Richard Wright, Joe Louis and America’s racist soul

John Wight
6 min readMar 27, 2024

Few writers understood America’s racist soul as keenly as Richard Wright (above), and few used their pen as mercilessly as he did as a weapon to excoriate and expose it.

In black heavyweight champion and cultural iconJoe Louis, Wright found the perfect symbol of black resistance to the conceits of a dominant culture wallowing in the abyss of white supremacy. Wright’s treatment of Louis’ exploits in the ring and importance outside it combined to forge an unbeatable vector of resistance to that culture.

Richard Wright was born in 1904 the son of a sharecropper in Mississipi in the Deep South. Slavery had only ended four decades earlier and white supremacy had by then reasserted itself in the shape of the Klu Klux Klan and socially under the rubric of Jim Crow, a system of apartheid that was to hold sway across the South all the way up into to the 1960s.

By the time Wright relocated the south side of Chicago in 1927 he was ready to make his mark as a writer and radical black voice at a time when metropolises such as Chicago, New York, Boston, Detroit and San Francisco were alive with left wing and radical ideas, providing hope for social and political transformation at a time when Soviet communism still stood as a beacon to the poor, marginalised and oppressed across the world.

Wright joined the Communist Party in 1933, having spent the previous year attending meetings of the then Marxist literary group, the John Reed Club. He soon began writing cultural and literary pieces for the popular communist New Masses magazine, honing and developing a voice that would explode into public consciousness with the publication of his classic 1940 novel, Native Son. The novel’s antihero, Bigger Thomas, is unapologetically and defiantly black. Consider: “The thing to do was to act just like others acted, live like they lived, and while they were not looking, do what you wanted.”

Five years before Native Son exploded onto the scene, Joe Louis had already done so with his victory over Italian giant, Primo Carnera, in front of a packed crowd at the Yankee Stadium in New York. That same year, 1935, the Bronze Bomber also destroyed Max Baer. Even at this early stage in his career, two years before becoming world champion, Louis was already being revered in every black ghetto across America, allowing the residents of same the opportunity to revel in vicarious glory as he pummeled his predominately white opponents just as white America pummeled them in their daily lives.

Wright latched onto Louis as the symbol of a new black man — strong, brave, indomitable — and embraced him as a a man and fighter whose importance transcended the ring. Witnessing the scenes of wild celebration in South Side Chicago that met Louis’ victory over Baer, Wright penned a piece titled ‘Joe Louis Uncovers Dynamite’ in which he writes: “‘LOUIS! LOUIS! LOUIS!’” they yelled and threw their hats away. They snatched newspapers from the stands of astonished Greeks and tore them up, flinging the bits into the air. They wagged their heads. Lawd, they’d never heard or seen anything like it before.”

Louis defeating Jim Braddock to take the former’s world heavyweight title in 1937

Wright here beautifully captures Louis’ social and racial importance, making the point that he was more than a fighter he was a black prince, venting revenge for the lifetime of slights and insults suffered and endured by black America at the hands of white America. Black America needed its hero and in Joe Louis it found one.

Regardless, the Joe Louis that stepped into the ring at a sold out Yankee Stadium on 22 June 1938 to rematch Hitler’s champion, Max Schmeling, did so as liberal as wel as black America’s champion, anointed as such by a white liberal establishment swimming in hypocrisy. Wright covered the fight for the Marxist Daily Worker and the socialist New Masses, but for him class took second place to race when it came to the stakes involved.

Wright: “out beyond the walls of the stadium were twelve million Negroes to whom the black puppet [Louis] symbolized the living refutation of the hatred spewed forth daily over radios, in newspapers, in movies, and in books about their lives. Day by day, since their alleged emancipation, they have watched a picture of themselves being painted as lazy, stupid, and diseased.”

The people of Harlem celebrating Joe Louis, their hero

In the same piece — ‘High Tide in Harlem: Joe Louis as a Symbol of Freedom’ — Wright describes the scenes at Louis’ training camp in the lead up to the fight: “Visits to Joe Louis’ training camp revealed throngs of Negroes standing around in a state of deep awe, waiting for just one glimpse of their champion. They were good, simple-hearted people, longing deeply for something of their own to be loyal to.”

High Tide in Harlem is a tour de force, less sportswriting and more social and cultural commentary that moves beyond the ‘what’ of Joe Louis to arrive at the ‘why’.

Joe Louis had predicted that his revenge over the German, who defeated him when they met the first time in 1936, would take two rounds. It only took him one as he came out at the bell and launched an assault of such studied ferocity, Schmeling had no chance.

Describing the aftermath, here’s Wright again: “Men, women, and children gathered in thick knots and did the Big Apple, the Lindy Hop, the Truck — Harlem’s gesture of defiance to the high cost of food, high rent, and misery. These ghetto-dwellers, under the stress of the joy of one of their own kind having wiped the stain of defeat and having thrown the lie of ‘inferiority’ into the teeth of the fascist, threw off restraint and fear.”

Richard Wright was the chronicler of Joe Louis that black America needed and liberal America had no equal to. Drawing on his own experience of Jim Crow to raise Louis up to the status of folk hero, Wright understood the Brown Bomber as symbolically more than just a boxer. In the racist America of the 1930s and 40s, the ring was the only place where a black could not only be the equal of his white counterpart, but better.

And Joe Louis was better than them all.


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John Wight

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