33 pages 1 hour read

Kwame Alexander

The Undefeated

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 2019

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Themes

Empowerment through Strength

The best word to describe “The Undefeated” is “empowering.” Written by a Black author, illustrated by a Black artist, and created for a Black audience, this poem seeks to empower its readers with an understanding of history and a celebration of what it means to be an African American. This theme of empowerment begins with the first figure of the poem, track and field olympian Jesse Owens. Owens is perhaps most famous for winning four gold medals at the 1936 olympics in Nazi Germany. Owens’s domination of his white competitors was a monumental moment in history, specifically because it occured in front of Adolf Hitler, who believed in the superiority of what he called the “master race,” which meant Aryan white Germans.

The image of Owens in the poem is accompanied by a description of him, saying he “hurdled history / and opened a world / of possible” (Lines 3-5). The poem awards Owens the historical legacy he deserves as a Black man who literally triumphed over evil and hatred.

This empowering figure couples well with boxer Jack Johnson, who appears later in the poem. Alexander says that Johnson boxed adversity. This refers to more than just Johnson’s boxing prowess; it refers to the fact that Johnson became the heavyweight champion of the world at the height of Jim Crow America, beating a white boxer the public had nicknamed The Great White Hope in the desperate hope that a Black man would not win the title.

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