Reflections on Studying the Past – Meddyliau ar Astudio’r Gorffennol

Professor Martin Johnes has recently been researching the intersections between race and boxing in post-1945 Britain. With Matthew Taylor (De Montfort University), he explored the abolition of the sport’s colour bar in 1948 and the impact that had on the sport in the context of rising migration and racial tensions in the 1950s and 1960s.

The abolition of the sport’s colour bar in 1948 was recognition of the wrongness of racial exclusion and it was followed by a celebration of black fighters as local and national heroes. The sport became a rare space where black men could be spoken about, discussed, and celebrated without primary reference to their colour. However, race was never irrelevant, especially as the number of black boxers rose with wider patterns of migration. Race was thus widely discussed in boxing, although there was rarely open discussion of racism. This absence, along with black successes in the ring, masked deep levels of both structural and interpersonal prejudice. Racial differences remained accepted as common sense by white Britons. Indeed, immigration intensified racism in Britain, changing the perceived position of people of colour from exotic novelties to threats to society. Boxing is thus a reminder of the contradictory dynamics of race. Formal mechanisms of exclusion could be removed, while informal mechanisms intensified. Individuals could be celebrated, while people of colour as a group were looked down upon. Black achievements could simultaneously reinforce ideas of black inferiority.

The article can be accessed here.

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A second article looks at British reactions to Muhammad Ali in the 1960s. Ali fought in the UK three times in the sixties, each time to the accompaniment of significant media coverage that made him into a public figure. On his first fight in 1963, his unusual personality both delighted and reviled. Many of the criticisms were rooted in a dislike of American culture but beneath them were also racial stereotypes that encouraged a view of him as brash and immature. By his second and third fights in 1966, he was a deeply controversial figure in the USA because of his conversion to Islam and opposition to the Vietnam War. Yet neither issue had the same significance in the UK and his British fan base grew, despite the way he also reminded some of the danger that British racial tensions might escalate in the way they had in America. Ali was also an inspiration to Britons of colour and those who believed in the need for radical challenges to the world’s problems. As such, he is an example of how ideas, fears and hopes around race relations were transnational and the need for its British historians to ensure their accounts are de-domesticised.

The published version of the article can be accessed here: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09523367.2019.1679775 

For those without library access, a version of the article can be downloaded here.

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