- Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner: Boxing in the Shadow of the Global Color Line by Theresa Runstedtler, and: Knockout: The Boxer and Boxing in American Cinema by Leger Grindon
A multitude of biographies have examined the life and influence of Jack Johnson over the last half-century, largely focused on the boxer’s battles, escapades, and problems in the United States. Theresa Runstedtler has addressed a need for a more complete analysis in a transnational study that concentrates on Johnson’s international impact. The work is a masterful reworking of the author’s Ph.D. dissertation that revolves around the multiple discourses of race, gender, religion, social class, and body culture buttressed by research in British and United States archival collections, as well as the periodicals and newspapers of thirteen different countries. Runstedtler makes her case in crisp prose, substantiated by a bevy of well-chosen quotations garnered from her prodigious research. In her analysis boxing serves as a metaphor for the racial and political struggles encountered not only by Johnson but for colonial subjects throughout the British, French, and American imperial spheres. [End Page 151]
On page one the author likens Johnson to Muhammad Ali in matters of global influence, a comparison she oddly neglects throughout the remainder of the text. But both were clearly the most famous black men of their eras. She poses Johnson as one in the vanguard of the New Negro movement that blossomed after World War I and an inspiration to those that followed in the guise of Gramsci’s organic intellectual (pp. 17–18). His autobiography, serialized in France sixteen years before its appearance in the United States, “was a quintessential text of African American exile and protest, a kind of New Negro manifesto that predated World War I and the Harlem Renaissance” (p. 145).
While others have told the Johnson story within its American contexts, Runstedtler makes use of a wealth of primary sources to contextualize the global dimensions of whiteness, racism, and the evolution of Social Darwinian beliefs. Not only African Americans but black South Africans rejoiced at viewing the films of Johnson’s lopsided 1908 victory over Tommy Burns that earned him the world heavyweight title. Of Johnson’s peregrinations throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, the author contends, “With his epic story of success in the face of discrimination, Johnson became a folk hero to men of color in the region, inspiring them to take up the sport on their own terms” (p. 198). Boxing thus served as not only a colonizers’ tool to teach discipline, manliness, and fortitude, but an opportunity for people of color to exert racial pride and challenge the prescribed dictates of Social Darwinism.
Runstedtler provides further evidence of Johnson’s global influence by tracing the career of Battling Siki, the Senegalese fighter known as “the French Jack Johnson,” who captured the light heavyweight championship by knocking out the French darling, Georges Carpentier, only to be stripped of his title by the French Boxing Federation and banned from fighting in several countries. Ho Chi Minh, who later conducted the Vietnamese independence campaign against the French, and later the Americans, stated, “From the colonial standpoint, a Carpentier-Siki match is worth more than one hundred gubernatorial speeches to prove to our subjects and protégés that we want to apply to the letter the principle of equality between races” (pp. 231, 249). Firebrand Marcus Garvey, too, invoked the imagery of the sport, the fighter, and the era in a 1922 speech. “The age for turning the right cheek if you are hit on the left is past. This is a Jack Johnson age, when the fittest will survive” (p. 236). A final marker of Johnson’s influence could be traced to Swaziland, where the king of that African homeland...