Boxers on the Wall: Masculinity and Freedom

In the opening scenes of the novel, Peggy, the Daltons’ housekeeper, shows Bigger to his room, a space formerly occupied by Green, the previous African-American chauffeur. The room was “covered with pictures of girls’ faces and prize fighters” (Wright 58). Peggy does not comment on the content of these pictures, only noting that Green liked pictures, but, when he returns, Bigger stands in the middle of the room looking at them. The narrator says, “There were pictures of Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey, and Henry Armstrong; there were others of Ginger Rogers, Jean Harlow, and Janet Gaynor” (Wright 59). Though a small detail, these walls symbolize the world in which Bigger feels trapped like the mouse in the opening scene. Of the four boxers whose pictures adorn Green’s wall, three are African-Americans and the other, Dempsey, has both Irish and Cherokee heritage. The three women are white American actresses. Just as Green and Bigger serve as opposites in the text, the boxers and Bigger act as opposites in terms of masculinity. While Bigger often attempts to prove his masculinity using weapons (e.g. knife, gun), the boxers simply prove it through their fists. Though both proofs require violence, the boxers’ fighting is fair and on equal footing whereas the Bigger’s violence is cowardly as he ambushes Gus, Mary, and Bessie.

Over the course of the novel, Wright argues that society forces Bigger to show his masculinity in this way. This argument could lead one to believe that boxers then escape this dilemma. Yet the example of the boxers and of Green show that a comfort in masculinity does not lead to freedom for African-Americans. Green’s comfort in his own masculinity allowed him to work for the Daltons for ten years, during which time “Mrs. Dalton made him go to night school” (Wright 55). The wording is important: Green does not choose to go to night school, but rather Mrs. Dalton “made him go.” This fact shows that Green does not control his own future but rather depends on the help of his white employers. Similarly, the boxer’s dalliance with white society depends on his ability to both continue winning and maintain a socially acceptable demeanor. Jack Johnson, the first boxer mentioned, is a perfect example. The first African-American heavyweight champion, Johnson consorted with and later married white women. His disregard for the color line resulted in the government enforcing the Mann Act against him, forcing him to flee the country. Even though he controlled his aggression, he could not escape the control of powerful white men over his life.

As Bigger’s life falls apart, we could view Green and the boxers as the hope, a path out of the entrapment that Bigger recognizes. Yet Green is powerless as well; he does not have freedom to access the white women he has on his wall. Just as the edges of the paper that display those boxers and actresses do not intersect, so too Green’s masculinity, or self-control, does not intersect with freedom. This is the dilemma of society, the problem against which Bigger lashes out. His solution is radical but his feelings are legitimate.

One thought on “Boxers on the Wall: Masculinity and Freedom”

  1. It’s super interesting that Wright included references to only boxers of color. I agree that their images represent a type of masculinity other than Bigger’s, and that Wright aims to explore the pervasiveness of societal limitations on black men by examining how even these physical titans were subject to the Mann Act, for example, or (as you note) a forced distance from white women. I’d also note the historical racism of boxing. Jack Johnson’s status as the first African American, for example, incited massive uproar from white America as audiences began a search for a “Great White Hope” to reclaim the title. Joe Louis experienced similar discrimination: his management forced him to follow rules to maintain a “good Negro” public persona. In order to avoid seeming “too black,” Louis was not allowed to gloat, and was specifically banned from consorting with white women (sound familiar?). Thus, Wright referencing a sport with such a racialized past actually functions as a further reminder of the relationship between black men and white women and the greater limitations black athletes faced.

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