Academic journal article MELUS

Fine Specimens of Manhood: The Black Boxer's Body and the Avenue to Equality, Racial Advancement, and Manhood in the Nineteenth Century

Academic journal article MELUS

Fine Specimens of Manhood: The Black Boxer's Body and the Avenue to Equality, Racial Advancement, and Manhood in the Nineteenth Century

Article excerpt

In his book Masculinities, R. W. Connell suggests, "True masculinity is almost always thought to proceed from men's bodies" (45). By the mid-nineteenth century, as sports gained more acceptance from the middle class, "the idea that a man who was moral and devout could and should also be physically fit tied in very well with prevailing middle-class values and the new sports creed" (Riess 179). Although scholarship about manliness and the male body of the nineteenth century has primarily focused on white men, by examining the careers of two late nineteenth-century black sparring "professors," prizefighters Peter Jackson and George Dixon, and how the press responded to their lives, I argue that black men also understood the connections between their bodies and manhood and used physicality to assert equality.

During the antebellum period, the black sparring "professor" John B. Bailey, who lacked federal citizenship, positioned himself in the physical culture movement to prove his middle-class fitness for manhood rights. Bailey's gym contributed to the thought that the ideal middle-class body, slender yet muscularly toned, was a clear sign of discipline, self-control, and a well-balanced man. By the 1880s, however, the preferred manly body was brawny and "required physical bulk and well-defined muscles" developed for manly competition in life (Bederman 15). Middle-class men "began to find this rough working-class masculinity powerfully attractive" (17). This new interpretation of the manly body gave black prizefighters an avenue to assert and prove their manliness across race and class lines. Although black leaders in the antebellum period accepted sparring "professors" as equals and believed they helped advance the race, black newspapermen at first struggled with the meaning of black prizefighters and their impact on the race. Yet as boxers won national acclaim, race leaders started to assert that the fight type of professional pugilist could change black Americans' fortunes and prove equality for racial advancement.

Antebellum Black "Professors" and the Physical Culture Movement

The American physical culture movement began in the 1840s as a way for middle-class men to combat the negative effects of America's growing cities. Previously, most middle-class men shunned sports because they believed that leisurely athletic pursuits distracted a man from his responsibilities, keeping him from being an independent producer and provider for his family, which was thought to be the true hallmark of citizenship and manhood. However, noting that urbanization had also resulted in an increasing crime rate and unhealthy cities, a number of middle-class men worried that the realities of urban living jeopardized their manhood and America's national standing. In order to battle the changes of urban America, health specialists advocated exercise to protect the body and prescribed activities such as calisthenics, fencing, walking, rowing, and sparring. According to sport historian Steven Riess, "outdoor physical exercise and sport would be socially functional activities that could counter the growing urban pathology and social anomie. Such sport and exercise would promote good health, sound morals, and a decent character" (174). Scholar Anthony E. Rotundo notes, "Before the Civil War, athletics was seen as a form of physical culture that strengthened the body, refreshed the soul, and increased a man's resistance to luxury and vice" (239). After visiting Peyton Stewart's Boston gymnasium, for example, the editor of the Prisoner's Friend, a journal dedicated to reforming criminals and preventing vice, told his readers, "[O]ur young men and women should visit this institution. A little judicious exercise here would save many a one a doctor's bill. To our young men it is invaluable. Here they may spend their evenings in a social way, and in the improvement of health" (Spear, "Gymnasium," 1853). The journal also encouraged parents to be proactive and prevent their children from falling into lives of criminality by enrolling them in gymnastics. …

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