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Prize Fights: René Maran, Battling Siki and the Triumph of the Black Man in France, 1922 (cont'd)

L’Affaire Batouala

Reaction to Batouala and its prize split along political more than racial lines. Colonizers and their supporters were outraged by this attack on the mission civilisatrice. The main colonial newspaper, La Dépêche coloniale, denounced the novel as “a work of hatred ” and “calumny.” Maurice Delafosse, a leading figure of French colonialism, deplored the fact that the “insults” in Batouala would be read by “everyone in France and by many people abroad…” “Those who have lived in Africa” will not be fooled by the false “objectivity” of the novel, itself a “dangerous and deplorable mistake” (Delafosse, “Une Oeuvre de haine,” 1). Delafosse set himself up as the authoritative voice of the Africanist establishment, best qualified to contest the truthfulness—the véritable--of Maran’s representations. In a book published a year later, Delafosse was still angry at Maran “for having dragged my comrades and even their wives through the mud and having indiscriminately characterized as drunks and evil-doers the officials tasked by the Republic to administer the colonies” (Delafosse, Broussard, 172). More devastatingly, he attacked Maran’s audacious claim to veracity in the representation of Africans, as if perceiving that this was at least as much of a threat as were the insults to the colonizers. Delafosse pointed instead to the works of white colonial authors as the source of the truth (174). Within Delafosse’s outrage one can discern the challenge that Batouala posed to the administrator-ethnographer’s own vision of colonized peoples as “eminently mystical” (Delafosse, quoted in Hausser, 47). Maran’s “objective” Africans might not be so easy either to administer or to process into ethnography (the dual vocations of Maurice Delafosse).

If Delafosse did all he could to contest the claims to truth that Maran made for his work, Ernest Hemingway, then in Paris, had quite the opposite reaction. Reporting in The Toronto Star Weekly, he saw the novel as “great art, except for the preface, which is the only bit of propaganda in the book…. Launching into the novel itself, … you smell the smells of the village, you eat the food, you see the white man as the black man sees him… [W]hen you have read it, you have been Batouala, and that means that it is a great novel.” Hemingway’s reading is a testimony to the effectiveness of Maran’s free indirect discourse, which puts the reader almost inside the character’s head; this reaction thus validates Maran’s claim about the véritable status of his writing. Hemingway, at least, was completely taken in by the reality-effect, the spell of “objectivity” that Batouala created. The literary effectiveness of Maran’s work—its ability to draw its readers into an African point of view—was of course a direct threat to French colonialism. The fictive Batouala was keeping the real Maurice Delafosse awake at night.

It was immediately suggested that this novel needed to be debated in the Chamber of Deputies. An investigation was called for, Le Temps said, with results that should be “severe”--either for the colonial system or for the author, if he was “exaggerating” the problem (Souday, 1). “J. L.,” writing in the same newspaper, found that Batouala was “not sufficient” to demonstrate that “all men [are] originally equal” (J. L., 1). For Charles Régismanset, the “loyalism” of colonial subjects and tirailleurs sénégalais prove that Maran’s allegations can’t be true; Batouala will fall into oblivion in a week, he predicted (Régismanset, writing as Carl Siger, 198, 201).

However, the French Communist Party newspaper, L’Humanité, saw Batouala differently: the novel (of which it had printed “moving” and “poignant” excerpts two weeks before the prize was announced) “shows how ‘our black brothers’ are exploited by those who bring them so-called civilization, masking the most ferocious exploitation.” The Goncourt Academy deserved praise for this gesture, but, the newspaper demanded to know, “will they have the courage to extend [the gesture] by rising up themselves against the horrors of colonialism … ?” (“M. René Maran,” 1).[13] Maran’s novel seemed to feed into the total critique of colonialism that was expounded in L’Humanité two days later (Comité d’Etudes Coloniales, 2).[14] The Communist Party thus took Maran’s testimony further than he did, into a complete rejection of colonialism.

