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Books | Sports

July 31, 2012

Jack Johnson, World Heavyweight

How the first African-American world heavyweight champion challenged colonialism and set the template for today's athletes.

Max Lakin

Jack Johnson was making white people uncomfortable long before Jackie Robinson or Muhammad Ali. Here was a man equipped with enough flash and hypermasculine braggadocio to rival today's hardest stunting rapper, who whipped around in sports cars, clad in sable and sporting gold teeth; who drank champagne through those gold teeth; who kept leopards as pets; and who romanced or otherwise bedded a litany of notable white women of desire (Mae West and German spy Mata Hari included). This was a man who also happened to be the first African-American world heavyweight champion.

Theresa Runstedtler
"He was a very shrewd man whose ostentatious self-presentation was deliberate and political."

Theresa Runstedtler

Johnson inspired poetry and plays, race riots and political discourse, Miles Davis and Mos Def. And while he was by trade a boxer, he had a startlingly successful career moonlighting in the explosion of white anxieties.

As much as he was a locus of racial tension in America, Johnson was equally a prism for ideas about race abroad, refracting an eroding imperialism back upon itself and upsetting the comfy imperatives of the white man's burden. In the new exploration into Johnson's life, Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner: Boxing in the Shadow of the Global Color Line, American-studies scholar Theresa Runstedtler traces the fighter's global reach through his life and his bouts in Europe, Australia, Cuba, and elsewhere around the world.

In the following interview, conducted via email and edited for clarity, Gelf chats with Runstedtler about Johnson's anticolonial legacy, why heavyweights matter more, and how he's served as a model for the modern black athlete.

Gelf Magazine: You were a dancer and actress. Have you always had an affinity for boxing?

Theresa Runstedtler: I grew up in Kitchener, Ontario, the home of many black Canadian boxers. I still remember the parade the city threw when Lennox Lewis won the gold medal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. I think I still have the postcard with his photo somewhere in my old room in my parents' house. When I was in my early 20s, I met the Johnson brothers—Chris and Greg—who were both Canadian champions. Greg taught me the basics of how to box. Being Filipino, I've also been a huge Manny Pacquiao fan over the years.

Gelf Magazine: How did you approach Johnson's story?

Theresa Runstedtler: Because I had seen first-hand what happened behind the scenes in the entertainment and sports industries, doing research on Johnson—the first black celebrity with global reach—was a natural transition for me as a PhD student in history and African-American studies at Yale University. As much as Johnson was an athlete, he was also a performer and public figure who sparked heated debates about racism and imperialism on the world stage. I quickly became taken with his life story—especially his international travels—and I was surprised that not much had been written on his impact abroad.
From a scholarly point of view, I was interested in studying early-20th-century black American opinions on international politics and US foreign relations. However, I didn't just want to look at the writings of educated black elites (i.e. intellectuals, writers, artists, activists). I wanted to explore ordinary people's understandings of race/racism in an global context. Since Johnson was such a famous, well-traveled, and controversial figure who challenged white supremacy on a number of fronts, he seemed like the perfect person through which to examine these larger themes.

Gelf Magazine: Why do you think Johnson inspired more vitriol than earlier black boxers, like, say, Joe Gans?

Theresa Runstedtler: First of all, Johnson was a heavyweight, and as Eldridge Cleaver noted in Soul on Ice, "The boxing ring is the ultimate focus of masculinity in America, the two-fisted testing ground of manhood, and the heavyweight champion, as a symbol, is the real Mr. America."
Johnson also emerged in an era of self-conscious imperial expansion, when the US and European nations like Britain and France were endeavoring to gain greater control over the world's land, resources, labor, and markets.
I think that another factor contributing to the widespread vilification of Johnson was the advancement of faster forms of transportation and communications technologies. If he triumphed over a white competitor in Reno, news and images (particularly moving pictures) of his victory could spread to the farthest reaches of the colonial world. Johnson's wins in the ring and his audacious lifestyle beyond the ring, including his relationships with white women, took on a new significance in this broader racial climate.

Gelf Magazine: Johnson's status as this racial bogeyman—to the point where his success made whites so itchy that there was a national effort to reclaim the title from him (the search for "the Great White Hope") speaks as much about race in America at that time as it does boxing in America. Most Americans would be lost to name an active domestic fighter, much less fasten their personal worth and destinies to his record. Is there a modern analog to that level of social-sport complex?

