Thursday, December 26, 2013

Jack Johnson and Black Hopes

As the story has been told endless times, when Jack Johnson became the heavyweight champion after defeating Tommy Burns 105 years ago, the white press started a quest for a white hope to rescue the championship back. However, the press quickly learned that white heavyweights could not defeat Johnson, and the other top fighters, Sam McVey, Sam Langford, and Joe Jeannette, were black men. In 1911, one writer nervously reported “We [white people] don’t seem to have advanced much further in our investigations as to the identity of the white man who is to wrest the crown of supremacy from the colored race.”  The writer went on to declare, “We want a real good man, too and we want him badly. With Sam McVey making almost even break of it with Langford, the four top places must be conceded to the representatives of the colored race. . . .  Either could almost certainly have disposed, with ease, of the very best white man in the world, and the conclusion is not a very gratifying one.” Fearing that white fighters could not beat Johnson, and realizing that Johnson’s well-documented “bad Nigger” antics became increasingly more threatening to whites, the white press started to promote other “colored champions” to beat Johnson. In other words, they would settle for a black hope, as long as he was deemed a good black. As Lester A. Walton of the black newspaper the New York Age noted “After searching every nook and corner of the earth for a ‘white hope’ to give Champion Jack Johnson a serious argument at fisticuffs, and all to no good purpose, those most active in this world-wide search have hit upon another plan of attack—to try and recapture the championship title through a black hope.”

The two favorites were Joe Jeannette and Sam Langford. Jeannette had respectable qualities that whites could live with. “Although some people look down upon Negroes, no white man ever conducted himself better in any branch of the sport than Joe Jeannette,” reasoned one white writer. Jeannette had “the good will of the white people” and was a credit to his race. The white press also loved Sam Langford. His nickname, the “Boston Tarbaby,” conjured up images of the old plantation days of the docile Negro. At one point, Langford even went as far as suggesting “I may be colored, but I’ve got a white heart,” signifying that he was safe for whites unlike Johnson.

For the white press, the issue of sex and marriage was never far from the conversation in context of Johnson and the black hopes. The press clamored for a hope in the ring, because Johnson challenged white men’s claim to physical superiority and sexual power. On the subject marriage and family, a writer for the New Orleans Picayune noted “There has been more scandal connected with Jack Johnson since he became prominent in pugilism than there was with the names of all the other negro boxers put together. Take the case of Jeannette and Langford” the paper noted “they are both married men who follow fighting for the sake of earning enough to keep their families as comfortable as they can.” The writer finished by noting that Johnson, on the other hand, was a black man whose “private life has been such that it has often been wondered that any well-regulated community would stand for him, and he has done more to turn people against black fighters than all the men of his race put together.” In 1910, while promoting his client for the championship, Sam Langford’s manager told a southern newspaper that Langford and Johnson were two different types of blacks. Under the byline that read “Negroes but Different,” his manager tried to convince white southerners that Langford saved his money while Johnson would die a pauper, and he also noted that Langford bought a home for his wife in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Remarks like that played perfectly in the South, since white Southerners hated the nomad Johnson constantly parading around with white women.

Langford’s quest to unseat Johnson did not sit well with some black newspapermen. Even though he reportedly lived clean and harbored their middle-class values, they did not trust Langford as champion. In August 1910, after hearing a rumor that Langford would dope Johnson if they fought and then let a white man beat him, a writer remarked, “To think such a villainous plot should be hatched against our noble Jack, and for one of his own race to participate in it, gives us much pain.” The paper further suggested that Langford had a lot to learn about being a race man, and that “if he will but walk in the noble footsteps of the first colored champion of the world, he will teach these petty whites that the time for buying and selling a Negro has long since passed.” Four years later in 1914 after Johnson said he would fight Langford, a black reporter claimed blacks were afraid of Langford and would “have no particular love for him.” The paper added that rumors suggesting Langford would let a white fighter beat him “make even their [blacks] regard for him grow less.” This contempt only lasted until Jess Willard defeated Johnson in April 1915. Soon after Willard became the champion, the black press supported Langford as the next rightful champion. Unfortunately for Langford and other black fighters until 1937, white champions continued to draw the color line.  

