, and Louis apparently had no idea how to solve the puzzle.
In the 12th round Schmeling knocked Louis out and great wailing went up through Harlem. From Langston Hughes:
I walked down Seventh Avenue and saw grown men weeping like children, and women sitting in the curbs with their head in their hands. All across the country that night when the news came that Joe was knocked out, people cried.
In Germany, Hitler sent Schmeling's wife flowers. Before moving on, it's important to note Schmeling was not much of a Nazi bogeyman. In later years he became friends with Louis, to the point of actually helping him out financially. But my focus here is upon Louis, and the great weight he carried going into that fight.
I can't really imagine how Joe Louis must have felt after his loss. Losing is always a bitter pill, but the taint doubles when the loss belongs not merely to you, but to that nation you represent. The taint triples when your nation is held as a pariah class, for your advances represent the possibility of their own advance out of degradation, and your regressions are ever held as affirming the logic of their status.
Today, black fighters are taken for granted, but in Joe Louis's era the skin game had yet to switch, and it was still common and respectable to assert that blacks lacked the physical courage and discipline to compete with whites in the manly sport of boxing. In short, the manner of Joe Louis's loss -- to an emissary of Hitler no less -- demoralized his people, and by that same factor emboldened their enemies.
Champions of black people rarely seek the honor. Most of them want to just go about the work of their business. I date back to Warren Moon, the NFL's first great black quarterback:
A lot has been said about me as being the first African American quarterback into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It's a subject that I'm very uncomfortable about sometimes only because I've always wanted to be judged as just a quarterback. But because I am the first and because significance does come with that, I accept that. I accept the fact that I am the first...
I played this game not for just myself, not just for my teammates, but I always had that extra burden when I went on that field that I had a responsibility to play the game for my people. That extra burden I probably didn't need to go out on the field with, because I probably would have been a much better player if I didn't have that burden.
But you know what, I carried that burden proudly.
As I looked at young people all along my route as a professional football player, they always told me, Warren, you got to represent. Warren, you got to represent. Warren, you got to represent.
Like Joe Louis, like Warren Moon, like any black person significant for the fact of being black, I imagine that Barack Obama would love to have only the burden of being great at his craft. All presidential candidates represent something larger than themselves, and in that sense their loss is always broadly shared. But few classes in America have so little to lose as the one Obama represents.
When candidate Obama was asked about his relationship to the black community during the 2008 election, he would often say he was "rooted in the black community, but not limited to it." I was thinking about all of this before last night's debate. I did not know whether Obama would win. But I thought that he would do really, really well. And I thought that, in part, because of the fact that he is, as he said, "rooted in the black community."
These are powerful words for a president. They mean that should Obama fail, the people who will suffer under a triumphant Republican administration will not be abstract to him; they will be down the street. The poor black women who will doubtlessly find their access to contraception troubled will be degrees closer to Obama than to any other presidential aspirant. That 47 percent whom Mitt Romney will surely treat as the loafers he considers them to be will not be a subject of academic study, they will be his fellow parishioners. Barack Obama has spent a life breaking barriers, and should he lose, in any part, because he neglected to prepare -- to work hard -- he will break the seal on a shame which few can fathom.
Joe Louis knew. He stood across from Max Schmeling a second time. It was 1938. World War II was in the air, and now he was not simply the champion of his people, but, most strangely, of a country that reviled them. A loss would not simply be a loss for black people, but for humanity itself:
A few weeks before the rematch, Louis visited President Franklin Delano Roosevelt at the White House. The New York Times quoted Roosevelt as telling the fighter, "Joe, we need muscles like yours to beat Germany." In his 1976 biography, Louis wrote, "I knew I had to get Schmeling good. I had my own personal reasons and the whole damned country was depending on me." This time, Louis took training for the bout seriously, giving up golf and women throughout his training.
Louis won. And some sense of the times can be gleaned from how his win was reported. "Joe Louis, the lethargic, chicken-eating young colored boy," wrote The Washington Post, "reverted to his dreaded role of the 'brown bomber' tonight."
