This essay explores the notion of the race icon, a prominent public image or figure that stands in for a racial group, as it is exploited as a tool both for racial debasement and for racial uplift. The essay traces the public imaging of the heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis, whose iconography has been adapted to different, and sometimes conflicting, political agendas over five decades, from a talisman of “joy-mad” race consolidation against Jim Crow in the mid-1930s to a totem for color-blind racial transcendence in the post–civil rights moment of the mid-1980s. Asking how the race icon achieves its discursive power for both the social elites who often construct such iconography and for the masses who are wrongly presumed simply to consume it, the article investigates the rhetoric, aesthetics, and ideology of claiming iconic status based on access to and transference of racial identity from a public icon to a collective political body. Focusing on the public response to the controversial 1986 Detroit statue Monument to Joe Louis, sculpted by Mexican American artist Robert Graham, the essay suggests that public art created on behalf of cross-racial healing most frequently facilitates the very social divisions it seeks to suture.

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