The political controversy around Batouala quickly became a cause célèbre, l’affaire Batouala. On February 14, 1922, a written question was filed in the Chambre des députés: a deputy asked the minister of colonies 1) if  René Maran was truly an employee of the colonial administration; 2) if the minister knew that the “insulting” allegations in Batouala were being reproduced in propagandistic tracts circulated outside France; and 3) if so, why “severe measures” should not be taken against Maran.[15] On February 22, a group of veterans of the (all white) colonial army protested in a letter to the minister of colonies (Onana, 93). On March 18 a high-ranking official of the ministry of colonies complained of the “damage to the reputation of our administration caused by the incursions of this subaltern officer in the realm of literature” (quoted in Onana, 91). The book and its preface risked blowing the roof off French colonialism. Hemingway’s headline in the Toronto Star Weekly was no exaggeration: “Prize-Winning Book is Centre of Storm.” He reported that Maran, “as black as [the boxer] Sam Langford,” “was bitterly attacked in the Chambres des députés the other day as a defamer of France and biter of the hand that fed him.” (Hemingway, by the way, was a witness to both of the events discussed in this essay: he not only reported on the Affaire Batouala but also attended the Siki-Carpentier match.)

On December 21, 1922, after a year of controversy, Batouala was finally debated in the Chambres des députés. A deputy from Guadeloupe, Gratien Candace, stated, “I do not approve of the pages written by Monsieur René Maran in Batouala, … which cannot diminish in any way the admirable work [oeuvre] of French colonialism.” The subject of Batouala was raised in the Chamber that day by an outraged deputy from the North of France named Georges-Barthélémy, accusing the minister of the colonies, Albert Sarraut, of doing nothing to “paralyze” the “propaganda” of “a book that, as a colonial, I consider to be infamous.” Léon Daudet (a leading anti-Dreyfusard and son of the more famous writer Alphonse) speaks from a unique position as a deputy and also a member of the Goncourt Academy: “I did not vote for Batouala.” But then again, Daudet points out, the minister of the colonies “is not the administrator of French literature.” The most memorable intervention was that of René Boisneuf, quoted as an epigraph here; his comment—“for centuries, forever, whites have been writing”—anticipates Sartre’s opening of his essay “Orphée noir,” written decades later (Journal officiel, no. 16, 4391).[16] 

Sarraut, who was present in the chamber and who could have taken action in response to the controversy, said nothing in response to the challenge from Georges-Barthélémy. Nor did Blaise Diagne, the first black deputy elected to the chamber, say a word.[17] After a few minutes, the debate turned back to the colonial budget. The opportunity for a positive outcome, for the launching of a genuine investigation into the abuses of French colonialism, passed.

What came out of the affaire Batouala? The inquiry that Maran had hoped to launch with his provocative preface--and that outraged colonizers wanted for vindication--did not occur until six years later, after André Gide went to Equatorial Africa and made similar allegations about the abuses of colonialism (see Gide). Only then, as Maran put it in the 1937 addendum to his preface, did he get “the moral satisfaction that [he] was owed” for having “done [his] duty as a French writer” (Maran, Batouala, revised edition, 18). In 1923, René Maran was finally able to resign from the colonial service and make his way back to France—under threats of retribution and fearing for his life—ending his fourteen years in the colonial service (Onana 109). But in the long run, he was largely vindicated: his accusations were verified, limited reforms were made, and Batouala sold 189,000 copies by 1938 (Hymans, 224, n8). Maran went on to a long career as novelist, journalist, and elder statesman of African diasporic literature in Paris.

Battling Siki

Less than a year later, the word nègre and all its connotations would once again be at the center of a cultural tempest in France, in conjunction with Senegalese boxer Battling Siki.  In the early twenty-first century, when boxing has been relegated to the margins of popular culture and receives only minimal attention, even on the sports page, it is hard to imagine the extent to which the sport served as a catalyst for serious mainstream debate about race and empire. Things were very different in 1922. Millions of people were actively and passionately interested in the sport and many of them ascribed profound symbolic importance to what took place in and around the prize-ring. Boxing is the most dramatic of sports, the one that serves most literally as an allegory of life and death.[18] The breadth and depth of its appeal in the years immediately following a devastatingly bloody and traumatic war would be hard to overstate.

