Chicago is a boxing town. Or was.
That shouldn’t be news, but I suspect it is, to some. The three most important heavyweight champions of the world in the 20th century all lived in Chicago. Jack Johnson bought a home for his mother on South Wabash Avenue in 1910, then moved in himself in 1912. Joe Louis lived at 4320 S. Michigan Ave. and won his first title at Comiskey Park in 1937. As a teen, Muhammad Ali won his first fights as a Golden Gloves champion here and later lived at several locations on the South Side.
I could share inspiring tales — the luxurious life Johnson led, the silver spittoons at Café de Champion, the club he owned on West 31st Street. Louis’ humility in the face of global fame. How Ali would stop his Rolls Royce and shadow box kids on the street.
Pause here, and consider how learning about this historic connection makes you feel about Chicago. Proud? Happy? Eager to know more?
I hope so. Because I left out something crucial. Johnson, Louis and Ali were — stop the presses — Black. Their race was in no way incidental to their athletic careers and personal lives. Just the opposite; it was pivotal. Because of his race, Johnson was at first prevented from fighting for the title; he had to go to Australia to do it. Johnson was then vilified for winning, and for dating white women. He was hung in effigy at State and Walton streets.
Louis had to act humble, trying to avoid the trouble Johnson got into. When named Cassius Clay, Ali was initially sneered at by the public as a poetry-spewing clown. After he found his Muslim faith and changed his name, white America refused to use it, as if he wasn’t a man who could call himself whatever he liked. Nobody objected to “Bob Dylan.”
Does the second, racial element of my boxing tale wreck it for you? Make you feel small? Or does it, as I believe, enlarge the story, nudging it from a mere gloss toward the complexity that real history demands?
Welcome to the critical race theory debate. Well, it’s not a debate in the educated parts of the country. We just call it “history.” But red state backwaters, in their continual quest to cast themselves as victims, normalize ignorance and fire up the dupes, decided that a big problem facing the country, along with minorities voting, is children are being taught actual history. They’re passing laws, in Texas, in Florida.
Both states banned the use of the New York Times “1619 Project,” which presents slavery as an intrinsic aspect of the founding of the country. (Spoiler alert: It was.) The discussion of current events is also out — students can no longer get class credit for political action. In Texas, teachers discussing bigotry must now “give deference to both sides,” which is like requiring that Tony Zale be included in any Chicago boxing recap.
While the laws themselves are a muddle, the context is the most frightening part.
“Some of this stuff is, I think, really toxic,” said Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, of teaching students about our country’s racist past and present. “I think it’s going to cause a lot of divisions. I think it’ll cause people to think of themselves more as a member of particular race based on skin color, rather than based on the content of their character.”
I think he means that discussing George Floyd might make some students realize they’re Black. I have news for him.
History is a balancing act. A good teacher mixes the positive and the negative. Terrified politicians try to put their thumb on the scales because they can’t stand living in a nation where Black Lives Matter, where the country’s true racial history is taught as if it were real history. Which it is, whatever laws are signed in Texas and Florida.
In 1762 Oliver Goldsmith called the history of Europe “a tissue of crimes, follies and misfortunes.” That is true for all history, everywhere. There is an exquisite irony of the Republican resistance to teaching troublesome racial reality — their bonehead attempt at censorship is a compelling argument for why the full scope of America’s past, both glory and shame, must be taught. Because look at the kind of people who are allowed to run things when it’ s not.