I Fight for a Living: Boxing and the Battle for Black Manhood, 1880–1915 by Louis Moore
Louis Moore's I Fight for a Living: Boxing and the Battle for Black Manhood, 1880–1915 explores individual case studies of black boxers from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century to discuss discursive relations between race, class, and athletics through the rising burdens of Jim Crow. Moore situates his work within historiographical contexts related to bachelor subculture and Victorian manhood previously explored by Howard Chudacoff. Within these debates, Moore asserts boxing as a form of labor where black men could affirm manliness through earning their own money as individuals, rather than solely declaring their place within a collective, a historical trend recently examined by Theresa Runstedtler in Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner: Boxing in the Shadow of the Global Color Line (2012). An accessible publication, Moore's I Fight for a Living [End Page 426] should grace the shelves of many armchair boxing historians and myriad academics interested in labor, race, and sporting culture.
During an era when social Darwinism asserted freshly false dialogues on the positive and negative aspects of the black athletic body, African American boxers attempted to define new spaces for individual economic identity. Moore reads numerous magazine and newspaper sources to define the place of the black boxer in both the African American press and broader areas of athletic reportage. In Chapter 1, the author discovers debates on whether the black middle class could accept working-class boxers as contributive to narratives of racial uplift. Using case studies of prizefighters Peter Jackson and Ed Martin, Moore searches how the black middle class of the 1890s was more willing to accept boxers as race men and not simply as lower-class brawlers who participated in a sporting culture of gambling.
Chapter 2 continues these discussions into debates on whether black boxing bodies were trapped as commodities or could ever reach forms of progressive manliness defined within narratives of Victorian respectability. As white sporting culture defined black boxers generally as part of saloon culture, the black middle class came to terms with describing specific fighters as race men who could help the cause of liberation, as explored through the characters of Joe Gans, Joe Jeanette, George Godfrey, and Joe Walcott. Chapter 3 searches similar questions of the black body. Because most black fighters had to use white financial backers, especially before the 1890s, many fighters were consistently trapped within a system of racial control. These arrangements relied much on codes of honor and shame, whereby many boxers often used racial terminology against their fellow black pugilists to shame specific fighters into popular matches. Especially with the rise of the Queensberry rules after 1889, greater purses meant better control for the best of these fighters who could assert their individuality in dialogues with the still-dominant white financial system. Many of these forms of independence also emerged within innovative black clubs, led by race men like promoter William Carroll.
The following section looks at black championships as challenging ideas of white privilege. As white fighters dodged the best black fighters, African American boxers built their own systems of advertisements and honor to bring celebrated fights to a wider audience. The penultimate chapter continues this discussion into concerns with the black body as a greater threat to white manhood, as related to figures like Jack Johnson and Sam Langford. White presses animalized many black fighters as a way to rationalize the control of championships in black hands. Specifically, the ideal of the savage developed within boxing literature to show how black bodies were able to win, not because of their athletic superiority as gentlemen and cultivators of manhood but because they were innately more animal or trained by slavery to be better athletes. The Johnson and Jim Jeffries heavyweight title match of 1910 created much fervor around these debates of manhood and American identity, considerations that rose again to prominence after Johnson lost to Jess Willard in 1915.
The more academic final chapter searches questions of economy and labor control through focusing on Baltimore and Los Angeles through a racial narrative of the Progressive Era. Often, as cities throughout the nation created new reforms against interracial fights, the tradition of the battle royal, an institution of slavery whereby black fighters would fight in large groups, emerged again to cordon off boxers into more controllable spaces of the collective, removing the individuality that fighters had gained for much of the previous [End Page 427] four decades. An epilogue continues these discussions of work, individuality, and capital, through a rapid century-long history of how the black fighter continues to define himself as an individual economic agent, culminating with the Ali Act of 2000. Although the epilogue seemingly overstates the importance of a recent figure like Floyd Mayweather and may overlook the prominence of Joe Louis, Moore's monograph deploys his numerous earlier case studies well and offers an interesting antidote to the common collective representation of boxing subculture.