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Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner
Boxing in the Shadow of the Global Color Line
By Theresa Runstedtler
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
Jack Johnson and the White Pacific
This battle may in the future be looked back upon as the first great battle of an inevitable race war ... there is more in this fight to be considered than the mere title of pugilistic champion of the world.
—Australian Star on Burns versus Johnson, 5 December 1908
On 26 December 1906 Jack Johnson left San Francisco for his first journey overseas, traveling to Australia aboard the steamship Sonoma. At twenty-nine years of age, the African American heavyweight was by no means a rookie; he was already well known in professional prizefight circles and had traveled throughout the United States. He was also very well versed in the racist ways of Jim Crow America. What Johnson knew less was the kind of reception that awaited him beyond U.S. borders. As his manager, Alec McLean, assured him, Australia could not be any worse than America. Not in need of much convincing, the ambitious Johnson agreed to try his luck abroad.
Johnson's initial experiences matched his optimism. Although he battled seasickness throughout the trip, he was sad to leave the "charming friends" he had met aboard the Sonoma. Johnson later recalled, "For the first time in my life, I was pleased to find myself in a group in which we did not take into account people's color." When he arrived in Sydney on 24 January 1907, the city's white sportsmen embraced him with open arms, and local newspapers declared that he would not be forced to confront a color line in Australia.
Despite this warm welcome, Australian fans had more in common with their white American counterparts than they cared to admit. As they viewed Johnson through the distorted lens of blackface minstrelsy, he appeared more an exotic curiosity than a man. "He has a genial face," the Sydney Truth described, "somewhat babyish looking and of the type of the little coons who may be seen devouring watermelons in a well-known American picture." Since the mid-nineteenth century, minstrelsy had been a staple in Australian theaters, providing white settlers with a glimpse of U.S. racial politics. Australians had eagerly embraced this U.S. import, adapting both its imagery and its language to their local scene. So-called "nigger" bands played on Australian steamers, and street minstrels paraded outside neighborhood pubs dressed in loud suits complete with oversized collars and coattails. Not surprisingly, when the dandified heavyweight arrived, white Australians immediately cast him as a minstrel. Wrapped up in the sentimental tropes of blackface comedy, Johnson, for the time being, seemed harmless.
Over the next two years the black heavyweight transformed from an amusing spectacle to a serious threat in the eyes of many white Australians. They discovered that he was the farthest thing from a submissive stage darky. Much like in the United States, Johnson's conquest of white men in the ring and white women in the bedroom did not go over well Down Under. These were both serious violations of racial protocol at a time when preserving the strength and purity of white bodies was central to white supremacist thought. Thus, the public uproar over his relationship with a white Australian woman in 1907 and the subsequent backlash against his 1908 world championship victory over Tommy Burns in Sydney were essentially two sides of the same coin.
Though geographically distant and demographically different, the two nations shared the same underlying logics of race and the body. First forged in the performances of blackface minstrels, these transnational links proliferated with the expansion of mass sporting culture at the turn of the twentieth century. By the time Johnson reached Sydney, the athletic body had become an important medium through which white men expressed their mutual interest in the maintenance of global white domination. The image of an ideal citizen was a muscular white male. This focus on the physical provided an easy justification for the exclusion of people of color from mainstream politics and society. Their dark skin and exotic bodies became the tangible proof of their unworthiness for full citizenship rights and self-determination. It marked them as contaminating threats to the health of the white body politic.
The rise of rationalized physical training and organized sport also helped to naturalize social Darwinist theories about the survival of the fittest. "Man is and always will be, a fighting animal," declared the famed white American and former world heavyweight champion Jim Jeffries. Countless articles in U.S., British, and French sporting magazines reflected the widespread idea that how a group of people (a race, ethnicity, or nation, for example) fought provided a clear demonstration of its relative cultural and political status. Like many of his contemporaries, Jeffries believed that "the better fighter a nation was, the more quickly did it become civilised, because it tackled and downed the things which bound it to savagery more speedily." Conquering nations "were those that had learned the advantages of scientific fighting." Boxing was especially suited to the needs of white men and white nations, for it promised to improve their productivity, self-discipline, courage, and self-reliance in the face of growing challenges to their authority.
White men, however, could never fully contain the fluid meanings of sport and physical culture. Wherever they traveled, Johnson and other black boxers publicly disrupted not only the mainstream ideals of the white male body and the white body politic but also the racial fictions of the degenerate stage darky. Thanks in part to the growing popularity of prizefighting, their powerful black bodies became the visual portents of racial Armageddon, at once feared and desired by white sporting audiences and celebrated by people of color around the world.
