- Joe Louis's Talking Fists:The Auto/Biopolitics of My Life Story
Dulled by clichés, haunted by hacks, and compelled by debts, the first autobiography of legendary boxer Joe Louis, My Life Story, would seem to deserve its obscurity. Published in 1947 when the aging champ faced a waning career and mounting bills, My Life Story might be dismissed as a facile attempt to exploit his fame in order to raise sorely needed cash. Louis also received "editorial aid" from Chester Washington and Haskell Cohen, two sportswriters whose involvement might cast the value of the boxer's official story into doubt, insofar as they compromise the authenticity of the narrative. Moreover, the book resulting from this collaboration hews closely to the banal conventions of celebrity autobiography, portraying Louis as ordinary and modest, hardworking but lucky. This up-by-the-jockstrap tale of the boxer's rise from poverty to prominence disappointed reviewers in both the mainstream and black press who expected something "that would reveal a little more of the man" (Dulles 36). One reviewer grumbled, "there is hardly a passage that couldn't have been written by a well-informed sports writer assigned to ghost the story of Joe Louis" (My Life Story 99); another complained that My Life Story neglected the boxer's "early years—a portion of Joe's life which might make fresh and interesting reading" (Fay B14); another regretted that the book "falls short of giving an adequate picture of the man who did this fighting" (Martin 15); and yet another panned the book as "trite and unrevealing to the point of inanity" (Lardner 235).1 [End Page 311]
To scholars seeking to define—and defend—a selective literary tradition of African-American autobiography, Louis's book, like the overdetermined memoirs of other black celebrities, has been insignificant. Unlike Richard Wright's Black Boy (1945), My Life Story can be dismissed easily for lacking art and authenticity, as well as the sharp, sustained engagement with American racism that has made Wright's literary narrative so compelling to critics. Nevertheless, beyond matters of quality and canon, Louis's memoir raises salient questions about the cultural politics of recognition that has often induced the public black self. More specifically, My Life Story arrived at a pivotal moment in the advent of the black athlete as a distinct autobiographical figure, which impels us to examine the historical insertion of athletes' bodies into African-American autobiography. We can trace the self-presentation of the black athlete to G. W. Offley's 1859 slave narrative and James Corrothers's 1916 autobiography, which recount their authors' experiences as boxers. In the 1920s, two more notable professional athletes, both retired, published their autobiographies. Notorious prizefighter Jack Johnson, who preceded Louis as the world's first black heavyweight champion from 1908 to 1915, published Jack Johnson—In the Ring—and Out in 1927. In the following year, the acclaimed cyclist Marshall "Major" Taylor published The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World. No other black athlete would produce an autobiography for the next two decades, but Louis's My Life Story (followed shortly by Jackie Robinson's My Own Story in 1948) belonged to a new configuration taking shape within black autobiography. After World War II, the number of such books grew steadily. Black athletes published four autobiographies in the 1950s, 12 in the 1960s, and more than 30 in the 1970s (two-thirds of which appeared between 1970 and 1975).2 Whatever its proximate causes, this proliferation registers the limits and pressures shaping African-American autobiography as a discrete form of cultural production. Upon what grounds, then, could Louis and other athletes come to inhabit the black "I"?
One of Louis's key tropes should elucidate the transitional significance of those black athlete autobiographers whose body language narrates them. Throughout his career, Louis's reticence was well known, and the boxer explains in My Life Story that "I always believed in letting my fists talk for me" (54). While he essentially adapts the pragmatist's cliché that "actions speak louder than words," the narrated Louis replaces both writing hands and "talking books" with talking fists as the source of...