You were a child, a dark-skinned child, and you knew Jesse Owens before you even knew why. He had been a sprinter and a broad jumper, that much you understood; but there was something more than just his speed that made black folk, even people who cared nothing about sports, swell their chests a little bit at the mention of his name. There was this one time when your house was full, loud with laughter, and a distinguished-looking older man appeared on the television screen. "Isn't that Jesse?" somebody asked. "Hush, that's Jesse." And there was silence while Jesse Owens spoke.
He was in his 50's by then, and the young Owens, the one older people saw in their mind's eye, was a spectral figure to you. Even after you understood what he had done, how he had mortified Adolf Hitler by winning four gold medals in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, he seemed unreal, and that murky black-and-white newsreel of his Olympic performance only made him more so. As he raced past his competitors he was more idea than man, a charcoal rebuttal to Nazi notions of Aryan supremacy.
You cannot truly say you wish you had been there in Berlin to see him win the broad jump and the 100-and 200-meter dashes, and run the first leg for the victorious 4 x 100-meter relay team—not in that place at that time in history. Merely being in the stadium on those muggy August days would not have been enough to truly grasp the flesh and blood of it anyway. To do that you would have had to be down on the infield with him for the second event, the broad jump, in which his main competitor was one of Hitler's most prized athletes, Luz Long. Owens, the world-record holder in the event, had fouled on the first two of his three qualifying jumps. Now he was in a state of panic—his third jump would be his last chance to advance. Failure would not just humiliate him, it would also give credence to the vile theories of Hider, who, after Owens had won the 100, had said, "The Americans should be ashamed of themselves, letting Negroes win their medals for them. I shall not shake hands with this Negro."
It was after Owens's second foul in the broad jump that Long, of all people, approached him. "What has taken your goat?" he asked, making Owens smile at the mangled American idiom. They talked briefly, and Long offered words of encouragement and advice, suggesting that Owens start farther back on his approach to make sure he didn't foul. Calmed, Owens sailed past the qualifying distance on his third jump and later that day beat Long for the gold medal with a leap of 26'5�", then an Olympic record. The two men cemented their bond later in the Olympic Village, talking well into the night about athletics and art, about race and politics. Those were the moments you wish you could have witnessed, when two competitors of different races, with different allegiances, found common ground.
Owens returned to the U.S. a hero, but after the commotion died down, he was still a black man in 1930s America. Less than a year after the Olympics, unable to find a job with both dignity and a paycheck big enough to pay his college tuition, he had to lower himself to racing exhibitions against horses three times a week. Five cents of every dollar people paid to watch the spectacle went into Owens's pocket. Even that couldn't diminish his stature in the eyes of people who remembered those days in Berlin. Nor could it diminish him in the eyes of a dark-skinned child who was told the tale.
Now there is another child, very much like the boy you once were, and he sees Owens's picture on the book in your hand. You ask him if he knows who Jesse Owens was, and he says he has heard the name. Now it is time to tell him why.