MAYA ANGELOU was born Marguerite Johnson in Saint Louis in 1928. After
an unpleasantly eventful youth by her account (“from a broken family, raped
at eight, unwed mother at sixteen”), she went on to join a dance company,
star in an off-Broadway play (The Blacks), write six books of poetry, produce
a TV series on Africa, act in the television series Roots, serve as a coordinator
for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, direct a feature film,
win the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and secure lifetime membership in
the National Women’s Hall of Fame. Angelou may be best known, however,
for the six books of her searching, frank, and joyful autobiography- beginning
with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970), which she adapted for
television, through A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002). Her most recent book
is Hallelujah! The Welcome Table: A Lifetime of Memories with Recipes (2004 ).
She is Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University.
Champion of the World
“Champion of the World” is the nineteenth chapter in I Know Why the
Caged Bird Sings; the title is a phrase taken from the chapter. Remembering
her childhood, the writer tells how she and her older brother, Bailey, grew up
in a town in Arkansas. The center of their lives was Grandmother and Uncle
Willie’s store, a gathering place for the black community. On the night when
this story takes place, Joe Louis, the “Brown Bomber” and the hero of his
people, defends his heavyweight boxing title against a white contender.
Angelou’s telling of the event both entertains us and explains what it was
like to be African American in a certain time and place.
Amy Tan’s “Fish Cheeks,” following Angelou’s essay, also explores the
experience of growing up an outsider in mainly white America.
The last inch of space was filled, yet people continued to wedge themselves
along the walls of the Store. Uncle Willie had turned the radio up to its
last notch so that youngsters on the porch wouldn’t miss a word. Women sat
on kitchen chairs, dining-room chairs, stools, and upturned wooden boxes.
Small children and babies perched on every lap available and men leaned on
the shelves or on each other.
The apprehensive mood was shot through with shafts of gaiety, as a black
sky is streaked with lightning.
“I ain’t worried ’bout this fight. Joe’s gonna whip that cracker like it’s open
Angelou I Champion of the World 89
“He gone whip him till that white boy call him Momma.” 4
At last the talking finished and the string-along songs about razor blades 5
were over and the fight began.
“A quick jab to the head.” In the Store the crowd grunted. “A left to the 6
head and a right and another left.” One of the listeners cackled like a hen and
was quieted.
“They’re in a clinch, Louis is trying to fight his way out.” 7
Some bitter comedian on the porch said, “That white man don’t mind s
hugging that niggah now, I betcha.”
“The referee is moving in to break them up, but Louis finally pushed the 9
contender away and it’s an uppercut to the chin. The contender is hanging on,
now he’s backing away. Louis catches him with a short left to the jaw.”
A tide of murmuring assent poured out the door and into the yard. 10
“Another left and another left. Louis is saving that mighty right … ” 11
The mutter in the Store had grown into a baby roar and it was pierced by the
clang of a bell and the announcer’s “That’s the bell for round three, ladies and
As I pushed my way into the Store I wondered if the announcer gave any 12
thought to the fact that he was addressing as “ladies and gentlemen” all the
Negroes around the world who sat sweating and praying, glued to their “Master’s
There were only a few calls for RC Colas, Dr Peppers, and Hires root beer. 13
The real festivities would begin after the fight. Then even the old Christian
ladies who taught their children and tried themselves to practice turning the
other cheek would buy soft drinks, and if the Brown Bomber’s victory was a
particularly bloody one they would order peanut patties and Baby Ruths also.
Bailey and I laid the coins on top of the cash register. Uncle Willie didn’t 14
allow us to ring up sales during a fight. It was too noisy and might shake up the
atmosphere. When the gong rang for the next round we pushed through the
near-sacred quiet to the herd of children outside.
“He’s got Louis against the ropes and now it’s a left to the body and a right 15
to the ribs. Another right to the body, it looks like it was low … Yes, ladies
and gentlemen, the referee is signaling but the contender keeps raining the
blows on Louis. It’s another to the body, and it looks like Louis is going down.”
My race groaned. It was our people falling. It was another lynching, yet 16
another Black man hanging on a tree. One more woman ambushed and raped.
A Black boy whipped and maimed. It was hounds on the trail of a man running
through slimy swamps. It was a white woman slapping her maid for being forgetful.

