- I Fight for a Living: Boxing and the Battle for Black Manhood, 1880– 1915 by Louis Moore
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Spectator sports are often viewed as trivial affairs of leisurely-consumed entertainment and/or unimportant fits of escapism for the masses. Louis Moore's I Fight for a Living: Boxing and the Battle for Black Manhood, 1880–1915 suggest otherwise. In the late nineteenth century, pugilism, prizefighting, and boxing were of tremendous value for African American men seeking opportunities to claim financial rewards through their public performances of strength, courage, and stamina. According to Moore, "black men who came of age in the Reconstruction and early Jim Crow era" did so at time when white manhood was undergoing changes based on the nature of work and challenges to American ideals about race and manliness. For working-class African American men participating inside and outside the boxing ring, the sport played a critical role in how they claimed access to their place in American society.
Central to Moore's argument in I Fight for A Living, is his establishment of boxing as work. Moore writes: "For black men, economic independence constituted an essential construct of manhood. In this context, manliness meant that a man had a good job and he could take care of his family" (p. 12). With the color line drawn in American society, African American men including athletes found it difficult to not only find work, but to be compensated fairly for their abilities and talents.
Beginning in the introduction with the "Colored champion" George Godfrey, to chapter six and his examination of heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, Moore explores the complexities of sport and the African American athletes who were in constant pursuit of their version of the American dream. Through Moore's analysis, we see black men as free agents using their fists as their tools to gain access to financial opportunities and social mobility, as well as to affirm their Republican manliness. Like the mid-twentieth century African American bluesmen of the south, "black prizefighters represented a symbol of black mobility as they moved around the country or crossed oceans to find work" (p. 4). In urban environments and in African American communities across America, committed spectators [End Page 417] crowded the spaces and places carved out and arranged to satisfy the mass consumerism related to boxing contests centered on the desires for entertainment and race affirmation.
On the occasion of interracial contests however, both fans and spectators stood to gain more from their experience watching hotly contested competitions unfold than the actual participants performing in the ring. In the minds of white nineteenth-century spectators, these interracial performances served as communal rituals in line with the legislative acts used to support and substantiate white male power. For some, these boxing matches served as altars for sacrifice, where exuberant and oftentimes anxiety-stricken spectators were brought to the verge of ecstasy through their observations and consumption of racially, socially, and politically charged athletic performances. For white spectators, many of whom were bound to the outcomes of these interracial contests, the defeat of a white man at the hands of a black man was equal to an earthquake rocking the foundation of their very existence. Clearly, the threat for white men was not always in losing their jobs, but to their identity and their sense of racial destiny.
African American champions like Peter Jackson, while a polished gentleman and well-liked by black leaders such as Frederick Douglass and publisher T. Thomas Fortune, were still boxers whose livelihoods were within the realm of vice. On the other hand, African American boxers like Jack Johnson, while controversial, became a symbol of black power for the economically, socially, and politically depressed black masses. While not very popular with the African American middle-class, Johnson became a hero to the working-class black men and boys who looked to his example of defiance as hope bringing. Moore argues that...