It is important to remember that the era of fights broadcast on the radio was in its infancy in the early 1920’s. In 1922, few households in the US and even fewer in France had radios. What this means is that the legions of followers of the sport were following it in the very numerous daily newspapers. The story-telling skills and rhetorical excesses of journalists covering boxing were astonishing. In the weeks leading up to a big fight, no detail about either boxer, from his training practices to his personal habits and his perceived character, was omitted from the ongoing account. Every day brought a new installment in the vivid serial narrative of the fight; boxers became in essence characters in a literary work.  Some of what was reported was accurate, some of it exaggerated or distorted, some of it invented; the story of a fight was akin to a narrative based largely on fact but not strictly speaking a work of non-fiction in terms of either style or content.  

No character in the serial narrative of boxing as it played out in the daily newspapers of France, England and the US in the years just before and just after World War I was as artfully constructed as Georges Carpentier. Certainly none was as compelling or beloved. Born in 1894 to a poor family in the mining town of Lens, in Northern France, Carpentier began his career as a child prodigy, fighting his first professional bout at the tender age of 14. As he aged and grew, he moved up weight division by weight division, devastating opponents along the way. He was the first Frenchman to become a high-profile, highly successful participant in the sport that, in the nineteenth century, had been an exclusively Anglophone phenomenon. The French saw him as an almost Messianic figure, restoring a sense of virile pride to a country that had been suffering the lack of such sentiments since their devastation at the hands of the Prussians in 1870. His service in World War I, as a dashing and decorated aviator, enhanced the legend considerably.  When he lost to Jack Dempsey, in Jersey City in July 1921, he was, amazingly, the crowd favorite. The fight was a signal moment in the history of hype and the first million dollar gate in history. The amount of space and ink devoted to the bout, in newspapers around the world, was enormous.

In all of this worldwide adulation, care was always taken to underscore Carpentier’s Frenchness and his status as the “Idol of France.” Supposedly intelligent, refined, and witty, and unquestionably handsome, with a carefully oiled and combed head of straight blonde hair, light-colored eyes and an aquiline nose, Carpentier seemed to incarnate all the traditional positive stereotypes of  the dashing French boulevardier.  When he stepped into the ring on September 24, 1922, to defend his title as light heavyweight champion of the world against the Senegalese-born Battling Siki, Carpentier was nothing less than an allegory of Frenchness and indeed of whiteness itself.

Carpentier’s opponent was born in 1897 in St. Louis, the capital of the French colony of Senegal (natives of St. Louis automatically had French citizenship).[19] While still a child, in 1908, Fall arrived in France, in circumstances subsequently shrouded in layers of myth and speculation. In 1913, in Nice, he began his career as a professional boxer.  In 1914, he enlisted in the Eight Colonial Regiment of Toulon, went on to a distinguished career in military service and was honorably discharged in 1919. Though it has not been authenticated, it has been widely believed that Siki was awarded both the Croix de guerre and the Médaille militaire; true or not, the decorations were certainly part of his legend.[20]

Just as the newspapers created the semi-fictional character of the smiling white knight Georges Carpentier, so they constructed a semi-fictional character of his opponent. Siki, who had lived in France for fourteen years and had in fact come from a relatively cosmopolitan colonial capital before that, was widely portrayed as a wild man from “the jungle.” The character “Battling Siki” created by the daily newspapers stepped straight from the pages of Edgar Rice Burroughs. None the familiar tropes of racism was overlooked: he was alternately described as child-like, bestial, incorrigible, ignorant, and “savage.”  

According to at least one pre-fight commentator, it was specifically the racial opposition between the two combatants that made the idea of the fight so compelling. It would provide “[…] the spectacle of two boxers, each incarnating the perfect athlete of his respective race: black against white!” (Waleffe). Given the facts of the matchup and the propensity of fight fans and newspaper writers to egg each other on to more and more portentous and pseudo-profound interpretations of big fights, especially those in which Carpentier was a combatant, it was inevitable that the Carpentier-Siki tilt would end up as cause for a nationwide, even international, debate about blackness, whiteness and colonialism.  

