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Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner:

Boxing in the Shadow of the

Global Color Line

A global history of race, gender, and empire

in the early 20th century, through the prism of

"the most famous and most notorious African American on earth."


Be it the mixed reaction to Colin Kaepernick's decision to kneel for the national anthem or the varied media response to NBA players' vocal support for #BlackLivesMatter, even today competitive sport has a knack for forcing society to confront some of its deepest divides. Over one hundred years ago in Jack Johnson's day the lines drawn in the sand were even starker.


Johnson's diverse and tumultuous life, both in and outside the ring, has become one of the most important historic benchmarks for any discussion of Americans' complicated relationship with race. Yet Johnson was more than just an American cause célèbre. The first African American world heavyweight champion also touched hearts–and quite a few raw nerves–around the globe.


Although historians in print and film have plumbed Johnson's fights in the rings and courthouses of the U.S. to tell larger narratives about the ugliness of life under Jim Crow, in Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner, Theresa Runstedtler focuses her gaze across the Atlantic and Pacific.


Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner, provides the first in-depth exploration of Johnson's battles against racism in places as far-flung as Sydney, London, Cape Town, Paris, Havana, and Mexico City. Runstedtler uses Johnson's overseas travels as a springboard to examine his unasked-for starring role in the global debate over the future of imperialism, the color line, and the "white man's burden."


Drawing extensively from foreign newspapers, Runstedtler illustrates a world divided in its reaction to Johnson. Many scoffed at America's fierce negrophobia (particularly their conviction of Johnson under the Mann Act) and embraced the exiled fighter to buttress their claims of moral superiority to the U.S. Others viewed Johnson's ascent in the States as a ready rationale for suppressing nonwhites in their own nations and colonies.


While white Americans like Jack London held their breath for one "Great White Hope" after another to defeat Johnson, Runstedtler shows that Johnson's successes were just as threatening to the white establishment abroad, particularly at a time of great imperial expansion and rising colonial unrest.


Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner won the 2013 Phillis Wheatley Award from the Northeast Black Studies Association.


Praise for Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner


"Theresa Runstedtler traces Jack Johnson's fabulous, furious, iconic life across five continents and through four paradigms (race, masculinity, imperialism, and popular culture), setting a formidably high bar in the emerging genre of transnational biography. Jack Johnson: Rebel Sojourner is a groundbreaking achievement. --David Levering Lewis, author of W. E. B. Du Bois, 1868-1919: Biography of a Race


"This is a brilliantly researched and original study of the transnational career of the black American boxer Jack Johnson. In lucid and engaging prose, Theresa Runstedtler traces Johnson’s travels across multiple continents, showing how Johnson’s life serves as a cultural compass for the intersecting worlds of American, British, and French empire and ideas of race at the turn of the last century. This marvelous contribution to the burgeoning literature on the popular culture of imperialism and transnationalism will find a wide and appreciative audience among scholars of empire, American history, and African American studies." --Kevin Gaines, author of American Africans in Ghana: Black Expatriates in the Civil Rights Era


"Theresa Runstetler's Jack Johnson: Rebel Sojourner is one of the two or three most important books on race and sports I have read in the last ten years. It shows that Jack Johnson's impact on black-white relations, during the years of his exile, was at least as great in countries outside the United States as it was domestically. When he fought outside the US, Johnson became a model of power and agency for colonial peoples seeking liberation, and an object of exotic fascination and aversion for whites trying to maintain their power in a changing world. It is a brilliantly researched and innovative work that forces the reader to look at race in countries like France and Mexico in a completely different way." --Mark Naison, Professor of African American Studies and History, Fordham University


"Theresa Runstedtler has created a wonderfully thoughtful and sophisticated exploration of the impact of Jack Johnson's storied boxing career in the context of Western imperialism of the early twentieth century. The author provides a fascinating and broad picture of the international implications of Johnson's success as the world's first black heavyweight champ. His fame inspired colonized people from Fiji to Jamaica to India. Western imperialists conversely grew alarmed at Johnson's popularity and success. Ultimately, this book is a welcome addition to the study of how itinerant black workers who left the U.S. contributed to transnational resistive politics in Europe, Latin America, Australia, Asia, and Africa. None was as popular as Jack Johnson, who reigned not only as heavyweight champ, but was the most salient example of the intersection of defiance to global white supremacy in the space of sport and entertainment. --Jeffrey O.G. Ogbar, author of Hip-Hop Revolution: The Culture and Politics of Rap




"This book is a must-have addition to any boxing fan's library." -- Glenn Wilson, Boxing News


"Runstedtler brings new perspectives to bear in Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner. . . it's well worth the read." --Thomas Hauser, The Ring


"Runstedtler presents an unexpected yet wholly authentic take on the great African American boxer, Jack Johnson." --Alan Moores, Booklist 


"A fascinating must-read for students of African American or American studies covering the early 1900s." -- Jim Burns, Library Journal


"A thoroughly researched, scholarly study, meant to be read slowly and considered deeply. . . . Highly recommended for all readers." --R. W. Roberts, Purdue University, Choice