Forgive my use of song lyrics, but it’s the first thing that popped into my head as I thought about this topic. In class on February 10, we talked about the similarities (if any) between Jack Johnson, the first African American heavyweight champion, and W.E.B. Du Bois. It all came down to masculinity. This doesn’t mean that the only similarity between a boxer and a scholar is the fact that they were men. As most men did in the early twentieth century (regardless of race), both Johnson and Du Bois rebelled against emasculation. Fair enough. The major similarity in their actions was their of use women as pawns in what I’d like to call the “American masculinity game.”
The “masculinity game” does not define femininity as an opposite to masculinity. It uses women – and the protection of them as a whole – to define men and their roles. The two men we talked about both recognized the importance of these “pawns” in the problem of race.
Who overpowered who? The use of women as basic property (not human beings) kept anger and hatred alive. Du Bois wrote about the defilement of women in “Souls of Black Folk,” noting that the white men who slept with black women for two centuries equaled the “obliteration of the Negro home.” When Jack Johnson dated, and later married, two white women (at different times, of course!) he had to have been wise to the fact that it bothered whites – namely white men. Both blacks and whites felt threatened by the opposite race taking “their women” from them. The men who recognized that fact – Johnson and Du Bois included – were able to move these pawns to generate a specific response. The difference is in what response each of them wanted.
Can the problem of race ever be separated from definitions of gender? More specifically, can race be separated from masculinity? I find myself wondering what would have happened if women’s equality came before 1865.