When history was made one summer Harlem night

When Harlem is hot, there aren’t many other places in the world where history seems to drip down so readily from the fire escapes and battered neon signs.

It’s all an illusion, of course, a mirage created by a blistering day. Most of us lucky enough not to be born into poverty can only match words and sounds to old edifices and piece together what it must have been like before the war and after the Harlem Renaissance when Joe Louis carried the hopes of an entire race out of Georgia, north to Detroit and Chicago then over to the big fight nights in New York.

The Cotton Club has long since moved south and west to a relatively nondescript compound on 125th Street while the Apollo is as drastically different as you’d expect for the headquarters of a culture which has ridden through so many storms.

In 1938, the very same year Minton’s Playhouse entered the jazz fray and began its rise as a sultry breeding ground for bebop, Louis knocked Max Schmeling down three times in the opening round of a heavyweight contest weighed down by geopolitical and racial consequences so particular to the 20th century.

This past Saturday was the 75th anniversary of that legendary rematch at Yankee Stadium. The first Louis v Schmeling showdown went the German’s way at the same venue in 1936 but when they meet again, there is an inevitability about the quick two-minute victory by the hero of black America over the soon-to-be discarded warrior of Nazi Germany.

The docile, supposedly inferior (in every sense) fighter is not Louis but Schmeling. He cowers during the opening exchanges and seems to wait for Louis to deliver that first savage right hook to the left side of his body. His face contorts and only through hanging onto the top rope does he postpone the end by about 20 seconds. Three quick knockdowns later and Harlem erupts like never before or since.

It’s often been written that almost every radio above 110th Street faced towards the Bronx and it’s a thin line between the fraud who tries to recreate how that felt and the dreamer who tries to re-imagine how the crackling commentary must have sounded at street level, reverberating through throbbing humidity.

There were 70,000 fans at the ballpark and 70 million listening to it on the radio — more than half the population of the country at the time.

Dances and movies were interrupted while black and much of white came together to recognise that the greater threat was not the other but the gathering storm across each ocean.

It’s easy to dismiss as hyperbole the enduring impact of Hitler’s favourite boxer fighting and losing to America’s great black hope. But when they tell us now Joe Louis helped an entire nation believe that the Third Reich’s days would be limited, who are we to deny the power of the moment? Even if it was contrived, as Richard Wright wrote at the time in his essay “High Tide in Harlem”. It was, he recounted, “one of the greatest dramas of make-believe ever witnessed in America, a drama which manipulated the common symbols and impulses in the minds and bodies of millions of peoples so effectively as to put to shame our professional playwrights, our O’Neills, our Lawsons, and our Caldwells... Each of the 70,000 who had so eagerly jammed his way into the bowl’s steel tiers unfit the open sky had come already emotional conditioned as to the values that would triumph if his puppet won.”

According to Wright, the residents “filled the streets and sidewalks like the Mississippi River overflowing in flood time. With their faces to the night sky, they filled their lungs with air and let out a scream of joy that seemed would never end and a scream that seemed to come from untold reserves of strength… From the windows of the tall, dreary tenements torn scraps of newspaper floated down. With the reiteration that evoked a hypnotic atmosphere, they chanted with eyes half-closed, heads lilting in unison, legs and shoulders moving and touching: ‘Ain’t you glad? Ain’t you glad?’”

No matter how much boxing has diminished since that hot June night in the Bronx, fighters still take so much onto their lonely shoulders.

This weekend in Connecticut will be a defining one for Matthew Macklin when he returns to the US to challenge unbeaten WBA/IBO middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin. It’s coming towards make or break for the affable brawler. But I bet he’s glad he won’t be bringing an impending world war into the ring with him.

* john.w.riordan@gmail.com Twitter: JohnWRiordan

More in this section