THE WHITE BODY POLITIC
Theodore Roosevelt maintained a longstanding fascination with boxing throughout his life in public office, first as the governor of New York (1899–1900) and later as the president of the United States (1901–9). The sport played a big role in Roosevelt's political self-fashioning as a rugged proponent of the "strenuous life." He often credited boxing with his early success as a colonel in the Spanish-American War. "A good deal of whatever it was that carried me through the San Juan business," Roosevelt once wrote, "I owed to the lessons I had learned as regards [to] temper and courage in the days when I used to box." The heroic myths about his charge up Cuba's San Juan Hill with the Rough Riders had helped transform him from an effeminate "Jane-Dandy" to an icon of white American manhood. Roosevelt actively cultivated this image, surrounding himself with professional pugilists like John L. Sullivan, Oscar "Battling" Nelson, and Robert Fitzsimmons. He even hired "Professor" Mike Donovan, a former bare-knuckle fighter and the head instructor at the New York Athletic Club, as his family's official boxing trainer. A regular fixture at both the governor's mansion and the White House, Donovan often sparred with Roosevelt. "I have noted his career in politics, [and] seen him go for the mark there with the same pertinacity that he shows when boxing," Donovan later recalled. "Resistance, discomfiture, [and] hard knocks in one domain as in the other serve only to make him keener."
Roosevelt's pairing of physical fitness and political affairs was more than just an idiosyncratic trait. It was indicative of the rising importance of the body as a modern social construction at the turn of the twentieth century. The Muscular Christianity movement had first appeared in 1850s England, and by the early 1900s it had spread throughout the United States. Its proponents argued that Christians needed to cultivate not only their spiritual and mental strength but also their physical health. To glorify the body was to glorify God, and white Anglo-Saxon Christian men had a special responsibility to develop their physiques for the battles of modern life. Over time this body culture became increasingly secularized.
The acceleration of industrialization, improvements in printing, photography, and cinematography, and the rise of consumerism contributed to this cultural reconfiguration of the body. The emergence of music halls, saloons, sporting papers, the penny press, and movie houses fostered a bachelor culture of mass spectatorship and readership in the growing cities of Europe, the United States, and their empires. Physical strength and vigor became favorite topics of discussion in these homosocial spaces. Athletes and bodybuilders also became sought-after entertainers and heroes among the masses. Alongside traveling pugilists, physical culturists like Eugen Sandow of East Prussia and Bernarr MacFadden of the United States developed touring shows and established publishing empires. As these sports celebrities mingled with heads of state in the United States and Europe, the line between physical and political fitness blurred.
The Hobbesian idea of a "body politic" had become much more literal in the minds of Roosevelt and his contemporaries. According to popular belief, a nation's political and cultural dominance was directly linked to the physical condition of its citizens. In a speech before the Hamilton Club of Chicago in 1899 Roosevelt declared that "a healthy state can exist only when the men and women who make it up lead clean, vigorous, healthy lives."
This focus on physical training also exposed a shared sense of anxiety about the decline of white men's control in the world. During the height of Roosevelt's popularity many believed that the shifting circumstances of modernity—industrialization, urbanization, immigration, women's social and political agitation, and imperialism—were wreaking havoc on the health of white nations. Since the 1870s fears of race suicide had been a part of public discussions in most Western countries, and by the early twentieth century some alarmists warned that the white race would die out. The spread of tuberculosis among the white working class and the growing decadence of the white elite seemed ample proof of this impending racial downfall. The flood of white ethnic immigrants and nonwhites into the cities (both metropolitan and colonial) also sparked new worries about racial competition and miscegenation, while white defeats in the first Italo-Ethiopian War (1895–96) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904–5) demonstrated the vulnerability of European powers. From New York to New South Wales, many imagined that whiteness was literally under assault.
Not even the United States' recent economic success could insulate it from the dangers of degeneration. Doomsayers like Bernarr MacFadden believed "old-time Americans" not only were dying out but were also being replaced by the substandard progeny of immigrants. Europe seemed to provide a cautionary tale. A white American physical culturist argued, "The threatened extinction of the French as a race and France as a nation, should warn us on this side of the water of the dread possibilities which are to be found in a prosperity and a civilization which stifle the natural and encourage the abnormal in man." In 1907 the number of deaths exceeded the number of births in France. Britain also appeared to be in decline. The lackluster performances of British soldiers and sportsmen on the international stage epitomized this national crisis. Britain's massive casualties during the Boer Wars had brought things to a head, inspiring numerous public projects for racial improvement.
