Negrophilia: On Being British and Boxing

My initial interest in negrophilia grew out of my studies in art history. I came to the subject via what modern artists in the early decades of the 20th century called "primitivism". The term "negrophilia" itself describes the craze for black culture that was prevalent among avant-garde artists and bohemian types in 20s Paris, when to collect African art, to listen to black music and to dance with black people was a sign of being modern and fashionable. In the same way that, today, aspects of black culture such as hip hop, reggae, gangsta rap, locks and Afro hairstyles proliferate, in the 20s the craze was for dances such as the charleston, the lindy hop and the black bottom, for Bakerfix hair paste, and for wearing African-inspired clothes and accessories. This passion for black culture and a "primitivised" existence flourished in the aftermath of the first world war, when artists yearned for a simpler, idyllic lifestyle to counter modern life's mechanistic violence. But, even as the "negrophiles" of 20s Paris affirmed a love of black people, their relationships with them demonstrated, at least covertly, sentiments closer to fear - sentiments that still persist to this day. Black personalities were either lionised or demonised in a manner that denied normality. I felt that an examination of these mood swings from negrophilia to negrophobia might be a useful way to see how black people have historically become objects of affection or derision, and continue to be. Negrophilia is thus about western culture exploring its perceptions of difference in such a way that best reflects white people rather than their exoticised subjects. Such reflections are often highlighted in sport, the arts and popular entertainment, but they are particularly evident in boxing, a sport of extremes where, historically, whites and blacks have chosen controlled abuse to deal with each other. Fights between white and black boxers create interest because they provide an arena in which the myth of black savagery can be explored and confirmed and even supported. Boxing's ritualised order makes it possible for savage and civilised to meet and to challenge each other on equal terms, and sometimes to upset the "natural" order of things. The similarities between the career of Mike Tyson at the end of the 20th century and that of Jack Johnson, his black predecessor by almost 100 years, are remarkable and instructive, especially when used to compare attitudes and tolerance to race in America and Europe. Johnson, a Texan-born fighter, boxed his way to the heavyweight championship at a time when racial tension in the southern states of America was at its most virulent. He beat Canadian Tommy Burns in a world title fight in 1908 and followed this with victory over America's "great white hope", Jim Jeffries, in 1910. But Johnson was reviled by the American and British public alike. His victories had brought a new racial dimension to boxing, and had roused the wrath of the white supremacists, who recognised their significance. What was still more infuriating for white Americans was Johnson's cocky attitude both inside and outside the ring. He taunted opponents with abuse and racial slurs, and also had a penchant for courting white women - in fact, he married three. This flaunting of unwritten colour codes made his victories over white men both physically and sexually humiliating to them. Despite condemnation of Johnson's street-fighter tactics and of bouts that the press called "freak shows", there was no shortage of takers for ringside seats or for tickets to see his motion pictures (the turn-of-the-century equivalent of pay-per-view). The crowd's love-hate relationship with Johnson was good for the box office, and his brawling and abusive manner, combined with white vitriol, merely added to the high-risk entertainment. When Johnson skipped a jail sentence for abducting a white woman, by escaping to Europe, the British press met him with the same vehemence bestowed on Tyson when he returned to the ring after serving time for rape, and again after biting another boxer's ear. In the cases of both Johnson and Tyson, the press demonised the fighters and, in defence of the principles of pugilism, called for them to be banned from boxing. If nothing has been learned in the 90 years that separates their careers, perhaps something can be gained from examining Johnson's experience in Paris. Paris's reception for Jack Johnson was different. Boxing had been introduced to French culture after the 1789 Revolution through an anglophile sporting society. Despite its English origins, the revival of "la boxe", as the French called it, came to Paris via America, and was associated with fairground and circus attractions. Black men who participated in boxing events were feted for their feats of strength and likened to their African brothers. These "bad niggers" were greeted with fascination and curiosity. Unlike America, Paris posed no restriction to their fighting with white men, and after 1900 many black boxers gravitated to the city in search of title fights. Johnson came to Paris in 1913 and participated in a number of boxing exhibitions organised by the Nouveau Cirque. Although race difference provided the visible tensions to Johnson's fights, the invisible political and sexual tensions that his male physicality established in the ring were equally potent. In