Week 11 Responses

Please posts your responses below.  I especially want us to focus on the ways that Jack Johnson’s athletic skill and his controversial persona influenced contemporary racial discourses.  According to Runstedtler, he played an enormous role in inspiring white solidarity across national lines at the turn of the 20th century. How? Screen Shot 2017-04-15 at 12.00.44 PM.png

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6 thoughts on “Week 11 Responses

  1. Theresa Runstedtler’s book Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner: Boxing in the Shadow of the Global Color Line takes readers through the titular pioneering black boxer’s career across continents. Central to Runstedtler’s analysis of Jack Johnson’s rise and fall from international fame is her claim that Johnson’s blackness presented the late-imperial world with a challenge to white supremacy from all angles. Johnson’s prowess as a boxer, in addition to his refusal to behave in the submissive, mild manner that the white world demanded, resulted in various attempts to knock Johnson down.
    As chapter two of the book details, the film of Johnson’s win against former heavyweight champion Tommy Burns had become a beacon of hope and excitement for many people of color across the colonized world, “regardless of their diverse cultures and complexions, these communities of color had each transformed Johnson’s victory into a symbol of local resistance… [Johnson’s] fight films became the period’s most widely disseminated representations of black male dominance” (Runstedtler, 69). After Johnson won his fight against formerly undefeated Heavyweight Champion Jim Jeffries in Reno, colonial governments (and the United States) feared that their colonized (and/or segregated) subjects might be reminded that their lives and bodies were worth as much, if not more, as white folks’. Compared to Johnson, his white competitors’ strength was miniscule. This undeniable fact, caught on film, worked to destabilize myths about the physical “weakness” of nonwhite people. According to Runstedtler, “most white fans believed [Johnson] had a weak stomach as well as a ‘yellow streak’ or lack of courage” because he was black, and “British ideas of Indian men’s supposedly weak and womanish bodies” were pervasive in the late-imperial period (Runstedtler, 55, 89). Johnson’s upset of these widely-held beliefs subverted racist hierarchies of bodily perfection, and in doing so undermined the conviction that because white bodies were the “most powerful”, they were also the most “fit to rule”. As Runstedtler notes in reference to the riots that erupted after Johnson beat Jeffries, maintaining his title, “One African American reporter pointed to the negrophobic postfight riots as proof that the white race was ‘unfit for self control– self government– even in so simple an affair at sport” (Runstedtler, 85). However, while nonwhite people all over the world were rejoicing in this symbolic defeat of pseudo-scientific claims of white strength and civility, the white world fought the threat of losing dominance by censoring the distribution of the resulting fight film. Banding together to maintain control of their empires, the United States, Britain, France, Australia, South Africa, and Canada all attempted to restrict nonwhite folks’ access to the film while searching far and wide across their territories for a white man who might beat the World Heavyweight Champion, reassuring the world once and for all that Johnson was not such an ungovernable threat to white supremacy.
    When the fight to maintain censorship and discover a “Great White Hope” proved relatively unsuccessful, the United States attempted another tactic. In 1913, Johnson was convicted of “white slave trafficking” for driving with his white girlfriend across state lines. Instead of serving time, Johnson fled the United States in exile. As Runstedtler puts it, “Johnson’s exile was a key episode in the already long-established tradition of African Americans who imaged and searched for better prospects in foreign spaces” (Runstedtler, 133). Abroad, Johnson– like other black boxers and entertainers who had left the U.S. in search of better economic prospects and better treatment– found himself the object of an objectifying European gaze. “…black Americans appeared to have been relegated to the field of popular entertainment for the amusement of white European audiences. Whether in London, Paris, or Berlin, it was difficult for them to find jobs that did not involve a racialized performance of some kind,” writes Runstedtler (Runstedtler, 162). Jack Johnson was no exception to this. While some Europeans condemned the American treatment of people of color, they did not make the connection between Britain’s intensely oppressive colonial system and the American “Jim Crow” system.
    After a time in Latin America, where Johnson’s boxing matches with ex-pats were very popular, and where Johnson was respected by the Yaqui in Mexico, Johnson finally returned to the United States and gave himself over to authorities. While younger black boxers were filling Johnson’s footsteps, Johnson fought his sentence from prison (Runstedtler, 232). Despite global efforts on the part of white folks, Johnson was able to pave the way for black boxers like “Battling Siki”, even though the battle for recognition outside of exotic spectacle was never won.

