Dr. Gerald Horne holds the Moores Professorship of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston. His research has addressed issues of racism in a variety of relations involving labor, politics, civil rights, international relations and war. He has also written extensively about the film industry. Dr. Horne received his Ph.D. in history from Columbia University and his J.D. from the University of California, Berkeley and his B.A. from Princeton University. Dr. Horne is the author of more than thirty books and one hundred scholarly articles and reviews. I recently asked him six questions, and actually snuck in two bonus questions because his new book, The Bittersweet Science: Racism, Racketeering, and the Political Economy of Boxing, is so good. Here’s what he had to say.
1/ You discuss boxing’s origins, dating to the days of slavery, on the boats crossing the Atlantic and in the antebellum south. Can you talk a little about that?
Tellingly, congruent with the rise of slavery and the slave trade, various forms of martial arts–e.g. Capoeira/Brazil began to develop. During U.S. slavery, a popular entertainment for enslavers was the ‘battle royal’ whereby young, strapping Black men were blindfolded–at times up to 8–and placed in a boxing ring and instructed to go at each other with the male emerging triumphant receiving a ‘prize.’ Beau Jack, an early lightweight champion with roots in Augusta, Georgia, was a ‘battle royal’ combatant (the ‘sport’ continued post-slavery). Intriguingly, a significant percentage of African-Americans had roots in Angola, a nation that not only produced the vanguard of the bloodiest revolt of the enslaved in Colonial North America–South Carolina, 1739–but also a nation whose martial traditions continued into the late 20th century when the nation was battling apartheid and U.S. sponsored terrorist bands. Revealingly, the most storied prison in the former slave citadel that is Louisiana is named “Angola” where, yes, Black Americans predominate.
2/ So is boxing a racist sport, given its origins and that so many practitioners, or at least the greatest, are Black? Do I have to feel guilty about enjoying it? In 1974, I went to downtown St. Louis to root for Ali against Foreman at the Fox Theater on closed circuit TV and have watched the Thrilla in Manila hundreds of times since and plan to watch it hundreds more before I die? Should I stop–especially knowing the damage boxing did to Ali?
Yes, boxing has evolved as a ‘racist’ sport. The extent to which you feel ‘guilt’ for enjoying it is an individual choice. As for the Manila bout, the answer turns on why an individual chooses to watch it.
3/ You talk about the Nation of Islam’s involvement in boxing, and its alliance with Ali. You describe it as a force that “could confront racketeers.” I realize this is a big question, actually more than one, but can you discuss why boxing was so long notorious for corruption? And did the Nation of Islam end up confronting racketeers? If so, how? And what’s your take on the NOI’s relationship with Ali? And just one more related question, why did Ali break with Malcolm X and side with Elijah Muhammad?
Yes, this is a huge question. Inexorably racketeering takes root in a nation based on mass enslavement of Africans–often ensnared by proto-gangsters–and mass expropriation of the indigenous (likewise). As I have written in my book on ‘Jazz’ and others on Hollywood, in the U.S. and elsewhere, organized crime is attracted to ‘business’ that throws off cash proceeds, which facilitates money laundering. It is also a kind of primitive accumulation of capital–ala the slave trade. And, yes, this generates corruption of various sorts. As I state in the book, if you compare Ali to Bob Foster, yet another talented boxer who fought for peanuts, it is evident that boxers felt they needed ‘backup’ and, yes, the presence of the Nation, especially the Fruit of Islam, served as a deterrent to traditional racketeering. Of course, my book on Watts details how the Nation filled an ideological vacuum created by the Red Scare and the persecution of figures like Robeson (see my book on him). Other writers e.g. Ishmael Reed and Randy Roberts have opined on Ali and Malcolm–I have little to add to their findings.
4/ You write about Jews and Italians being well known boxers? Why did these groups flock to boxing? Was it for economic reasons entirely? Who else did?
As for Jewish-Americans, particularly in the pre-1945 era in the U.S. boxing was a way to escape penury. It delivered not only capital but prestige. “Who else did”–do you mean other groups? If so, Filipinos e.g. Pacquiao, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Ukrainians, etc.
5/ You also write about the legendary Jack Johnson? Can you talk about his impact and legacy? I’m not sure you can answer this one, but was he or Ali seen as a bigger threat by white America? Ali was hated because of his anti-Vietnam war position, for being “uppity,” as racists would say, his joining the NOI, and for his political views in general. Johnson, as you write, had a “spectacular career [that] contributed to a pressing crisis for white supremacy and male supremacy alike.” Can you talk about that, and was Johnson even more hated than Ali?
This is a difficult quantitative and qualitative question to answer. Having said that, given Johnson’s attempt more than a century ago to establish a beachhead against Jim Crow and white supremacy in Revolutionary Mexico, he may have been more of a threat than Ali, who, after all, chose to play ball with U.S. imperialism and tour Africa to rally support against the 1980 Moscow Olympics–a venture that was not embraced on the continent.
6/ You say that two famous promoters from the 1970s and 1980s, Don King and Bob Arum, were treated quite differently. King was vilified and Arum escaped scrutiny. Why?
The easy answer is: racism and white supremacy.
6a, Bonus Question 1/ I have to ask. Who’s the GOAT?
Hard to say but I am predisposed to Johnson, Henry Armstrong and Joe Gans.
6b, Bonus Question 2/ What’s your favorite fight of all time? Mine, I will go first, is Ali-Oscar Bonavena, which is not one of Ali’s best known fights and certainly not his greatest from a technical standpoint. But my god, what it said about him. It was his last tuneup before fighting Joe Frazier the first time at Madison Square Garden, but it was no picnic. Bonavena was not a great boxer but he was tough, he had never been knocked out and rarely knocked down. Ali got out ahead but Bonavena rallied late and it was tied going into Round 15. Ali was exhausted, totally spent, and for the first 1:30 he lumbered around the ring or laid on the ropes. The fight, it seems, is over and Bonavena wins. Then, out of nowhere, Ali floors him with a stunning right. Bonavena gets up but Ali knocks him down twice more, the fight is automatically over on three knockdowns in a round. An incredible moment. So, after all that, what’s your favorite fight, and it can be for political or artistic reasons? Or pick one of each. For me, Ali beating Foreman or taunting Floyd Patterson–“What’s my name?”–are the greatest political wins.
Ali-Foreman Zaire: not least because of the potent but barely noticed subtext of religious war, a phenomenon that undergirded settler colonialism in the Americas in the first instance that then ravaged Africa, which then returned to the continent in the 1970s. See my book on the 16th century.