Regenerating the white body politic became tightly entwined with the social engineering of progressivism, the pseudoscience of eugenics, the discipline of anthropology, and the expansion of the state. Many physical culturists believed that crime, disease, and degeneration were related phenomena, particularly among the poor and working class. The inclusion of sport and outdoor activity in formal education and in the programs of organizations such as the Boy Scouts and the Young Men's Christian Association was supposed to minimize this triple threat. With the help of rationalized record keeping and growing bureaucracies, governments began to play a bigger role in the classification and disciplining of their citizens' bodies. With measures like Britain's Contagious Diseases Acts, certain physical "abnormalities" became criminalized. The United States also pioneered laws requiring the sterilization of so-called degenerates.
The rise of racial segregation at home and in the colonies accompanied these transnational efforts at white regeneration. New imaging technologies and the development of physical anthropology inspired the racial categorization of humans along a sliding scale of civilization. The intensification of Jim Crow segregation in the U.S. South, the codification of racial segregation in South Africa, and the rise of restrictive immigration legislation in Australia were just some of the ways in which these distinctions were put into practice.
Boxing seemed to offer some solace in these troubled times. Roosevelt and many of his sporting contemporaries believed that pugilism was the perfect antidote to the escalating problems of national degeneration and white race suicide. In his popular manual How to Box to Win, How to Build Muscle, the white American featherweight champion "Terrible" Terry McGovern claimed that boxing was one of the best ways for "any schoolboy or newsboy or office boy" to acquire a sound body and the skills of self-defense. The sport was inexpensive and easily practiced in the comfort of one's own home. McGovern also maintained that knowing how to protect oneself was "not only a convenience, but a duty." After all, General George Dewey and the U.S. Navy could never have conquered Manila "with a rotten, leaky fleet," let alone a bunch of effete and flabby recruits. Boxing melded well with the modern demands of white supremacy both at home and abroad.
JOHNSON AND WHITE AUSTRALIA
The haunting specter of Johnson's strong and virile black body came to connect these white anxieties across the Pacific. Commenting on the black heavyweight's recent departure for the antipodes in December 1906, one white American journalist exclaimed, "He will go across and see how they look upon dark meat over in one of King Edward's lands." Although undoubtedly filled with sarcasm, the writer's metaphorical use of the phrase "dark meat" rightly emphasized the physical dimensions of the color line that Johnson would soon be forced to face.
The most telling event of the African American boxer's first foray abroad was not a ring fight but a court fight stemming from his relationship with a white Australian woman named Alma Adelaide Lillian Toy. Lola Toy, as her friends and family called her, was a twenty-one-year-old traveling pianist whose mother owned the Grand Pacific Hotel, a popular pub in the Sydney suburb of Watsons Bay. The fact that Johnson and Toy's alleged intimacy provoked a public uproar in Australia is not surprising. Given the widespread belief that a nation was only ever as powerful as its citizens' individual bodies, the mounting efforts to maintain white men's physical fitness and white women's sexual purity were fundamentally intertwined. By the early twentieth century the bedroom, much like the boxing ring, was becoming a space of heightened white surveillance in a number of metropolitan and colonial locales.
When Johnson arrived in Sydney his commanding presence inspired white Australians to reflect on their own ongoing debate about the racial contours of citizenship, for he carried with him the freight of the United States' "negro problem." In 1901 the Australian Parliament had passed the Immigration Restriction Act. This legislation formed the centerpiece of what was popularly known as the White Australia Policy, or the collective political will to exclude nonwhite people, particularly Asians, from immigrating to the continent. While fears of a "yellow invasion" from nearby Asian countries definitely drove the formulation of this policy, Australian politicians also looked to the United States' democratic experiment as a lesson in race and nation building. As the Free Trade Party opposition leader George Reid declared, "We have all seen the problem caused by coloured people in the United States. We do not want that to happen here. The Opposition wants the new Australia to be a land for the finest products of the Anglo Saxon race. This [immigration restriction] Bill will make that happen." With this legislation they hoped to "whiten" the continent by deporting and preventing the entry of nonwhites and by encouraging white settlement.
Some Australian officials also envisioned interracial marriages between European men and indigenous women as "conduits of whiteness." They believed that this particular process of miscegenation would allow for the genetic absorption of Aboriginal people into the nation. Grounded in the principle of white men's sexual privilege as well as the desire to seize Aboriginal lands and eradicate Aboriginal peoples' special entitlements, this view did not extend to sexual or marital relations between black men and white women. As Johnson and Toy discovered, much like their white American counterparts, many white Australians were passionate about preserving the purity of their women.
Excerpted from Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner by Theresa Runstedtler. Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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