Sweet Thunder

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  • Edition: 1st
  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 2009-10-13
  • Publisher: Knopf

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From the author of the critically acclaimed Sammy Davis, Jr., biographyIn Black and White,a sweeping biographycumcultural history centered around one of the most iconic figures of boxing. Wil Haygood grounds the story of Sugar Ray Robinson's spectacular rise to greatness firmly within the historical context of his lifetime: born in 1921, Robinson came of age when the country seethed with virulent racism. Detroit was his birthplace, but from the time he was young, Harlem was his home. It was there that he began boxing, at thirteen, and, in the 1940s and 1950s, became a staple figure, glamorous and electrifying, emerging as a powerful symbol of Black America. Among the great strengths of the book are the vivid descriptions of Sugar Ray's unique blend of grace and ferocity in the ring. But with equal vividness, the author describes Robinson's life outside the ring, weaving in portraits of Langston Hughes, Lena Horne, and Miles Daviswhose lives not only intersected with Sugar Ray's but also contribute to the illumination of his moment in our cultural and political history. From scrappy street kid to cultural icon to the relative obscurity of his last years, Sugar Ray comes hauntingly and powerfully to life against the vivid backdrop of the world he captivated.

Author Biography

Wil Haygood, who lives in Washington, D.C., is a staff writer for the Style section of The Washington Post. In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis, Jr. received the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Legacy Award, the ASCAP Deems Taylor Outstanding Musical Biography Award, and the Nonfiction Book of the Year award from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association, and it was named one of the top ten books of the year by the Chicago Tribune.

Table of Contents

list of illustrationsp. ix
Prologue: Round Midnightp. 5
Say Goodbye to Walker Smith Jr. 1921-1942p. 11
Sugar Ray's Uniform 1943-1944p. 55
Esquire Men 1945-1946p. 99
A Lovely Setup for the Old Manp. 137
Killer 1947p. 155
An Opera in Six Brutal Acts 1942-1951p. 185
Around (a Part of) the World in Fifty Days 1951p. 267
Dreams 1952p. 305
The Very Thought of You Onstage 1953-1954p. 329
Greatness Again 1954-1956p. 349
Battling 1960-1962p. 363
Autumn Leaves 1963-1966p. 383
Saving All Those Walker Smith Juniors 1967-1989p. 397
Epiloguep. 409
acknowledgmentsp. 415
source notesp. 419
selected bibliographyp. 421
notesp. 427
indexp. 443
Table of Contents provided by Ingram. All Rights Reserved.


WHILE LEADING TROOPS into battle in 1775—and with time to assess his setbacks while shifting and plotting new strategies during the American Revolution— George Washington came to a conclusion about sartorial affairs and his colonial militias: His soldiers were badly dressed. In the field, their clothing consisted of common apparel: shirts and pants and shoes they managed to grab from cabin or tent. Spotting them from yards away, one was hard pressed to distinguish a private from an officer. The slipshod dress— soldiers had no uniforms at the Battle of Bunker Hill— often created confusion in the ranks. Soon enough Gen. Washington insisted on uniforms for all his men. The standards of military dress would be elevated even more in succeeding American engagements.

It was World War II that marked the first time military dress was lent the sheen of celebrity. From Broadway to Hollywood, men and women from the entertainment ranks would be featured in newsreels and on magazine covers wearing their military attire.LifeandPhotoplaymagazines were particularly adept at placing uniformed stars on their covers and throughout their pages. Jimmy Stewart and Clark Gable looked as genuine in uniform on a military base as they had on celluloid.

Nothing created more of a high- wire act for American officialdom, however, than the combination of blacks and war. It was a segregated country, and Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson remained opposed to integration of the armed forces. But Washington officials were aware of the sporadic outbursts of Negro activism around the country in recent years, protesting the failure of antilynching and antidiscrimination legislation. Some notable figures from the black community— Paul Robeson, W. E. B. DuBois— had uttered rather romantic sentiments about the Communist Party, a circumstance that made Washington twitchy, the more so after the blood began to spill upon the sand following the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

Might blacks sour on patriotism? Might America be unable to showcase a unified front across racial lines? Labor leader John L. Lewis, in a nationwide radio address delivered before the attack on Pearl Harbor, minced no words about what he saw as the state of war and jobs and equal rights. “Labor in America wants no war nor any part of war. Labor in America wants the right to work and live— not the privilege of dying by gunshot or poison gas to sustain the mental errors of current statesmen.”

Could a populace— black men and women— be gathered up and set down on military bases and all the while be expected to heed the same imprisoning rules that applied in outside society?

There were no Negro Hollywood stars for the War Department to woo. No figure from the Negro community in Tinseltown whose
weekly movements were followed and marveled at by the larger public, giving them the aura of celebrity and creating a public relations boon.

Having no one from Hollywood to turn to, the War Department reached into the Negro world of sports. And that meant Joe Louis
and Sugar Ray Robinson.

Robinson was clearly rising in boxing circles, and quite rapidly. In 1941, in an Associated Press sports editors’ poll ranking athletes,
Robinson received 29 points to Joe Louis’s 14. That positioned Robinson in sixth place to Louis’s tenth. Frank Sinkwich, the University of Georgia’s galloping halfback, was named the nation’s number-one male athlete that year; Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams was right behind Sinkwich. (Before he had officially entered the military, Robinson participated in a celebrity boxing
event at Camp Upton, on Long Island, with the main draw being an exhibition bout between Joe Louis and his sparring mate George Nicholson. It was a mixture of boxing and entertainment watched by a crowd of seven thousand, and both Sugar Ray

Excerpted from Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson by Wil Haygood
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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