"Joe Louis, the lethargic, chicken-eating young colored boy," wrote The Washington Post, "reverted to his dreaded role of the 'brown bomber' tonight."
When you are deemed a "credit to your race," as Joe Louis so often was, the weight can be crushing. But it also can be the source of great power. In championing the reviled, the battle-weary, the low, you champion something greater than yourself. Wherever you fight, you are always fighting for your hometown. You trade the aspect of the lone wolf, for that of the wounded bear with rearing up in defense of her cubs.
Thus it was with little surprise (though some small thrill) that I watched Barack Obama maul Mitt Romney last night, much as Louis mauled Schmeling in the rematch all those years ago. Unlike Louis, Obama's bout continues on. But should he lose the election it will not be in the shameful manner which, to some, appeared imminent. He will not fall as "the lethargic, chicken-eating, young colored boy." He will not go out confirming the warped logic of those who hate him and the community in which he is rooted. He represents too much.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of The Beautiful Struggle and the forthcoming Between the World and Me.
More on the F-16 and Cessna crash, and whether the collision of a military and a civilian aircraft was also a collision of cultures
Early this month an Air Force F-16, under the command of an experienced Air Force pilot, rammed into a small-civilian Cessna 150 propeller plane, not far from Charleston, South Carolina. The Air Force pilot ejected to safety; both people aboard the Cessna were killed.
The next three paragraphs are background for the pointed and interesting reader-messages I am about to quote. If you’re already up to speed with previous installments (one, two, three), you can skip ahead to the messages. They highlight an aspect of the modern military-civilian divide I had not considered before this episode.
In an original item on the crash, I noted some of the perils civilians could face when flying near designated military areas—even though this crash happened in ordinary uncontrolled airspace. That is, it occurred when neither plane was within a Military Operations Area (MOA), where civilian pilots are warned about risks from high-speed military aircraft, nor inside the controlled “Class C” airspace that surrounds Charleston’s airport. (Medium-sized commercial airports like Charleston’s typically are ringed by Class C airspace, so the controllers can sequence in the airline, cargo, civilian, military, and other traffic headed toward their runways. The very busiest airports, like LAX or JFK, are surrounded by larger zones of Class B airspace for their more complex traffic-control jobs. In case you’re wondering, Class A airspace is the realm above 18,000 feet where most jet travel occurs.)
The paper of record’s inaccurate reporting on a nonexistent criminal investigation was a failure that should entail more serious consequences.
I have read The New York Times since I was a teenager as the newspaper to be trusted, the paper of record, the definitive account. But the huge embarrassment over the story claiming a criminal investigation of Hillary Clinton for her emails—leading the webpage, prominent on the front page, before being corrected in the usual, cringeworthy fashion of journalists who stonewall any alleged errors and then downplay the real ones—is a direct challenge to its fundamental credibility. And the paper’s response since the initial huge error was uncovered has not been adequate or acceptable.
This is not some minor mistake. Stories, once published, take on a life of their own. If they reinforce existing views or stereotypes, they fit perfectly into Mark Twain’s observation, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” (Or perhaps Twain never said it, in which case the ubiquity of that attribution serves to validate the point.) And a distorted and inaccurate story about a prominent political figure running for president is especially damaging and unconscionable.
A newly discovered artifact buried with one of Jamestown’s most prominent leaders suggests he could have been a crypto-Catholic.
After 400 years in the Virginia dirt, the box came out of the ground looking like it had been plucked from the ocean. A tiny silver brick, now encrusted with a green patina and rough as sandpaper. Buried beneath it was a human skeleton. The remains would later be identified as those of Captain Gabriel Archer, one of the most prominent leaders at Jamestown, the first permanent English colony in America. But it was the box, which appeared to be an ancient Catholic reliquary, that had archaeologists bewildered and astonished.
