i fight for a living
Reviewed by Matthew Teutsch, Auburn University
20 march 2018 archive
After reading Louis Moore's I Fight for a Living: Boxing and the Battle for Black Manhood, 1880-1915, my mind kept going in varying directions from Laura Ingraham's comments on LeBron James' activism to W.E.B. DuBois' idea of double consciousness. Right before All Star Weekend 2018, Ingraham responded to comments that James made in an interview with Cari Champion. She said, "It's always unwise to seek political advice from someone who gets paid $100 million a year to bounce a ball. Keep the political comments to yourselves. Shut up and dribble." Immediately, people on Twitter, including Moore, responded with historical context of black athletes such as Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Jackie Robinson, and others using the platform of sports to stand up and speak out against racism. In I Fight for a Living, Moore traces these moments back to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century where black boxers, black promoters, and the black press challenged notions of black inferiority and racism through their actions in the ring and outside of it.
Ingraham's comments and the responses to her dog-whistle show the importance of Moore's book for a contemporary audience because it traces these same issues back to the turn of twentieth century. Moore highlights the ways that white promoters, fighters, and the media sought to maintain white superiority and masculinity through their fleecing of black fighters, through their refusal to enter the ring against black opponents, and through their depictions of black fighters in stereotypical and derogatory ways. Countering these parries that sought to keep blacks and whites separate, Moore shows how African American promotors, fighters, and the press openly challenged these jabs in many ways including the owning and operating of clubs, the image fighters presented to the world, and through newspaper columns refuting black inferiority.
The manner in which fighters such as Peter Jackson, George Godfrey, Sam McVey, and others challenged white supremacy led me to think about DuBois' double consciousness and the historical moment within which he penned the famous passage in The Souls of Black Folk (1903). DuBois writes that double consciousness is "a peculiar sensation of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity." We should consider DuBois' thoughts here in relation to the cultural milieu in which they appear. In literature, the plantation tradition of Thomas Nelson Page grabbed the attention of audiences and Vaudeville ruled the stage with stereotypical depictions of black Americans as Sambos or mammies. DuBois continues by noting that seeing oneself as through the eyes of others creates a "two-ness" where one ever feels himself "an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body."
Authors such as Paul Laurence Dunbar, Charles Chesnutt, and Alice Dunbar-Nelson all used the ways that whites depicted and saw black Americans to counter those very same perceptions in their own writing, thus working from a space of "two-ness" that strove to dismantle the institutions upholding white supremacy. The individuals that Moore chronicles do the same exact thing; they work within a system that perceives them as inferior to whites and incapable of respectability or attaining middle class values. Moore argues that the boxing arena served as a space where white men challenged Victorian ideals of manhood and as such they worked to "retain their dominant position in society [by] directing their attention to the male body, tying manliness and racial superiority to physicality and primitiveness." Fighters such as Godfrey, McVey, Jackson, Joe Gans, and more sought to make a living within this moment, and as such, they represented to whites a clear challenge to white masculinity.
Throughout, Moore presents three overlapping arguments in I Fight for A Living: that the ring provided Black men an escape from "the racist job market that had forced them into drudge labor," that these fighters "publicly performed their manhood" as dictated by the sporting culture and some "conformed to acceptable hegemonic middle-class manhood" in the process, and "that black pugilistic success on a national and local level shattered the myth of black inferiority." Moore interlaces these arguments over the course of the book, teasing out each argument to show the interconnectedness between them. One of the key ways Moore accomplishes this is within his discussions of how the fighters came to represent, for some, racial uplift and social mobility.
With their accomplishments in the ring, black pugilists became symbols of uplift and through the fighters "black leaders wanted to show they had the cultural capacity to perform Victorian middle-class respectability." However, even when pugilists such as Jack Johnson reached the top, whites relied on the worn out "trope of American exceptionalism while ignoring American racism." In this manner, they provided exceptions to black inferiority because granting Johnson accolades would mean having to not-disparage interracial fights which would in turn topple their idea of white superiority in the squared circle and outside of it. White fighters, both before and after Johnson won the title, refused to fight interracial bouts. Cities such as New York and Baltimore even passed laws banning such fights. The white champion John L. Sullivan spent years refusing to fight Peter Jackson, and during that time Jackson continued to fight the top white opponents waiting for his shot at Sullivan. That chance never came, in 1892, Sullivan lost to "Gentleman" Jim Corbett, and Jackson challenged him. However, Corbett, like Sullivan, never accepted the challenge, hiding behind his whiteness.
Sullivan's and Corbett's refusals to fight Jackson show their investment in the beliefs of black inferiority as a way to maintain their position of power. Likewise, the white press' depictions of black fighters, specifically Sam Langford, played into these ideas as well. The press presented Langford as the boogeyman or a "black gorilla," thus reinforcing stereotypical imagery. After a fight where he defeated the white Jim Flynn, a newspaper writer compared Langford's bout against Flynn to "a white boy fighting a jungle man" who looked like "a shaven gorilla." This racist imagery perpetuated the press in the forms of words and cartoon sketches in similar ways that that the plantation stories of Page sat upon the bookshelves and the images of Sambos performed on the Vaudeville stages. Langford countered these images in the ring with his pummeling of Flynn. At one point, Langford even became the "white hope" who may take down Johnson. Langford played up the role, even quipping, "I may be colored, but I've got a white heart." Langford played the part; he participated in the "two-ness" to make a living and to subvert the structures that kept him and others in subjugation.
In I Fight for A Living, Moore presents the complex ways that whites sought to define and maintain white manhood through the lens of the boxing ring. He also shows how black fighters, the press, and promoters challenged these institutions by subverting the ways that whites viewed them. Also, he chronicles the way these individuals, while not overtly protesting, nevertheless used the ring as a means of protest to strike blows against white supremacy. As such, it is important to consider the narratives that Moore presents in I Fight for A Living as part of historical continuum that we need not forget, especially in a day and age where some in the press tell black athletes, "Shut up and dribble."
Moore, Louis. I Fight for a Living: Boxing and the Battle for Black Manhood, 1880-1915. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017. 240 pp. Notes, bibliography, index. $27.95 paper.
Copyright © 2018 by Matthew Teutsch