Theresa Runstedtler: The racial narratives that undergird inequality in the US have morphed since the days of Johnson. I don't think that in Johnson's day the reaction would have been quite the same in team and/or non-combat sports. We have to remember that the concept of the "white man's burden" provided a ready rationale for the Western powers' violent and invasive interventions into the lives of nonwhites. And this idea that white men (and their nations) had a special mission to "civilize" the supposedly "savage" peoples of the colonized world hinged on the belief that white men were inherently superior,—not just intellectually, politically, and morally, but also physically. Thus, the stripped-down, man-on-man competition between racial representatives in the boxing ring took on a special significance. Promoters and spectators often discussed and imagined interracial prizefights as moments when they would see social Darwinism ("the survival of the fittest") in action. For a black man to win the heavyweight championship of the world was a political nightmare in the late imperial age.

Gelf Magazine: Johnson enjoyed a then-peerless level of notoriety, luxuriating in the disruptive, anti-establishment persona that was drawn on him. How does he prefigure the age of the celebrity athlete?

Theresa Runstedtler: I think that many black athletes have used Johnson as a kind of model of black masculine expression. He talked a lot of trash during his fights. He publicized his enjoyment of luxurious clothing and jewels, fast cars, and sumptuous eating and drinking. This kind of "swagger" became a popular mode of not only defying popular notions of black savagery and inferiority, but also of defying the expectations placed on black athletes to be appropriate "role models."
In the mainstream media today, black male athletes—especially the flashy, flamboyant kind—are usually assumed to be foolish, if not tragic figures. They are often held up as examples of how not to be; as examples of a kind of stunted—if not failed—masculinity; as examples of the problems of black excess and overindulgence in the post-civil-rights era of affirmative action and a supposedly bloated welfare state; as examples of what can happen if well-meaning, liberal white Americans don't uphold proper "law and order," or if they give in to the material and social needs of urban black communities.
As much as we might love to hate them, think of folks like Floyd Mayweather, Jr. or Allen Iverson or Michael Vick or Metta World Peace. They are some of the most prominent figures through which the US public imagines and debates the so-called "crisis of black manhood."
However, I want to break us out of the confines of this limited discussion of black masculinity and its supposed pathology—a discussion that often dominates the sports media, usually for the titillation of largely white male audiences. Johnson's numerous trials and tribulations throughout his career illustrate that the demonization of flamboyant black athletes is nothing new. Although boxing historians have typically told the story of Johnson as a reckless "rebel without a cause," he was actually a very shrewd man whose ostentatious self-presentation was deliberate and political in the context of his day.

Gelf Magazine: The most recent attempt at exonerating Johnson on his "white slavery" conviction (possibly the most impossibly ironic charge leveled against anyone, ever) were spearheaded by—of all people—John McCain. You write that President Obama's unwillingness to revisit the issue was perhaps better than his resolving it, not for avoiding the immediate and obviously fraught racial parallels, but because "the domestication of Johnson obscures the fact that despite the achievements of the black freedom struggle to date, there is still much unfinished business." Do you think the sham charges actually retain any meaning? Certainly they don't shade Johnson's legacy as a fighter, or dilute what he did in accelerating colonial erosion.

Theresa Runstedtler: I go back and forth on the pardon movement all the time. Right now, I feel that a pardon might actually be an important symbolic victory for people of color in the US, if it is handled in the right way. I'm actually working on a public petition to pardon Johnson with a Broadway producer who is working on a revival of The Great White Hope. To give you an idea of what I'm thinking, here's an excerpt from the draft of the petition:

This is not just a matter of righting a historical wrong. We want to celebrate Johnson's courageous legacy of challenging the racial and social status quo. We see a presidential pardon as a beginning rather than an ending—as a way for us to come together and publicly reaffirm our shared commitment to honoring the long history of black America's freedom struggle and to continue fighting all forms of discrimination.

In other words, the pardon should be designed to inspire a conversation about our unfinished struggle against discrimination (racial, gender, sexual, etc.), not just in the US, but on the world stage. Rather than marking the end of racism or the dawn of a post-racial America, it should mark the beginning of a renewed fight for justice. At a moment when mass incarceration disproportionately impacts people of color, when incidents of anti-black violence continue to go unpunished, and when some Americans are still denied the right to marry, Johnson's pardon could be an important symbol.

Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.

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Article by Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.

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