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  2. In Runstedler’s book Jack Johnson: Rebel Sojourner, Runstedler takes the reader through the different locations Johnson traveled while he was in exile. Runstedler attempts to broaden the scale of racism in white-normative places, displaying that racism became a simultaneous national and international norm. In her first chapter, Runstedler examines Johnson’s residency in Australia, following his relationship with Australian women and his boxing matches. In the second chapter, Runstedler discusses how the Eurocentric media squashed sharing videos of Johnson’s win in Australia. After an American Christian organization got ahold of the video footage of the fight, they campaigned to eliminate it from any viewing possibility, whilst the UK and other European countries took on the same opinion. In her third chapter, Runstedler talks about the mistreatment of Black Americans in Europe, focusing on the fight between Johnson and Wells, and how Wells was sent as the great white hope. In her fourth Runstedler discusses the wrong conviction on Johnson as it pertains to the Mann Act, and her fifth chapter discusses the potential commodification of the black body in European markets. She mostly focuses on France as that is one of the few places that was open and receptive to black people. Runstedler ends her book by looking at how black boxers mobilized into more acceptable places, something that not only did Muhammad Ali do, but also Johnson.
    The “Great White Hope” as a phrase that was used seriously during this time is disheartening and scary. I am struggling to believe that the media would actually share this about a boxer; however, I understand that they were from a completely different generation. The “Great White Hope” for me is always something used sarcastically and with utmost avoidance, especially to self-righteous and overly- “woke” white people. I am thoroughly surprised at the obvious level on which racism lived internationally, as it is something that I would expect to be as pervasive in other European countries. In the movie, I was surprised by the ridiculous amount of government control surrounding Jackson, and all of the laws that were made regarding white women that were nearly directly targeting Jackson for actions that are now labeled as crimes

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  3. Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner: Boxing in the Shadow of the Global Color Line discusses the global life of legendary black boxer Jack Johnson. From Australia to the United Kingdom to the United States, Johnson’s victorious boxing streaks and complicated image made him an infamous celebrity of the early twentieth century. The racial struggle implicit in Johnson’s activities as a black man and a world champion boxer charged every one of his fights with a political performativity that coincided with larger historical phenomena. “The various controversies surrounding his pugilistic success fit within a much larger pattern of geopolitical and cultural shifts at the turn of the twentieth century. While the disparate places he traversed had their own local logics and practices of race, the increasingly transnational flows of people, capital, commodities, and ideas had helped to bring them under the banner of the ‘white man’s burden,’” (Runstedtler 18). From the circulation of fight films with the growth of cinema technology to a resurgence in imperialist conquests for empire, the white man’s body now held a greater significance as the body of the state and the body of the Darwinist survivor; any Other who threatened that was a danger to the white race and to the white nation. Focusing largely on Johnson’s life outside of the United States, it was a mixture of Johnson’s “unforgiving blackness” (as Ken Burns’ documentary declares), his relations almost exclusively with white women, and his unmatchable strength in the boxing ring that made him a threat to the white body politic. His 1913 arrest for violation of the Mann Act (by crossing state borders with his white girlfriend) was a dubious judicial move that strategically criminalized Johnson to further protect white masculinity. Fleeing the United States for Canada, South America, and Europe, Johnson stayed hidden from American consciousness until his surrender in 1920. Johnson’s flee to Europe (particularly France) reminds me of Josephine Baker, the famous black performance artist/dancer turned film star from around the same time period. As Baker felt more persecuted in her home country, she left the United States and found a more welcoming presence in Paris as a celebrated dancer and actress. The reality of life in Europe for both Johnson and Baker, however, was still heavily marked by racial inequality and an inherent emphasis on their blackness as entertainment for white Europeans. This points to the greater transnational implications of racial inequality that are not a merely American reality but rather a global phenomenon.

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  4. In Jack Johnson: Rebel Sojourner – Boxing in The Shadow of the Global Color Line, Theresa Runstedtler explores the life of Jack Johnson in order to frame a larger, ongoing narrative about imperialistic countries and their treatment of black people and, more specifically, black celebrities. She explains that his rise to power and anti-racist platform resulted in most of the white world feeling threatened. In Chapter 2, this is exemplified by the efforts on the part of the US and Britain to ban the film depicting his defeat of Jim Jeffries, after the hype around his defeat of Australian champion Tommy Burns went global. She explains that interracial boxing videos, due to their inability to be separated from racial narratives at the time and their ability to depict whichever narrative black Americans, white Americans, world leaders, and companies wanted to depict, were taking the world by storm at this time. The main thing that caught my mind while reading this was the lack of the typical talk from any party at the time about how black people are stronger and more athletic than white people. That’s a very common narrative nowadays, one that I often see people referring to explicitly and companies implicitly. Then it occurred to me that this might have been the beginnings of that narrative. Of course, these beliefs are rooted in that old sentiment that negroes are savages, but perhaps this is when that began to be cut and molded into what it is today. Indeed, with Jeffries’ fans hoping to remove “the golden smile” from Johnson’s face and with people claiming that Johnson had a “lack of courage”, it seems at this point, racists were still of the idea that black people were athletically inferior, a narrative that for the most part even the worst of racists have had to abandon at this point. In Chapter 4, this is even further exemplified by his 1913 arrest for violating the Mann Act and bringing a “prostitute” across the U.S. border. The fact that she was never confirmed to be a prostitute and that he supposedly violated the law before it even was put into place are not even details one needs to know to conclude that his arrest was “meant as a lesson to the black folk, the world around.” His fleeing from the US was accompanied in the previous and following years by many other black boxers who weren’t fleeing from a specific threat like he, but more from the whole machine itself. Runstedtler explains that, like in 2008 with Obama, these European countries found solace in the idea that black Americans fled to their countries because they didn’t have the same racial problems as America, but obviously this is simply not the case.

