My Birthday

My birthday is a notable date, not just because it's my birthday. I was born on the day that Joe Louis beat Max Schmeling for the heavyweight championship of the world. This fight was actually a rematch, as the two had fought two years before, in 1936, and Schmeling had beaten Louis in that first fight.

In June 1938, Joe Louis, the great black champion and hope of black people, was fighting a German citizen who was representing the white folks, the Great White Hope, who was representing Nazi Germany. Ever since the success of Jack Johnson, a great black fighter, the white community was always looking for a white man who was called the Great White Hope, the hope being that the white fighter would beat the black fighter. In one minute and 38 seconds of the first round of the rematch, Joe Louis knocked Max Schmeling out. And there was great jubilation in the black community. I was told people were running through the streets, shouting with joy. My birthday was thus a special day, a significant day, celebrated not only as my birthday, but also as the day that Joe Louis knocked out Max Schmeling, an event which the black community felt as a victory for themselves, that somehow that knockout rebounded to their credit and honor and gave them strength.

My birthday party began every year with my father bringing out the 8mm movie projector and showing the movie of the prize fight. "Look at those Nazi flags in Yankee Stadium," my father said. "I want my cake and ice cream," I chanted. "See those Nazi flags," my father repeated. "Don't concentrate on the fight. Look at the crowd." Yankee Stadium was filled with men in Nazi uniforms and swastikas and Nazi armbands could be seen everywhere in the film. And my father would say, "I want you to remember the faces of the white people in the audience and their disappointment and anger (when Louis won) and I want you to remember that those people hate us; they don't like colored people. I don't want you to forget that those people will be around when you grow up to be a man and take your place in the world, that there is an attitude about colored people that these white people have that you're going to have to one day fight against, like all black people should fight against that attitude." He used to say that my birthday was a proud night for the race, but there was a larger message directed at me personally as well.

My father talked about the hundreds of blacks who had been murdered that night because they cheered when a black man knocked out a white man. I have always been grateful that I was not named Joe Louis in the fighter's honor, as were several of my boyhood friends who were born around the same time.

Because of when I was born, I was considered a "race baby." A race baby meant I was destined to do something great or good for the Negro race. From the time I can remember I was always told by the old folks that I was a race baby and as such I had a charge to do something for the race. It was never specified what I would do for the race, but it was expected that I would do something to help the colored race to move ahead. I remember my grandmother, Big Mama, used to call me the race baby. I was the first born child of her first-born child and the first born of all her grandchildren to be born in the North, so it was felt that I was special and destined for special things. But it was a term that only old people used, and I did not hear it as a call or a charge to do something special or really think about it very much at all. I didn't go around thinking about how I would advance the race. In fact, I didn't think about it until much later in life, when I was thinking back on what I had done.

As I think back now on my life, I think I have done what my father would have liked to have done with his life. I became a teacher, as he had wanted to be a teacher. I had never thought about how or why I chose a particular path, but now that I think about, years after his death, I think I was living out his dream, which he had never openly expressed to me, but which message I had absorbed unconsciously. I have championed the cause and the rights of black people as he did, but I had the opportunity to do it on a wider scale than he did. It reflects, I think, the ideal of the "race baby," which was an ideal that had never been defined. It was just a concept that floated around and it was up to me to define it for myself. Which I did, without realizing it; I fulfilled the goal that the old people had for me when they pronounced me to be a race baby.