Andrea Davis Pinkney on “Bird in a Box” and Joe Louis

written by Rachel Walman



If you’ve visited our two exhibitions on Muhammad Ali, you know that boxing has played a major role in American culture and history. This Sunday, the Reading into History Family Book Club will celebrate Black History Month and learn about another boxer who, like Ali, became a legend in and out of the ring: Joe Louis. Acclaimed author Andrea Davis Pinkney will join us to discuss her historical fiction novel Bird in a Box, which tells the story of three African American kids struggling through Great Depression, all united by their admiration for Joe Louis.

So who was Joe Louis? Nicknamed the Brown Bomber, Louis went undefeated in his first 27 professional fights. After suffering a humiliating loss to underdog German boxer Max Schmeling in 1936, Louis won the Heavyweight Champion of the World title from James Braddock in 1937 and defeated Schmeling in a rematch in 1938. Both of Louis’s matches against Schmeling occurred during Hitler’s rise in Germany and symbolized the United States battling Nazism.

It was significant that Louis, an African American, represented the US in this struggle, even as racial prejudice raged at home. Famed author and poet Maya Angelou wrote in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings that whenever Louis struggled in a bout, “My race groaned. It was our people failing… If Joe lost, we were back in slavery and beyond help.” Yet when Louis successfully defended his title against Primo Carnera in 1935 (as he did 11 other times, the most of any champion before or since) Angelou recalled, “It wouldn’t be fit for a Black man and his family to be caught on a lonely country road on a night when Joe Louis had proved that [African Americans] were the strongest people in the world.”

This photo of Louis was taken by Carl Van Vechten on September 15, 1941 when Louis was 27 years old. Library of Congress
This photo of Louis was taken by Carl Van Vechten on September 15, 1941 when Louis was 27 years old. Library of Congress

When the US entered World War II in 1941, Louis served his country: he enlisted (though never saw combat), fought exhibition boxing matches, and donated large purses (the boxing term for prize money) to the war effort. He was viewed by much of white and black America as the epitome of patriotism. Sportswriter Jimmy Cannon said of Louis, “He was a credit to his race—the human race.” Sadly, by 1949 Louis’ extreme generosity to his friends, family, and country left him with nothing to show from his $5 million career. In fact, he wound up owing $1 million in back taxes, which the United States government later agreed not to collect. Nevertheless, when Louis died in 1981, he received a hero’s burial in Arlington National Cemetery.

Bird in a Box follows Louis’s career in the 1930s through the eyes of three kids hoping for a better life, inspired by their hero’s triumphs and struggles. We asked Andrea Davis Pinkney to tell us a little bit about her novel to get you excited for book club this Sunday. If you join us, you’ll not only get to meet an award-winning author and discuss a great book with other families, you’ll also get to see rarely exhibited images and documents related to Joe Louis and life during the Great Depression.

See what Pinkney has to say below, then join us this Sunday at 2 pm!

photo courtesy of the author
Photo courtesy of the author

DiMenna Children’s History Museum: Bird in a Box has three young protagonists—Hibernia, Willie and Otis—who lived during the Great Depression of the 1930s. They all find hope in boxer Joe Louis. Why did you choose to revolve their stories around Louis?

Andrea Davis Pinkney: One year at a family reunion, my grandmother told me a story about her grandfather, a kid boxer who wanted to be just like Joe. And so, my great grandfather became one of the characters in the book, Willie. When I started to do more research on the era, I found Joe Louis’ story fascinating. Today there are so many sports figures who young people admire.

DCHM: What made you want to write about kids’ lives in the 1930s?

ADP: I’ve always been intrigued with Depression-era stories, mostly because my parents both grew up in the 1930s and have shared some very colorful stories about that time in our nation’s history.

DCHM: Do you think there are any famous figures today who compare to Joe Louis? If so, who, and how do they compare?

ADP: Joe Louis was the Michael Jordan of his day—a true sports icon that young and old people admired.

DCHM: Which of your three protagonists would you most like to meet and why?

ADP: I’ve actually already met two of the protagonists. Hibernia, the girl in the story, is based on my mother. Otis, one of the boys, is based on my father. My parents met as children, so the story is inspired by their childhoods.

DCHM: What kind of research did you do for this book? Did you get to examine any original artifacts from the 1930s? What were they? How did examining them affect you or the novel?

ADP: I spent years researching the novel. There were some weekends when I parked myself at New York’s Museum of Broadcasting, where I listened to radio commentary of Joe Louis’ fights. I also took boxing lessons and collected sports memorabilia from the 1930s.

DCHM: What three words best describe Bird in a Box?

ADP: Friendship. Hope. Love.

Join us on Sunday, February 5, at 2 pm to meet and chat with Andrea Davis Pinkney at our Reading Into History Book Club!


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