The Burden of a Black President

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In June you must give fascists hell.

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.
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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 memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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