America, his flamboyant character and transgressive behaviour outside the ring roused white fears of violation and depredation. But in Paris, a city proud of its liberal race policies, the challenge to political and sexual issues was not always so blatant. In the relationship that avant-garde Paris established with black people at this time, sexuality was implicit rather than explicit. That said, the courtship of black culture by the Parisian avant-garde was an even greater slap in the face of the bourgeoisie and its values than a fist fight in the ring. Johnson was vilified by the French mainstream because he challenged its values; he was admired by the avant-garde for the same reason. The initial presence of blacks in Paris was considered rejuvenating, particularly for the bohemian set who cultivated the shadowy world of the jazz clubs and who called themselves "negrophiles" - figures such as the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, the art dealer Paul Guillaume, the shipping heiress and publisher Nancy Cunard, and the surrealist critic Michel Leiris. A few of these were even willing to disown their European heritage altogether in favour of black culture. Despite the negative historical implications of being called a "nigger lover", they used terms such as "n├ęgrophile" and "n├ęgrier" almost as terms of endearment to establish their status outside "civilised" society's moral boundaries. Being called a negrophile within the Parisian avant-garde affirmed one's defiant craze for black culture. "Blackness" was a sign of their modernity, reflected in the African sculptures that scattered their rooms alongside abstract paintings. Such orchestrated environments of tribal and modern became part of an invisible code that, rather like the decor of Dr Frasier Crane's apartment, defined their owners as cultured. Ephemeral that period may have been, but in the world of black and white little changes, and negrophilia endures to this day. Assessment of historical relationships offers a useful guide for understanding contemporary issues, and one can often glide between past and present in a way that is frightening, but thought-provoking. This summer has been particularly rewarding, because so many black sports stars, such as the Williams sisters, Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis, have been in the limelight, with the press dragging out all the old expressions they seem to reserve for black subjects. Sports reports describing the new Wimbledon and US Open champion Venus Williams as a "demented doe" or a "predator", along with descriptions of her "impossibly long legs" and "octopus-like arms", demonstrate that even as black athletes are winning, they are still perceived in a particular, patronising way by white people. When Tyson recently beat the sense out of his white Texan opponent Lou Savarese, for instance, broadsheet and tabloid newspapers alike expressed outrage at his conduct. The 38-second whipping he gave Savarese shocked those watching, as did the accidental lick which toppled the referee. But the media generally focused on the ringside interview held immediately after the fight, during which Tyson hesitatingly pieced together his view of the contest, but then, suddenly conscious of the camera, seemed to go into overdrive. He declared himself ready to fight Britain's double world champion Lewis and threatened to rip out his heart and to "eat his babies". Repulsed, the British press called Tyson "tawdry", "mad" and ready for "the nuthouse". With his actions and words, Tyson may have exacerbated negative stereotypes of blacks, but it was revealing to see how the media, in its reaction to the outburst, drew on pervasive notions of violence and deviance that historically have been related not just to boxers but to blacks in general. Today, in a shrinking world, black culture informs a wider, global popular culture. Black music and fashion are particularly seductive. The black image in movies, magazines, videos and computer games is now an icon of modernity. But even as it is being lucratively marketed worldwide, there is still discussion about its "negative" influences, as the Tyson case shows. Perhaps to redress this imbalance, in Britain we are witnessing another swing of the pendulum back towards negrophilia, especially when the subject is media-friendly - the successful promotion of Zadie Smith and her novel White Teeth, for instance, seemed as much to do with interest in the author's mixed-race upbringing and striking good looks as the book's witty commentary about the changing face of Britain. Today's negrophilia is especially indulgent of black Britons who are willing to carry the flag in their endeavours. Perhaps as a sign of its tolerance and multiculturalism, the media has begun to look more closely at these black people as individuals. Recently, the press has adopted Lennox Lewis as one of its own and has framed him, at least in the boxing arena, as "Britain's last hope for glory". It is intriguing that Lewis is being billed as a "gentle giant" in contrast to Tyson's monstrousness, and that Lewis's relative civility in the ring is being seen as an aspect of his Britishness, rather than of his Canadian-ness or Jamaican-ness. This colouring of Britishness is a relatively new phenomenon. It will be interesting to see if the current wave of negrophilia will be sustained beyond the ring and the final count