1 “His master’s voice,” accompanied by a picture of a little dog listening to a phonograph,
was a familiar advertising slogan. (The picture still appears on some RCA recordings.)-Eos.
90 Narration
The men in the Store stood away from the walls and at attention. Women 17
greedily clutched the babes on their laps while on the porch the shufflings and
smiles, flirtings and pinching of a few minutes before were gone. This might
be the end of the world. If Joe lost we were back in slavery and beyond help.
It would all be true, the accusations that we were lower types of human
beings. Only a little higher than apes. True that we were stupid and ugly and
lazy and dirty and, unlucky and worst of all, that God Himself hated us and
ordained us to be hewers of wood and drawers of water, forever and ever, world
without end.
We didn’t breathe. We didn’t hope. We waited. 18
“He’s off the ropes, ladies and gentlemen. He’s moving towards the center 19
of the ring.” There was no time to be relieved. The worst might still happen.
“And now it looks like Joe is mad. He’s caught Camera with a left hook to 20
the head and a right to the head. It’s a left jab to the body and another left to
the head. There’s a left cross and a right to the head. The contender’s right eye
is bleeding and he can’t seem to keep his block up. Louis is penetrating every
block. The referee is moving in, but Louis sends a left to the body and it’s an
uppercut to the chin and the contender is dropping. He’s on the canvas, ladies
and gentlemen.”
Babies slid to the floor as women stood up and men leaned toward the radio. 21
“Here’s the referee. He’s counting. One, two, three, four, five, six, 22
seven … Is the contender trying to get up again?”
All the men in the store shouted, “NO.” 23
“-eight, nine, ten.” There were a few sounds from the audience, but they 24
seemed to be holding themselves in against tremendous pressure.
“The fight is all over, ladies and gentlemen. Let’s get the microphone over 25
to the referee … Here he is. He’s got the Brown Bomber’s hand, he’s holding
it up … Here he is … ”
Then the voice, husky and familiar, came to wash over us-“The win- 26
nah, and still heavyweight champeen of the world … Joe Louis.”
Champion of the world. A Black boy. Some Black mother’s son. He was 27
the strongest man in the world. People drank Coca-Colas like ambrosia and
ate candy bars like Christmas. Some of the men went behind the Store and
poured white lightning in their soft-drink bottles, and a few of the bigger boys
followed them. Those who were not chased away came back blowing their
breath in front of themselves like proud smokers.
It would take an hour or more before the people would leave the Store 28
and head for home. Those who lived too far had made arrangements to stay in
town. It wouldn’t do for a Black man and his family to be caught on a lonely
country road on a night when Joe Louis had proved that we were the strongest
people in the world.
·.·.·····,····: •. :1.··· .·

Angelou I Champion of the World 91
For a reading quiz, sources on Maya Angelou, and annotated links to further readings
on joe Louis and on the history of segregation in the South, visit bedfordstmartins
journal Writing
How do you respond to the group identification and solidarity that Angelou writes
about in this essay? What groups do you belong to, and how do you know you’re a
member? Consider groups based on race, ethnic background, religion, sports, hobbies,
politics, friendship, kinship, or any other ties. (To take your journal writing further,
see “From Journal to Essay” on the next page.)
Questions on Meaning
1. What do you take to be the author’s PURPOSE in telling this story?
2. What connection does Angelou make between the outcome of the fight and the
pride of African Americans? To what degree do you think the author’s view is
shared by the others in the store listening to the broadcast?
3. To what extent are the statements in paragraphs 16 and 17 to be taken literally?
What function do they serve in Angelou’s narrative?
4. Primo Camera was probably not the Brown Bomber’s opponent on the night
Maya Angelou recalls. Louis fought Camera only once, on June 25, 1935, and it
was not a title match; Angelou would have been no more than seven years old at
the time. Does the author’s apparent error detract from her story?
Questions on Writing Strategy
1. What details in the opening paragraphs indicate that an event of crucial importance
is about to take place?
2. How does Angelou build up SUSPENSE in her account of the fight? At what point
were you able to predict the winner?
3. Comment on the IRONY in Angelou’s final paragraph.
4. What EFFECT does the author’s use of direct quotation have on her narrative?
5. OTHER METHODS. Besides narration, Angelou also relies heavily on the method
of DESCRIPTION. Analyze how narration depends on description in paragraph 27
Questions on Language
1. Explain what the author means by “string-along songs about razor blades” (par. 5).
2. Point to some examples in the essay of Angelou’s use of strong verbs.
Maya Angelou on Writing 93
I try to set myself up in each chapter by saying: “This is what I want to
go from-from B to, say, G-sharp. Or from D to L.” And then I find the hook.
It’s like the knitting, where, after you knit a certain amount, there’s one
thread that begins to pull. You know, you can see it right along the cloth.
Well, in writing, I think: “Now where is that one hook, that one little thread?”
It may be a sentence. If I can catch that, then I’m home free. It’s the one
that tells me where I’m going. It may not even tum out to be in the final chapter.
I may throw it out later or change it. But if I follow it through, it leads me
right out.
For Discussion
1. How would you define the word rhythm as Maya Angelou uses it?
2. What response would you give a student who
















































































































































































Sample Solution