What Was the Purpose of “The Champion of the World” by Maya Angelou in “The Bedford Reader”?

The purpose of “The Champion of the World” is to describe the solidarity and desperation of African Americans in the face of a violently racist Southern United States. In a world in which black men were lynched, black women “ambushed and raped,” and black boys “whipped and maimed,” the fate of an entire people seems to rest on a boxing match between a black champion and his white contender.

“The Champion of the World” is an excerpt from Maya Angelou’s 1969 autobiography, explains Portland Community College. The poem paints a portrait of an impoverished, rural, African American community in Arkansas, who gather at a general store to listen by radio to a fighting match between Joe Louis, an African American heavyweight boxing championship, and a white challenger. Joe Louis held the American heavyweight championship from 1947 to 1949. Angelou’s story, based on a memory of her childhood, describes in detail the poverty, the sense of both community and threat experienced by African Americans during the pre-Civil Rights era and the collective hopes and dreams that rested on Louis’ ability to maintain his standing as a world champion in boxing. According to Michael Dembrow, Oregon state senator and former English instructor, boxing was one of the few areas in both life and athletics where blacks could compete equally, and for a black boxer “to win and maintain the championship belt means that African Americans can aspire to equality with Whites.”