Relic as Horrific Remembrance in the Monument to Joe Louis

by Max King Cap

“My father was a little headstrong, my mother was a little armstrong. The Headstrongs married the Armstrongs, and that’s why darkies were born.” — Rufus T. Firefly, Duck Soup, 1933

He had done it before. One can readily find the photographs of his handiwork; two human torsos, headless, the legs amputated just below the knee. Young and fit but unidentifiable, their fingertips rasped smooth. When first put on display, tens of thousands saw this pair of dismembered bodies and admiringly walked right by them.

Although Ota Benga, standing just fifty-nine inches tall, was cruelly kept with the monkeys in the Bronx Zoo after already having endured exhibition in a human zoo at the St. Louis World’s fair in 1904, things could have been worse back home in the Congo; at least he still had both of his hands. King Leopold II had concluded that his small cloudy country, aged just forty five years, could not be of international significance unless it possessed foreign territories that it could exploit. Belgium set to that task with a vengeance and claimed the so-called Congo Free State as the personal property of the King. He then proceeded to loot the country and terrorize its people. His Force Publique was responsible for cracking the whip, called a chicotte. Made of twisted and dried pachyderm hide, even a glancing blow from it could remove human flesh in thick bloody chunks. This occupying army of sadists was there to make certain that the rubber was collected in sufficient quantities to overfill the king’s coffers before natural rubber was displaced by a synthetic equivalent. Those who gathered rubber in insufficient quantities were made examples of by having one of their lazy hands hacked away. The severed hands were used as proof that satisfactory terror was being exerted upon any recalcitrant natives. While ostensibly having nothing to do with hand-hacking in Leopold’s Congo, there is a frighteningly parallel and carelessly indifferent business that thrives in Belgium: the peddling to tourists boxes of chocolate confections remorselessly shaped as severed black hands.

Monument to Joe Louis (1986), aka “The Fist,” by sculptor Robert Graham

Ota Benga, like other human curiosities from the early 19th to 20th centuries — Chang and Eng Bunker, the original “Siamese” twins; Millie and Christine McCoy, the “Two-Headed Nightingale;” and Sarah Bartmann, called the “Hottentot Venus” — were chiefly notable because they were non-white. As minorities they were oddities, as “freaks” doubly so. The White Gaze has historically trafficked in a corporeal exhilaration with non-White bodies, a tandem revulsion and fascination: consider the above-mentioned Chang & Eng (whose conjoined liver now resides in Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum), the body part trophies of Native Americans, and Black bodies in particular. This sort of “othering” is not uncommon and can be seen in a variety of arenas, historically and contemporaneously. The 1967 Viet Nam atrocities of Tiger Force, a unit from the 101st Airborne Division, amounted to an orgy of racial brutality, while current research finds that at school African American girls are disproportionately disciplined for similar offenses committed by white girls, as if the Blackness could be beaten out of them. They are also falsely yet dependably presumed older than their actual age, and seen as less “innocent” by white educators and other authority figures, including law enforcement. Additionally, Black bodies are treated disparately in a variety of other circumstances — in health care, presumptions of thicker skin and higher pain thresholds are common among medical students and residents; in law enforcement, in but one example, Chicago police are 14 times more likely to use force against young Black men than against whites; and in criminal justice Black men are routinely sentenced more harshly than white defendants for similar crimes.

In one of the most prominent locations in Detroit, the Blackest city in America, stands the Monument to Joe Louis, by sculptor Robert Graham, the author of the two headless, nude figures that stand outside the Los Angeles Coliseum. It stands, or more accurately hangs, in Hart Plaza in downtown Detroit on a spot along the Detroit River where it is believed that the city was founded. There are numerous monuments in the plaza, one to Detroit’s founder, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, as well as a Memorial to the Underground Railroad, a cluster of seven full-sized figures perched on the river’s edge marking where fugitive slaves found refuge and easy passage to Canada. The Joe Louis monument stands out, however, because it is not a statue of a whole person but a rendering of a fragment of a body, an incomplete man. Twenty-four feet in height and width and weighing in at a trim 8,000 pounds, the monument is of a giant, dismembered black arm, fist clenched and suspended from a pyramidal skeleton.