The widely-held expectation was that Carpentier would put Siki away with little difficulty.  Despite the fact that both combatants were French citizens, the victory of the iconic white man would be, it was opined, reassuring to French pride. What ended up taking place in the ring that day was anything but reassuring for fans of the Idol of France. He was not only beaten but humiliated and literally spat upon as he was carried away from the ring, his head covered with a towel to hide his shame.

The fight itself was a sloppy, bizarre affair, the puzzling aspects of which became more easily comprehensible when the true story finally came out—it was a fixed fight that unexpectedly turned into a real one. After an uneventful if odd first two rounds, Siki went down in Round 3, taking a count of seven. Coming back with a three-punch combination, he sent Carpentier to the canvas for a count of four. In Round 4, Carpentier was on the ropes, bloodied but firing back in an all-out effort to knock Siki out. Carpentier was clearly in trouble in Round 5, his desperation demonstrated by multiple deliberate head butts.  Round 6 saw the coup de grâce for Carpentier. Windmilling wildly, he left himself open to Siki’s devastating counter-punches. Siki landed a hook to the body that put Carpentier down, on his side.  The Idol of France had to be carried back to his corner.

What happened in and around the ring immediately after the fight is a complicated and improbable tale. A minute or so after both fighters had returned to their corners, and after a frenzied conversation among a dozen or so men who had leapt into the ring, the crowd was stunned to hear the ring announcer declare Carpentier the winner, Siki having been disqualified for tripping. The crowd, by all accounts, went wild. Hurling chairs aside, a mob of spectators stormed the ring. Everyone knew, and knew for sure, that Siki had won the fight and was being robbed of his victory, and they did not intend to stand for it. The mayhem calmed when one of the judges announced that the referee’s ruling was being reconsidered. After deliberations on the part of the three judges and the head of the Fédération Française de boxe, Siki was declared the winner of the bout. As of that moment, he was the light heavyweight champion of the world and the first African-born world champion in any sport.

         In the wake of his victory, Siki became a celebrity in Paris and began to lead an eccentric and high-profile public life. Less than a month after his defeat of Carpentier, Siki was working the corner of his friend, the French middleweight champion Ercole “Billy” Balzac, when relations between the opposing camps became less than sportsman-like. Cornermen from both sides climbed into the ring and Siki shoved the opposing boxer’s manager. No harm was done, as the recipient of the shove himself said.  On November 11, Armistice Day, Siki was arrested for wearing a traditional Senegalese boubou on the street, on the ludicrous charge that it was a colonial military uniform he was not authorized to wear. (Most newspaper accounts reported as fact that Siki was wearing a uniform without authorization.)  The Fédération française de boxe, in a move that is very difficult to interpret as anything other than racist, proceeded to punish Siki for both of these supposed misdeeds by taking away his boxing license and stripping him of the French and European titles he had won less than two months before; they did not have the authority to take away the world light heavyweight title.  

There was also a financial matter brewing. Siki had been awarded only 35,000 francs, rather than the 200,000 francs due to the winner of the bout and decided to sue for the balance. The wrangling over the purse led to Siki’s public revelation of the fact that the fight had been fixed. Despite heated denials from those involved in the conspiracy, many sportswriters and fans found the story plausible. The Fédération française de boxe was eventually forced to hold hearings on the question. Not surprisingly, all witnesses and concerned parties (including Charlie Hellers, Siki’s manager at the time of the Carpentier fight) swore that there had been no fix. Siki himself answered written questions but declined to testify in person, citing the fact that the very same federation had taken away his license and titles without having given him a hearing. His skepticism was no doubt well founded: François Descamps, Carpentier’s own manager and thus by definition a central player in the fix, sat on the advisory council of the FFB charged with investigating the allegations (on the extremely complicated story of the fight and its aftermath, see Benson 257-263).

