Feb 8, 2021 in Review

Joe Louis Monument

When I was fifteen, my life brought me to a place that would later become my personal spot of the annual pilgrimage. I was in Detroit, namely at Detroits Hart Plaza. The open space was dominated by a single monument that immediately captivated by body and soul. I stood there, physically still though emotionally moved by the sculpture of the giant extended arm that ended in a tight fist hitting nothing but air. That disjointed hand hovered over the plaza, attached to a pyramidal support construction. The vision was surrealistic. For my inquiry of what it was, I heard an answer. It was Joe Louis Monument any citizen of Detroit knew it. At that time, I could not know that the odd object was to become my major lifetime attraction.

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The monument, commonly known as The Fist, is a twenty-four-foot-long bronze sculpture that weighs around eight thousand pounds and, ironically and symbolically, honors the heavyweight boxer Joe Louis, the world champion in 1937-1950. Louis grew up in the so-called Black Bottom, a former Detroits African-American neighborhood. Joe Louis is claimed to be the first African American sports idol that stood out at the predominantly white background of the American society of that century. Joe Louis fights were many. He fought against his sports rivals in the boxing ring. He also fought against racism and social injustice in the ring of everyday life. Foremost, he fought for justice, equality and the African American identity, as well as identities and rights of every citizen, in general. He wanted the world to be an equal place. The American hero died in 1981, thus, witnessing how his initial effort developed into the nation-wide civil-rights movements of the 1960s. Nowadays, his legacy is manifold. The country remembers his input into sports life, as well as the social and political life of the nation. Even though Joe Louis is no longer with us, his mighty fist is the fist that broke many walls and barriers, both physical and moral. It hangs over Detroit as an eloquent reminder of a real heros power.

The unusual and to a great extent provocative form of the monument has been arousing debates for decades. The creator of the monument is late Robert Graham. His artistic choice and architects vision resulted in the controversial formation that some people like and others hate. I have found an old article issued in 1986, the year when the monument was dedicated. The article by James Risen with LA Times begins with a quoted reaction to the new sculpture. One of the citizens, someone Barbara Johnson, was bewildered that the city could not afford making the whole statue. Thus, she thought that the arm was not a concept but a mere testimony of the cut budget. Evidently, it is not the case. According to a more recent article in Huffington Post titled Monument To Joe Louis': 25 Years Later, Detroit Fist Sculpture Still Incites Controversy and written by Kate Abbey-Lambertz, Graham told the Detroit News in 1999, People bring their own experiences to the sculpture. I wanted to leave the image open, allowing it to become a symbol rather than make it specific. I share Grahams vision and understand his idea.

I tend to come to the monument anytime I am nearby, that is, about once per month. Every time I come to the sculpture, it is different. Naturally, it looks and feels different under various weather conditions and seasons. In summer, when the sun heats the metal, the arm becomes warm. At such times, it resembles a real human hand live with blood pulsing in its veins. By the end of a sunny day, the hand becomes so hot that it is nearly impossible to touch it. It reminds me of the heat that adrenalin blood rush brings into ones body during a fight, be it a street fight, boxing in the ring, or military hand-to-hand combat. Besides, the smell of the hot metal bears a striking resemblance to the smell and taste of blood, with its salty and rusty odor. At winter, on the contrary, the arm becomes cold. It no longer looks or feels like a real arm of a giant of a man whom Joe Louis was, in all senses. The cold metal in unwelcome to touch. It becomes hostile and seems dead. In addition to seasons, the weather patterns further impede my objective perception. When the day is sunny, the sun rays bounce off the metallic pseudo-skin making it look flesh-colored, silky and smooth like real human skin. In contrast, when it rains, the metal looks like skin covered with sweat as if it were, indeed, Louis arm engaged in a heated boxing match. Thus, I would not deny that seasons and weather play with my perception, altering it. However, they are not the sole cause of changes in my vision of the artwork. I believe that the monument seems different from time to time first and foremost because I am different.

As a personality, I change though time. Respectively, when I come to see The Fist, I view it at a new angle and perceive it in a new way. One may compare this phenomenon to re-reading a book from the childhood when already being an adult. A bright example is the book The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. When children read it, they perceive it as a fable. When grownups re-read it, they see a deeper political, economic and ethical subtext in what once seemed to be a plain fairy tale. The same truth is applicable to monuments. I was a teenager when I discovered the Joe Louis Monument. Back then, it intrigued and inspired me with its rogue physical power. It reminded me of a heros fist extended to punch an invisible rival. Thus, I saw foremost the physical part of the sculpture and its message. I saw only the iron fist of Joe Louis.

Year after year, I continuously rediscovered the sculpture. Each time was like the first time. The second visit brought me new impressions from paying attention to details. I was engaged in analyzing the giant hands each curve that represented the muscles and their dynamic movement caught in the iron stillness of the moment. I could nearly feel the tension in it by observing the stylized veins. The next time, I sat there and thoughts about the hollow pyramidal frame that supported the hand. I concluded that the carcass could symbolize breaking through or going beyond the limits. After all, it is what Joe Louis did during his lifetime of endless social and sports battles. He fought the social pyramid from within. From that day on, the hidden symbolism became the magnet that drew me to the monument. It became the focal point of all my following visits. I stood, walked or sat there waiting for the new edge of meaning to unveil. The revelations and associations dawned on me unexpectedly and often caught me by surprise. I thought about anything that the sculpture could indicate, ranging from the wonders of the human anatomy and physical endurance, to fight against racism, to a part of the fist bump greeting gesture popular among men.

The last time when I stopped by was about a week ago. I came to the monument as a man with much experience behind his shoulders. For some reason (and for the first time), the shape of Louis arm made me recall my military times. In its confined form, I saw the iron fist of discipline about which I wrote in my previous essay. That single association triggered a chain reaction of introspection on the topic. I saw how that symbolical iron fist of discipline was holding me for years, starting from high school, to college, university and, ultimately, military training and battlefield. At times, I thought that the invisible fist would crush me. Fortunately, I was strong enough not to break down. In fact, when I look at Joe Louis Monument now, I think of myself withstanding the blow of life circumstances. I have transformed the burden of discipline into the personal value of self-discipline. I turned it into my advantage. Thus, in addition to the original meaning encapsulated in the sculpture by its creator, I happened to discover the hidden reference to one of my kernel values and the whole process of its cultivation. Perhaps, the next time I visit the sculpture I will see the iron fist of my will.

In conclusion, Robert Graham was right to believe that every man would bring something different to (and into) Joe Louis Monument. I brought my memories, and the sculpture aroused and revived them. I brought my life experience, and the hand served as a guide through it. I brought personal questions, and the monument answered them. I brought personal values, and it strengthened them. In fact, there is much more of what the fist brought to me than I did to it.


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