Joe Louis, only the second African American heavyweight-boxing champion, maintained a well-tempered demeanor as a deliberate contrast to the previous Black heavyweight champ, Jack Johnson. This gentle Joe Louis became a darling to the US effort in World War II, yet the IRS still made no exceptions nor exemptions on his tax problems even though Louis had donated his wartime boxing purses to the Army and Navy. He died broke.

Joe Louis (right) and Lou Nova
Jack Johnson (right) and Jim Jeffries

Jack Johnson reveled in his own anointing as champ and demanded money, deference, and sex — particularly with white women — commensurate with his sporting elevation. Joe Louis, in comparison, could be described as meek. The Detroit monument, however, suggests a very different rendering of Louis, one of a roiling, angry man who subsumed his dissatisfaction, hiding his anger behind a genial and obedient disposition. Different pugilists, different stances, but both in their own way kept fighting to the end.

Piecing together “The Fist” in the sculptor’s studio.

The impression given by this monument depends greatly upon the position from which it is viewed. Differing vantage points suggest two related yet vastly different interpretations. From above, as seen from one of the municipal office buildings that surround the square, it readily argues for uppityness, reminiscent of the global display of Black Power in the 1968 Mexico Olympics. From above, it is the raised black fists of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the gold and silver medal winners of the two hundred meter race, standing defiantly on the medalist’s platform during the playing of the “Star Spangled Banner” and demanding that their human rights, and those of all oppressed peoples, be acknowledged.

At ground level it seems a grislier reminder of extrajudicial murder and dismemberment of Black men at the hands of white mobs. Graham, inadvertently or not, has made an exposé of the distrust and contempt Louis endured at the hands of a government that exploited his talents and image yet gave little consideration to the man himself. Similarly lacking in historical and social insight, in amputating the powerful right arm of the champ, Graham has made it a spare part, a souvenir. Given the numerous lynchings of African Americans that have taken place in the United States, there is ample precedent for such relics — the practice has a long and gruesome history. Graham’s work, then, can be approached in conflicting parallel: as a grand civic decoration, an evaluation that is momentarily experiential but ultimately facile, and as a frightening relic of horrific remembrance and of judicially winked terrorism.

The fame of fabled Catholic saints Cosmas and Damian, twin fee-less physicians of the 3rdcentury, rests chiefly on two events; they were martyred — a common fate among saints — and they performed a miraculous medical transplant. They successfully transplanted the leg of a dead Black man onto the body of a diseased white man (ably assisted by angels).

Unfortunately the commodification of Black body parts exists not only in Apocrypha; it is stitched no less in time and animates our nearer history in the eager collection of lynching relics. White fear of Black bodies has both recent and historical confirmation — while Amadou Diallo, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice come immediately to mind, the scores of historical lynchings of Black men, both extra-judicial and under the color of law, continue to haunt. The blackened arm that is the Monument to Joe Louis readily suggests as much.

Before the torch was applied to the fire, the negro was deprived of his ears, fingers, and genital parts of his body.[1]


The men were not shot but their bodies were mutilated prior to burning. Ears, toes and fingers were snipped off. Eyes were gouged out. No organ of the negroes was allowed to remain protruding.[2]


Before the fire was lighted his left ear was severed from his body. Then his right ear was cut away. During the proceedings he uttered not a groan. Other portions of his body were mutilated by the knives of those who gathered about him, but he was not wounded to such an extent that he was not fully conscious and could feel excruciating pain.[3]

Often, human bodies that have been exposed to significant destruction by fire are not only charred and disfigured but also contracted. The extreme heat causes the muscles to shorten and stiffen so that the knees bend, the arms are raised and the neck lowered. The blackened figures appear as if they were attempting to fight the fire with their bare fists. It can be readily seen in the grisly photographs of victims of fatal household fires, and of lynching victims. It is called the pugilistic stance.

. . .

[1] Young, H. (2005). The Black Body as Souvenir in American Lynching. Theatre Journal, 57(4), 639–657. Retrieved April 19, 2020, from

[2] Pinar, W. (2001). To Live or Die in Dixie. Counterpoints, 163, 117–156. Retrieved April 19, 2020, from

[3] Wells-Barnett, I. B., Bay, M., & Gates, H. L. (2014). The light of truth : Writings of an anti-lynching crusader. New York, New York: Penguin Books.

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