On January 15, 1923, the FFB officially announced their finding that the Siki-Carpentier fight had not been a fix; on February 15, they reinstated Siki’s license and French and European titles (Benson, 5). On March 17, in Dublin, he lost his world light-heavyweight title, in a debatable decision, to Irish-American Mike McTigue. Siki came to America in the fall of 1923 and led a tumultuous existence in New York and in boxing rings around the country. As he had been in France, he was an object of racist scorn and ridicule in the press. He was found dead of a gunshot wound in the street in New York on December 15, 1925, in circumstances that have never been clarified.[21]

The fix was never proved in any official investigation but it became increasingly accepted as fact in the months and years following the bout. Carpentier himself eventually “confessed” to it, in both his 1954 and 1975 autobiographies (Carpentier by himself 169; Mes 80 Rounds 196). The basic facts are clear enough: Siki was to take a dive (after having play-acted as convincingly as possible for the time needed to make a commercially viable fight film); he changed his mind at some point and decided to go after Carpentier for real; he then proceeded to beat Carpentier to a bloody pulp.                

Contexts

Siki was the first African, but not the first black, world boxing champion. That distinction belongs to legendary heavyweight Jack Johnson. Johnson was famously a victim of the most virulent American racism; his widely-reported story illuminated for the entire world the overdetermined (and pathological, at least in the US) relation between race and boxing. Convicted on specious charges in 1913, Johnson fled the United States and a prison term and spent a number of years in exile, some of it in Paris, where he seems to have had a largely (though not entirely) positive experience. In the years leading up to World War I, a number of other African-American boxers, most notably Sam Langford, Joe Jeanette and Sam McVey, also gravitated to France, where boxing’s infamous “color line” did not exist. At a historical moment when interest in boxing in France was particularly fervent, these black athletes became household names. Foreshadowing the jazz musicians and other practitioners of art nègre of a decade or so later, they became cultural icons.

Frenchmen tended to take great pride in their own “tolerant” views on racial matters in contrast to the overt racism of their American counterparts. It is important to note, however, that things became somewhat more complicated when Siki, the first black French boxer, came on the scene. Notions of white supremacy seem to have been more easily dismissed by Frenchmen when the whites in question were of the “Anglo-Saxon” “race” and the blacks from a linguistic, cultural, and geo-political sphere far removed from their own. For many, a fight between a white Frenchman and a black Frenchman touched a much more visceral place, a place much closer to US-style racism than could be avowed.

In the days following the fight, some of the more enlightened commentators writing in French newspapers reminded their readers of the fact that Siki was a French citizen and that he had fought for France in the war. Nguyen Ai Quoc, the future Ho Chi Minh, reminds his readers of the fact that a Siki victory is, after all, a French victory: “The boxing championship has changed hands, but national sporting glory has not suffered, because Siki, a child of Senegal, is by consequence a son of France, and hence a Frenchman.”[22] The world title did still belong to France; as Siki himself was quoted as saying, “The French flag is still flying!” When, in December 1922, a rematch between the two Frenchmen was proposed, a sort of grudge match to be fought for “honor,” with all proceeds going to benefit French scientific research, Siki expressed his patriotism in a letter printed in a daily newspaper: “What a pleasure for me to fight for French science during peacetime with the same ardor with which, during the war, I defended France, the country that freed the slaves and that is the benefactor of the black race” (“Siki accepte”).

The fact was that Siki was indeed a French citizen, a resident of the country since he was a child, a veteran and even an explicit and enthusiastic supporter of French colonialism did not suffice for many boxing fans and commentators. For many Frenchmen, rhetoric about “greater France” notwithstanding, the notion of France’s being represented by a black man simply did not compute. All the facts in the world could not change their gut feeling that being French meant being white.

