Tuesday, June 11, 2019
June 11, 2019: Boxing and America: Jack London and Jack Johnson
[On June 13th, 1935, underdog boxer James “Cinderella Man” Braddock won a stunning upset decision over heavyweight champion Max Baer. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that story and other ways in which this complex sport reflects American histories. Leading up to a weekend post on some of the undisputed champs in the realm of boxing films!]
On an ugly moment when white supremacy took precedence over athletic supremacy.
I was super excited when I was invited to review Cecelia Tichi’s book Jack London: A Writer’s Fight for a Better America (2015) for the American Historical Review. There were lots of reasons for my excitement, including how important Tichi’s book Shifting Gears: Technology, Literature, Culture in Modernist America (1987) was for my development as an AmericanStudier, and how much I appreciated her goal in this new project of recuperating London as a public intellectual (and thus a model for that role in 21st century America as well). But I was also just super excited to learn more about London, whom I knew largely as the author of hugely popular boys’ adventures stories about wolves and sailors and that one incredibly realistic and depressing story about a man who needs to build a fire in order to keep from freezing to death and the dog who becomes a witness to the unfolding horrors (all of which of course was a central rationale behind Tichi’s attempt to recreate the more socially and politically engaged sides of London as both a writer and a public figure).
I’m not trying to dwell on my one criticism of Tichi’s book here, but it turned out that one of the things I learned about London was a frustratingly bigoted moment that Tichi understandably but problematically minimized in her project. She did note (if still to my mind a bit too briefly) London’s lifelong fascination with Social Darwinism and that philosophy’s consistently hierarchical and racist worldviews; but it was in response to the controversial (at least for white supremacists) rise of early 20th century African American boxing champion Jack Johnson that London would articulate much more overtly his own racism. In December 1908 Johnson became the first African American world heavyweight champ, defeating the reigning champ Tommy Burns, and that historic moment led London to implore a retired white champion to return to the ring and defend his race. Covering the 1908 fight as a syndicated sportswriter, London concluded his column, “But now one thing remains. Jim Jeffries must now emerge from his [Burbank, CA] Alfalfa farm and remove that golden smile from Jack Johnson's face. Jeff, it's up to you. The White Man must be rescued.”
Initially reticent, Jeffries did eventually emerge from retirement, facing Johnson in a July 4th, 1910 championship bout in Reno. Jeffries was by this time so out of shape that “bout” probably isn’t the word, though, as he was quickly knocked down for the first time in his career and threw in the towel at that point. Given that white Americans often find reasons to riot in both sporting events and racism (although not usually at the same time), it’s unfortunately no surprise that Johnson’s victory led to riots around the country that left a handful of African Americans dead and many more injured (riots, I’ll note, that to this day, when they’re remembered at all, are usually and all too typically described with that deeply loaded phrase “race riot”). Perhaps it should be no more surprising that when an African American athlete reached the pinnacle of his sport, theories of physical prowess and the survival of the fittest gave way to white supremacist bigotry and ignorance, even from an otherwise intelligent and (as Tichi convincingly argues) socially progressive figure like Jack London. But it’s still frustrating to see how powerful such white supremacist nonsense can be—although it’s also deeply satisfying to see it literally and figuratively knocked on its ass.
Next boxing day tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other boxing stories or histories you’d highlight?