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Adrien Broner: Cautionary Tale or Trickster

The history of boxing is full of cautionary tales of fighters who have quickly achieved fame and fortune and lost it all just as fast. The attraction of the sporting culture, or living a fast life, did them in. As the great fighter George Dixon once indicated, “I lost my money by gambling, playing the races, leading a fast life and by lending my money to friends.” Dixon, who was the first black champion (1890,) and a hero in the black community, squandered nearly $250,000 in his career and died a broke in 1908. Like many boxers, then and today, he spent the last years of his career trying to catch that elusive payday. When he could no longer fight he died friendless and penniless. “No instance seems more pathetic than the career of George Dixon,” recounted one white writer. For his generation, Dixon became a poster child for white writers as a cautionary tale for the black prizefighter. For example, one writer observed that “it seems to be an unfortunate trait with the colored fighters that they have not sense enough to lay up a little of worldly goods against the coming of old age. Practically every one of them has been an object of charity at some time or other.” According to many observers, black fighters had a racial pathology that predisposed them to spending money on worthless items. The fact that these pugilists lacked manly responsibility fit into stereotypes of the child-like happy-go-lucky black minstrel character.
In many ways, the public still views the black athlete as the man-child waiting to lose it all. For example, in a recent Sports Illustrated article entitled “Problem Child,” writer Chris Mannix explores the quick rise to fame of black prizefighter Adrien Broner. Broner, who lost for the first time on Saturday, goes by the nickname “The Problem,” and is equally known for his skills in the ring as for his antics outside the squared circle. Broner once posted images of himself flushing $20 bills down the toilet. In his article, Mannix falls into the common trope of writing about Broner as a immature black man unprepared for the economic fortunes of a professional athlete. Mannix notes “many wonder: Are we witnessing the rise of boxing’s next big thing or the early rounds of another cautionary tale?” But is it possible Broner is playing us? After all, coming into his last fight Broner was one of the most marketable fighters in the game.

In his blog, the brilliant sportswriter Morgan Campbell wrote that Broner “is, depending on your perspective, a bad guy, a buffoon, or a coon. And it works for him — when he fights even mainstream sports fans tune in to see if somebody will knock that smirk off his face.” In other words, Broner has played the role of the trickster and used the historical contempt for the young black athlete and America’s belief in black pathology to sell more tickets. With his antics and braggadocios attitude, Broner tricked the public into hating him. According to Campbell, “It has everything to do with entertainment, and the entertainment value in a Broner bout is the hope that whoever they line up against him will give him the beating he’s been baiting. And that hope springs from Broner’s antics and arrogance, and the idea that he deserves to lose for disrespecting fans, opponents and the sport.” Whereas others see Broner’s antics as a cautionary tale, Campbell urges on the trickster and asks him to keep “trolling.”

I see both a cautionary tale and the trickster in Broner. He has brilliantly followed the path Floyd “Money” Mayweather blazed in selling a notion of so-called black pathology to stardom, but Broner has also had many brushes with the law and seems to like his drink a bit too much. As a person who studies the history of black fighters, as see parallels with Harry Woodson, the first black boxing star from Cincinnati.

Like Broner, Woodson, “The Black Diamond,” grew up in poverty. Born a slave in Kentucky in 1855, and raised by his mom in the notorious levee district in Cincinnati, Ohio, Woodson used boxing as his way out. His mother, Winnie, operated a bar and brothel and trouble frequently found the establishment. Both Woodson and his mother had their lives threatened, had been stabbed, and Woodson had been shot in a gambling dispute.  In 1882, he escaped the drudge work of a riverman and the hard world of the levee and turned his fighting propensities into a lucrative profession. A Cincinnati Enquirer writer noted he was a “fine specimen of manhood,” and “a well-scienced and powerful man…” Like Broner, he had a quick rise to the top of the pugilist rankings.  Within a year he had fought for the Colored Championship. Despite losing that title fight to Professor Charles Hadley of Connecticut he remained one of the more popular fighters in America. Unfortunately for Woodson, the sporting life style caught up to him. In September 1887, a porter from Chicago killed him for sleeping with his wife. Woodson, who had reportedly been drunk for 3 straight days, was in the city to provide muscle at his mom’s saloon.

In reality, a poor black man in the 1880s had very few options. Boxing was Woodson’s only way out. The sporting lifestyle gave the “Black Diamond” comfort from his hard life. Like Woodson, Broner seems to find escape and comfort in the sporting life, but Woodson’s story doesn’t have to be Broner’s reality. I don’t mind if Broner continues to play the role of the trickster, but for his case, I hope he avoids some of his self-destructive behavior of Woodson and George Dixon.