A story of African Americans fighting for social recognition – in the ring

Anne Tjønndal
Faculty of Social Science, Nord university


Louis Moore
I fight for a Living: Boxing and the battle for black manhood 1880–1915
223 pages, paperback, ill.
Urbana and Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press 2017 (Sport and Society)
ISBN 978-0-252-08287-0

The black boxer’s half-naked body revealed his musculature, and his actions in the ring against white opponents demonstrated the new capabilities of his body, that, when pitted against white pugilists, challenged whites’ conception of the interconnection of manliness, civilization, and white superiority. (p. 116)

In I Fight for a Living author Louis Moore demonstrates how African American success in the ring shattered the myth of black inferiority in the face of the efforts of both media and government to defend white privilege in the United States in the years preceding World War I. In his book, Moore touches upon topics that are interesting for a wide scope of readers, including race/racism, social class and civil rights. Moore is an associate professor of history at Grand Valley State University (USA), which is also reflected in the writing style of the book. Like many other sport history books, I Fight for a Living includes very detailed accounts of lives of black fighters and boxing events in the era in question. While the book might be on the relatively narrow topic of the life and struggles of black boxers in the US in 1850–1915, Moore’s ability to connect these narratives of sport history to the broader topics of racism and social class opens up the book to readers outside of the academic field of sport history.

This book is a volume in the series Sport and Society, which is edited by Jaime Schultz and Aram Goudsouzian, published by University of Illinois Press. I Fight for a Living consist of an introduction, six individual chapters, and an epilogue. The chapters are divided somewhat thematically and at times the narratives jump back and forth between boxers and decades. This, in turn, can sometimes make it challenging for the reader to follow the storyline. The same thing can be said about the wide array of boxers portrayed in this book. While this makes the book appear well researched and as a fine piece of academic craftsmanship, for a reader it can be difficut to keep track of the different boxers, their careers and their life stories.

In some parts of the book, Moore provides the reader with highly compelling stories and thick descriptions of the hardships black boxers faced in America during this period in time. Other parts of the book are more straightforward descriptions of specific fights and boxing events. In my opinion, these parts have a more limited potential to reach readers outside of the sport history field. Reading this book, my favorite chapter was chapter five – titled “Sambos, Savages and the Shakiness of Whiteness”, mainly because here Moore does an excellent job of illustrating the role boxing played for (some) black men in their journey to become ‘self-made men’ and challenge cultural ideas of biology and white supremacy in the era. As Moore describes, prizefighting was one of the few trades where an African American man could assert his independence and powerful masculinity. Personally, I particularly enjoyed reading the part of chapter five titled “White protectionism and the image of black boxers” where Moore, through clever use of historical sources, displays how the black boxing body was described and perceived by a white media:

With black men dominating in the ring and with their bodies clearly more muscular than white fighters, in order to help their readers understand the visual and physical racial challenges black fighters presented to white manhood, a number of white sportswriters compared black fighters to horses. This allowed whites to fetishize over the black body while denying black men humanity and equality… Beyond focusing on black musculature to dehumanize black fighters, sportswriters wrote about features like skin and hair to create an image of black savagery. (p. 124)

These illustrations of how African American boxers challenged cultural perceptions of black bodies and black inferiority is Moore’s greatest contribution in writing and publishing this book. Additionally, the parallels drawn to modern day fighters such as Floyd Mayweather and Muhammad Ali in the epilogue are also well written and thought-provoking.

Copyright © Anne Tjønndal 2018

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