Jack johnson versus jim crow: Race, reputation, and the politics of black villainy: The fight of the century

Derek H. Alderman, Joshua Inwood, James A. Tyner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Foundational to Jim Crow era segregation and discrimination in the United States was a “ra-cialized reputational politics,” that constructed African Americans as not only inferior, but as villainous threats to the normative order, leading to the lynching of thousands of African Americans. While black villainy is a destructive force within society, we explore it is as basis for anti-racist politics, when appropriated by African Americans. There is a long history in African American folklore of celebrating the black outlaw who freely moves about and boldly violates moral and legal norms. Early 20th century American boxer Jack Johnson, who reigned as world heavy champion from 1908 to 1915, illustrates this complex and contested process of vilifying black bodies and reputations during the Jim Crow era. Our paper offers a critical, contextualized biographical analysis of Johnson, situating his struggles within the wider historical geography of violent US race relations and paying close attention to the controversial place he held within the white and black public imaginaries. Importantly, the African American fighter appropriated and manipulated Jim Crow villainy to challenge a white racist society and a conservative black establishment while also claiming the right to live on his own terms.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)227-249
Number of pages23
JournalSoutheastern Geographer
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 1 2018

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences(all)


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