This article examines the controversy surrounding Jack Johnson’s proposed world heavyweight title fight against the British champion Bombardier Billy Wells in London (1911). In juxtaposing African Americans’ often glowing discussions of European tolerance with the actual white resistance the black champion faced in Britain, including the Home Office’s eventual prohibition of the match, the article explores the period’s transnational discourses of race and citizenship. Indeed, as white sportsmen on both sides of the Atlantic joined together in their search for a “White Hope” to unseat Johnson, the boxing ring became an important cultural arena for interracial debates over the political and social divisions between white citizens and nonwhite subjects.
Although African Americans had high hopes for their hero’s European sojourn, the British backlash against the Johnson-Wells match underscored the fact that their local experiences of racial oppression were just one facet of a much broader global problem. At the same time, the proposed prizefight also made the specter of interracial conflict in the colonies all the more tangible in the British capital, provoking public discussions about the merits of U.S. racial segregation, along with the need for white Anglo-Saxon solidarity around the world. Thus, this article not only exposes the underlying connections between American Jim Crow and the racialized fault lines of British imperialism, but it also traces the “tense and tender ties” linking U.S. and African American history with the new imperial history and postcolonial studies.
(Journal of World History, Volume 21, Number 4, December 2010, pp. 657-689)