Russell Baker doesn’t shy away from portraying his mother’s less attractive traits, and is straightforward about her racism. “I’ve got nothing against a Negro as long as he knows his place,” Russell recalls his mother saying. Baker himself was offended by such sentiments, and learned from the example of boxer Joe Louis, who “could pound white men senseless with so little exertion,” that the Negro’s place was his only because of the considerable exertion of white America to keep him in it.
Russell Baker’s neighborhood in Baltimore was very similar to most neighborhoods during the Great Depression. Black people were considered “unworthy and inconsequential”, (256) and they were tolerable as long as they knew their “place” and stayed in it. Up until he first witnessed Joe Louis fight Max Schmeling, Russell had been fairly unaccustomed to African Americans and racism. Russell’s only encounter with a black person was Annie Grigsby, Ida Rebecca’s next-door neighbor. Annie had been born in slavery, and this made her a notable citizen of the town. Everyone knew her as the one “born in slavery” (61). The people of Morrisville were proud of their citizen “born in slavery”. “We in Morrisville didn’t have to hang our heads. We had Annie.” (61). In this context, Russell grew up familiar with African Americans, but not with the troubles that they encountered.
To Russell Baker, when Joe Louis knocked out Max Schmeling, it meant more to him than an American victory over Germany and Nazism; it opened his eyes to the life and spirit of the black man. Russell was first surprised when he watched Joe Louis fight because he thought that racism “had been in place so long it seemed tot have been divinely ordained” (257). After Louis’ victory, Russell witnessed a spectacular development in racial affairs. Watching the black men march out of the alley and onto Lombard street, Russell discovered that the “black spirit was not completely lifeless” (257). This is a prime example of how ignorant Russell was to the plight of the black man, and how this one event changed his views forever.
The Great Depression was a poor time period to live in, but Russell Baker had it comparatively easy when one looks at the tough time that African Americans had. Life was hard enough during the depression without jobs being “stolen” from the blacks to give to the whites. Many white managers and owners fired their black workers and filled their positions with white workers during the depression. Russell Baker never had to worry about this, nor did his family. Had Russell Baker been black and been denied a job due to his skin color, his view of the Great Depression would have been a significantly different one.
Russell questioned many of his previous thoughts on racism that he learned from his mother and from experience. His thought that racism was a “universal order” that had been “divinely ordained” (257) was shattered when Joe Louis became heavyweight champion of the world and Russell thought, “how could faith in the universal order be justified so long as Joe Louis, a black man, was allowed to pound white men senseless with so little exertion?” (257). Russell’s view and experience with racism during the Great Depression, although not a complete one, still offers a very important view into the life and hardships of the black community.