3. 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. . . . This might be the end of the world. If Joe lost we were back in slavery and beyond help. It would all be true, the accusations that we were lower types of human beings. Only a little higher than the apes.
In this scene in Chapter 19, Maya crowds around the Store’s radio with the rest of the community to listen to Joe Louis defend his world heavyweight boxing title. As Maya conveys in this passage, the entire black community has its hopes and psychological salvation bound up in the fists of Louis, “the Brown Bomber.” This passage describes the precarious nature of black pride in the face of hostile oppression, highlighting the staggering and wrenching significance this boxing match held for the community as the community teeters between salvation and despair. The rarity of black people achieving public acclaim in both the black and white communities meant that the few who managed to do so had to bear the expectations of the black community. The match becomes an explicit staging of black against white. Louis’s loss would mean the “fall” of the race and a return to the idea that whites had a right to denigrate black people. Cynics might say that Louis’s win does little more than stave off the black community’s psychological despair. It does not turn the tables on whites because there is no denying that whites still hold all the power. His public victory, however, proves to blacks in the Store that they are the most powerful people in the world and enables them to live another day with strength and vigor in the face of oppression. Racism plays many psychological games with blacks and whites, and perhaps Louis’s public recognition helps to teach both whites and blacks to accept African-Americans as equals.