“One of the major surprises was the discovery of this mysterious small silver box,” said James Horn, the president of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation. “I have to say, we’re still trying to figure this out. You have the very strange situation of a Catholic reliquary being found with the leader of the first Protestant church in the country.”
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
U.S. officials are turning to Russia for help with Iran and Syria, even as the Ukrainian conflict persists.
If you believe all the talk out there lately, Vladimir Putin is not only duplicitous and hypocritical—the Russian president’s also been pretty damn busy recently. Busy cutting secret deals with the same Europeans and Americans he has been vilifying for years. And if you believe the rumors, the Europeans and Americans have also been busy selling out Ukraine to the Russians.
Not that any of this would be unusual or particularly surprising. Cynicism, duplicity, and hypocrisy are often the reserve currencies of politics, where interests tend to trump values.
There have long been suspicions that the United States and Europe might give Ukraine up in exchange for Russia’s support in securing a deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program. Additionally, Washington has been seeking Moscow’s backing in securing a managed, orderly, and negotiated exit for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, which would go a long way toward ending the conflict in that country.
The new version of Apple’s signature media software is a mess. What are people with large MP3 libraries to do?
When the developer Erik Kemp designed the first metadata system for MP3s in 1996, he provided only three options for attaching text to the music. Every audio file could be labeled with only an artist, song name, and album title.
Kemp’s system has since been augmented and improved upon, but never replaced. Which makes sense: Like the web itself, his schema was shipped, good enough,and an improvement on the vacuum which preceded it. Those three big tags, as they’re called, work well with pop and rock written between 1960 and 1995. This didn’t prevent rampant mislabeling in the early days of the web, though, as anyone who remembers Napster can tell you. His system stumbles even more, though, when it needs to capture hip hop’s tradition of guest MCs or jazz’s vibrant culture of studio musicianship.
The agreement doesn’t guarantee that Tehran will never produce nuclear weapons—because no agreement could do so.
A week ago I volunteered my way into an Atlantic debate on the merits of the Iran nuclear agreement. The long version of the post is here; the summary is that the administration has both specific facts and longer-term historic patterns on its side in recommending the deal.
On the factual front, I argued that opponents had not then (and have not now) met President Obama’s challenge to propose a better real-world alternative to the negotiated terms. Better means one that would make it less attractive for Iran to pursue a bomb, over a longer period of time. Real world means not the standard “Obama should have been tougher” carping but a specific demand that the other countries on “our” side, notably including Russia and China, would have joined in insisting on, and that the Iranians would have accepted.
Has the Obama administration’s pursuit of new beginnings blinded it to enduring enmities?
“The president said many times he’s willing to step out of the rut of history.” In this way Ben Rhodes of the White House, who over the years has broken new ground in the grandiosity of presidential apologetics, described the courage of Barack Obama in concluding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with the Islamic Republic of Iran, otherwise known as the Iran deal. Once again Rhodes has, perhaps inadvertently, exposed the president’s premises more clearly than the president likes to do. The rut of history: It is a phrase worth pondering. It expresses a deep scorn for the past, a zeal for newness and rupture, an arrogance about old struggles and old accomplishments, a hastiness with inherited precedents and circumstances, a superstition about the magical powers of the present. It expresses also a generational view of history, which, like the view of history in terms of decades and centuries, is one of the shallowest views of all.
Even with the overwhelming recent New York cover story, the women pay a price for speaking out.
Who still defends Bill Cosby? After newly unsealed depositions revealed that the comedian admitted to acquiring sedatives to give to women he wanted to have sex with, his longstanding backer Whoopi Goldberg recanted her support for the man accused of dozens of rapes over the years. The singer Jill Scott, too, said she was wrong when she suspected a media conspiracy against him. And if Cosby’s former costars, including Phylicia Rashad, still believe him to be the target of an illegitimate smear campaign, they haven’t spoken up to say so in a while. Cosby’s lawyer is currently making the rounds in the media to say his deposition has been misconstrued—but that argument, even if believed, doesn’t refute the idea that he used drugs to take advantage of women.