On one of our many visits to Detroit, we did a guided public art tour where we looked at some of the sculptures and murals on display throughout the city. One artwork I haven’t forgotten is The Fist created by artist Robert Graham in 1986. The sculpture is a tribute to boxer Joe Louis the first African American athlete to become a national hero. He shattered the myth of Nazi supremacy by beating German fighter Max Schmeling in 1938. Louis’ accomplishments as a black athlete are said to have paved the way for the civil rights movement of the 60s and for the success of future black athletes like baseball player Jackie Robinson.
There has been lots of controversy about The Fist. Some object to the fact the fist in the sculpture is clenched making it seem less a symbol of determination and strength and more a symbol of aggression. Critics say the sculpture looks like a representation of black militant power and that’s not at all what Joe Louis was about. He changed attitudes by excelling in his field, not through violent confrontation. Yet his field of sport was a kind of violent confrontation. Certainly, the sculpture seemed threatening to some vandals who in 2004 covered it in white paint and left a message about white people ready for a fight with African Americans.
I have been thinking about The Fist in the last few days. The way different people interpreted the artwork represent two different kinds of thinking about how meaningful societal change can take place when it comes to racism- through violent action or excelling in your field so that you become a positive, inspiring and influential role model for change.
The African American community has produced plenty of inspiring role models including a former president, hundreds of celebrated athletes, entertainment icons, authors, scientists, educators- people who have excelled in their fields, in literally every area of human endeavour. But still, racism exists in the United States some eighty years after Joe Louis became a national hero and…….. it is racism still so potent the country’s current president is confident he can leverage it to hold onto his political power. Perhaps that helps to explain why some of the protests in America have turned violent in the last few days.
Several articles about The Fist mention that it is pointing in the direction of Canada just a few miles away from Detroit? What might that imply?
There will be an event on Friday at the Manitoba Legislature in support of the protestors in the United States. Note the fists on the logo for their event.