Siki in the Papers

As Peter Benson’s masterful biography has shown, the story of Siki as an iconic figure in France (and internationally, especially in the US) is the story of the construction of a crude racist myth. Siki was almost invariably referred to in the French press as le nègre and few mentions of him did not include at least some more or less racist allusions.  The largely fictional character called “Siki,” based loosely on the real-life boxer, was a “primitive” African straight from the “jungle.” The fact that this portrayal bore little if any relation to the facts did not deter the many journalists, in France and elsewhere, who gleefully composed paragraph after turgid paragraph about the boxer. Siki’s performance in the Carpentier fight is described, tellingly and repeatedly, as “savage.” He was said to look like “a dandy from the bush who, not having a shirt or jacket, has put on gloves to attend the drum ceremony in the village” (Reuze).  His triumphant smile as he is hoisted onto the shoulders of his supporters was “bestial.”  

According to some, the defeat of the Idol of France by a African from a French colony could put the entire colonial enterprise at some risk: “Just think of the repercussions of this victory in our colonial empire! […] So the white man isn’t invincible after all? […] boxing is a dangerous, anticolonial sport […] In a muscle-against-muscle fight, the black will triumph over the white. What was elaborated during this match was an entire conception of colonialism” (Veber).

Others, less pessimistic, insisted that white French boxers must get in the ring with their colonized counterparts and must be victorious, lest the entire colonial enterprise be put at risk: “The more simple-minded a race is, the more it needs to feel the superiority, even the corporeal superiority, of those who would rule over them. The white man must prove that he is as strong as the black in the ring. […] A strong punch might save us from torrents of blood” (Waleffe).

A completely different view was put forth by Nguyen Ai Quoc, for whom Siki’s victory could serve to further a message of equality between colonizer and colonized: “From the colonial viewpoint, a Carpentier-Siki match is worth more than one hundred gubernatorial speeches to prove to our subjects that we want to apply to the letter the principle of equality between races.” For him, boxing was a particularly powerful propaganda tool, certainly more effective in that regard than the arts or even the military:

“[…] from the point of view of international policy, a feather-weight champion makes as much propaganda for our moral influence abroad as an immortal [this is a reference to the members of the Académie Française, known as les immortels], a glorious man, a song-writer or ten army corps (just look at the newspapers). From the nationalist point of view, boxers are indispensable as an example of and stimulation to the physical excellence of the young generation.”

Less sanguine was Paul Vaillant-Couturier, a Communist politician and journalist, who wrote an article in L’Humanité on the political implications of the affaire Siki (ominously entitled “From Siki to Worldwide Revolution”). For Vaillant-Couturier, Siki’s story reflected the arrival in metropolitan France of a kind of racism previously seen only in the colonies and in Anglo-American cultures. The mainstream press, he argued, created and propagated the xenophobia surrounding Siki; furthermore, they were paid to do so: “By insinuation, sly headlines, and perfidious articles, the bought-out mainstream press is organizing and encouraging a full-fledged anti-negro movement.”  Vaillant-Couturier makes clear that the significance of the anti-Siki prejudice in the days and weeks following the fight, on the part of the FFB and mainstream journalists, is not to be underestimated:

Take care to remember the incidents following the Siki-Carpentier match.  There is something going on there that is much more serious than the fixing of a sporting contest. There is a symptom characteristic of the campaign organized against men of color, there is a symbol of colonialism itself.  Carpentier, a sort of national flag and a tri-color boxing glove […] could not be beaten by a negro without consequences. Since he was beaten, the negro had to be punished.  And that’s exactly what happened.

Vaillant-Couturier’s sweeping assertions notwithstanding, the affaire Siki, like the affaire Batouala, had few if any direct political repercussions. It did, however, become something of a political football when Blaise Diagne introduced it as a topic of discussion in the Chambre des députés on November 30, 1922, during a debate about the national defense budget (exactly three weeks before the debate on Batouala) (on Diagne’s remarks, see Benson 257-59; Bretagne 93-94; Jobert 136-40 and Runstedtler 458-59). Diagne introduced an amendment proposing that government funding to athletic organizations be radically reduced until such time as those organizations could prove themselves impartial. He specified (and later reiterated) that he had no particular interest in sports, in boxing or even in Siki himself but that the Siki “incident” has transcended the sport and become a matter of “national interest.” It was, he explained, of national interest because the Fédération française de boxe organized and oversaw military boxing tournaments and was subsidized by the government to do so. Given its unjustified and blatantly racist stripping of Siki’s title, he argued, the FFB could not be trusted to be impartial in the event of interracial boxing matches in military tournaments.

