Q & A with Dr.Theresa Runstedtler, author of new book on Jack Johnson
Posted: November 23, 2012
Frank Guridy: Why did you decide to write a sport history book?
Theresa Runstedtler: I think that many historians based in the United States still shy away from doing sports-related research. In U.S. academic circles, especially in the humanities, there is still a stigma attached to Sports Studies (although things are beginning to change). Many academics wrongly assume that sports do not have the same critical potential or explanatory power as literature, theater, music, and other modes of cultural production. However, building on the legacy of C. L. R. James’s Beyond a Boundary (1963), which explores race, gender, class, colonialism, and nationalism through the lens of cricket, I wanted to take sport seriously as a window onto broader political, social, and cultural struggles. After all, I grew up playing competitive sports – everything from figure skating to soccer to volleyball to rugby – and I learned a lot about life, people, and the world through my experiences as an athlete.
FG: Why Jack Johnson?
TR: I paid my way through university as a professional dancer and one of my longstanding gigs was performing in the Toronto Raptors Dance Pak. After university, I worked in Public Relations at a Canadian national sports network. I was also a friend of top Canadian boxers Greg and Chris Johnson (Greg taught me how to box.). So, I saw first-hand what happened behind the scenes in both the entertainment and sports industries. Doing research on Jack Johnson – arguably the first black celebrity with global reach – was a natural transition for me as a PhD student in African American studies and History at Yale University. As much as Johnson was an athlete, he was also a performer and public figure who sparked heated debates about racism and imperialism on the world stage. I quickly became taken with his life story – especially his international travels – and I was surprised that not much had been written on his impact abroad. Although people usually think of Muhammad Ali as the first overtly political black boxer with international reach, Johnson was already critiquing white supremacy on the world stage in the early twentieth century.
FG: Why do you think this book is important for the fields of Black Studies and American Studies?
TR: Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner makes key contributions to the fields of Black Studies and American Studies. Much of the existing literature on black transnationalism remains focused on the role of educated black elites (intellectuals, writers, leftist activists). However, my book illustrates that Johnson and other itinerant black American athletes (who I call “rebel sojourners”) were some of the earliest and most famous “organic intellectuals” of the African diaspora. Through the rising black press they provided their African American fans with insights about their experiences abroad, and through telegraph and news reports about their triumphs and travails they gained ardent followers throughout the colonial world. Thus, my work pushes beyond the framework of the Black Atlantic to consider political affiliations routed in the global traffic of anticolonial ideas, as African Americans considered their relationship with Aboriginal peoples in Australia and found common cause with Mexicans struggling against U.S. hegemony. As great reservoirs of practical knowledge on the workings of the global color line, Johnson and other rebel sojourners set the stage for the diasporic leaders and thinkers of the interwar years, from Marcus Garvey to Claude McKay, who endeavored to envision a more militant brand of New Negro politics through the prism of transnationalism.
Although much of the literature in Transnational American Studies remains theoretical in nature, grounded in the close reading of a few signal texts, my book sets out to test these theories through extensive archival research. My book traces the flows of U.S. racial discourses and African American culture abroad from an empirical point of view. This approach enables me to put the emerging scholarship on the transnational constructions of whiteness in conversation with the growing work on the politics and culture of the African diaspora. Furthermore, while much of the research on interimperial relations is still focused on intellectuals and government officials, my book highlights how everyday people around the world became culturally conscripted into supporting the policies of the white man’s burden. Indeed, the spread of mass commercial culture, especially sports, played a key role in shaping the global color line (i.e. immigration restrictions, racial segregation, anti-miscegenation vigilantism and legislation) or what W. E. B. Du Bois called the “new religion of whiteness.” Overall, I unearth Johnson’s now buried legacy as, at once, a diasporic hero who inspired racial and anticolonial consciousness among people of color around the world and an infamous scapegoat who sparked international discussions about the need to collectively preserve global white supremacy in the modern age.