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  5. In Theresa Runstedtler’s Jack Johnson: Rebel Sojourner, the reader explores the travels of Johnson’s career during his time of exile from the United States. In many ways the novel is a tour of the various kinds of racism and minority oppression that existed throughout the world as experienced by Johnson during his travels. While often times it seemed that he was accepted and even welcomed into these new spaces, aspects of prejudice began to bubble up in environments that claimed to be above these American habits. When in Australia, Johnson was initially given a warm welcome and assured of the lack of color lines that he would face while Down Under. However, it was after the Australian population realized that Johnson did not fit into their stereotyped schema of what a black person should be, that he was then perceived as a threat. His relationships with white women also created uproar in these situations but it would seem that the only people truly upset by this were other men. Images of Johnson were attempted to be kept away from indigenous peoples for the purpose of keeping the oppressed oppressed in order to retain the balance of white dominance. In many ways Johnson’s success became a sort of propaganda that had to be controlled in order to maintain the order and dominance of “whiteness” and his breaking down of the restrictions and perception of the Uncle Tom stereotype drew fear to the majority. This in part was likely a significant factor to the repeated change in sentiment that Johnson faced on his travels. Similar experiences like those in Australia followed Johnson to England, where he was initially well received only to be viewed negatively after beating his white competitor in a match.
    The English took the defeat of their boxer as an almost personal hit against their country. The nationalism that came (and still comes) with sports was carried on an almost different level because having a black man fight and win was something that the world hadn’t seen before and certainly hadn’t adjusted to. Even in fair fights the victories that Johnson achieved weren’t valued as actual genuine victories because he was perceived to “not feel pain”, a notion that ties far back into the roots of slavery and this idea of the invincibility of the black body and how it was perceived to be unable to be worn down. In the sphere of athleticism where the body is controlled, watching someone like Johnson fight was almost perceived as a novelty until Johnson began to show that he no longer wanted to confined to the freedom he had only within the ring. A fear of the black body and what it was capable of began to rise especially as racially oppressed groups began to stand up for themselves and fight for equality. Johnson was often blamed for the cause of riots and uprising, when it fact this was a naturally a shift for the progression of society in moving towards equality.

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  6. Jack Johnson: Rebel Sojourner by Theresa Runstedtler and the documentary about his life both focused on the ways in which the black body has been exhibited as a commodity. Johnson ways revolutionary. Runstedtler writes, “[i]ntern the growing prominence of African-American images of blackness complicated later attempts to build transnational racial solidarity. The very ubiquity of black American sojourner and the exhibitions tended to obscure the complexities of race and different spaces well also pushing the concerns of their peers from across the diaspora in the colonial world to margins of public debate” (Runstedtler 27). Through his “unapologetic blackness” he was able to force the world to address his humanity in a way that no other black man had done before. Runstedtler writes, that Johnson’s body “force[d] both [people] to acknowledge their shared culpability in the same political economic legacies of slavery and imperialism” (Runstedtler xix). Johnson’s cockiness and strength of character were needed to help change the conversation about black bodies. Black bodies were viewed as being a certain way. Their capacity was always lesser and in relation to white bodies. Runstedler writes, “French reporters reproduce these establish racial tropes. While Carpentier, “le Gentleman,” boxed with “science” and “understated vigor,” Siki, the “jungle beast,” brawled with more instinct than skill” (Runstedtler 241). Black people were depicted as being less than human. Through his relentless insistence on fighting the white world champion, and winning, he was a catalyst. The documentary goes into the major race riot that followed his victory. One of the most memorable lines was when the narrator spoke about how it would have been better for Johnson to have won and for some black lives to have been lost than the other way around. Representation is absolutely everything, and for the first time in the United States, a black body was seen as being capable of winning. When I think about the black body in athletics, there is a certain standard that is set forth. The preconceived notion is that the black body is automatically better than the white body at the sport in question because of his/her/their race. At the same time, this sports arena setting is a commodity. Yes, these black bodies are performing and are excellent at what they do, but they are doing it for the enhancement of capitalism. They are making money for their white team owners and their body is viewed as being “good” if they win. They are also expected to behave and act a certain way. I am thinking of LeBron James specifically. He is noted for being an arrogant player and his pride is often discouraged and looked down upon. One part of the documentary that really touched me was the part at the end where Muhammad Ali spoke about Johnson after seeing the play about his life. The two men are very similar. Both are excellent fighters. Both are making waves for black athletes. Both are challenging the limits of what the black body can be seen as.

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