Diagne made clear in his eloquent and impassioned statements before the legislative body that what was at issue in Siki’s mistreatment by the French boxing establishment was the very notion of “greater France.” Tellingly, he prefaced his remarks by reminding his colleagues that his own presence in the Chambre was a direct reflection of the “national unity” that France intended to put into practice by granting the colonies representation in the Parliament. (Journal officiel du 1er décembre 1922 3660-3663; translation ours).

Diagne declared that his intention was not to defend Siki or to take his side in opposition to Carpentier but rather to defend justice itself. Prejudice against the black boxer was unjustifiable, specifically because Siki and Carpentier were both French citizens and both had fought for France during the war. Diagne went on to point out that the fact that not only had the participation of African troops been crucial in the last war, it would be crucial in all armed conflicts to come. If Germany didn’t pay its debts, for example, and France was forced to take military action, only “you and we” would be there to defend the homeland.  It was therefore imperative that the legislators dissociate themselves from the kind of “dirty little tricks dreamed up by the FFB.” Venturing dangerously close to a racist trope or two himself, Diagne explained more specifically what he meant, suggesting that “the African masses” were “still at the stage where gladiators count for something.” If someone like Siki were forbidden to exercise his profession, the “simple-minded” (les simplistes) would assume that it was because of the color of his skin. By allowing this to take place, he told his colleagues, they would have allowed “the worst possible offense against the unity of principle and the unity of action that is so necessary to this country.” To allow such acts of racism would be to place in a “humiliating situation” men who were “Frenchmen just as much as you [are], neither more nor less and for the same reasons.” Ultimately, Diagne wanted conclusive proof France had “one justice, a justice that ha[d] no color.” He did not get it.

It is significant that despite his eloquence on behalf of Siki, Diagne, speaking in the same chamber less than a month later, had nothing to say in defense of Maran. What was the difference? In the affaire Siki, the honor of a black man was at stake within a context of fair-play and universal justice; in the affaire Batouala, French colonialism itself was on line, and Diagne had few objections to French colonial policies; he was apparently comfortable letting this threat to the mission civilisatrice pass.

Maran and Siki

The fact that Siki’s stunning victory took place a mere nine months after Maran’s equally stunning victory, along with the fact that the two occurred in the domains of the body and the mind, respectively, made the coincidence extremely compelling. If Maran and Batouala had opened a new era of thinking and talking about the relations between colonizer and colonized, the Carpentier-Siki fight unleashed a veritable flood of opinion on the topic and transformed the conversation into nearly universal dinner-table talk.  Black Frenchmen, it seemed, had put into question both the physical and mental supposed superiority of their white counterparts. This was uncharted cultural territory:

In less than twelve months, blacks have succeeded in winning two major French prizes.  Maran snagged the Goncourt Prize, which, until further notice, is the most prestigious of the literary prizes; Battling Siki beat our boxing champion and thereby became the light-heavyweight champion of the world. Blacks are now enjoying the fruits of renown among whites, who consider themselves the kings of creation (Rosny).

The frenzy of coverage, with varying levels of intensity and irony, was a collective attempt at some sort of exegesis of the recent events. What, if anything, did it really mean to have black men besting their white counterparts both intellectually and physically? Would the victories of Maran and Siki in fact upend deeply held (if often ironized) notions of white supremacy? Exactly what would change--and how?

        The most obvious consequence of the dual triumph of Maran and Siki was the simple but significant fact of the increased visibility of blacks in France. In 1922, with Maran and Siki suddenly at the center of public attention, the French were continually being reminded of the very existence of their black compatriots. This was a first, a reversal of the traditional position of blacks on the margins of French cultural life:

We have just witnessed the triumphs of two good negroes, well suited to make us pale-faces blanch.

Blacks, until now, worked like negroes in the shadows. From time to time, they would make an appearance on stage with a jazz band or offer their “artistic” inspiration to musicians, dancers, painters or fashion designers. But the Negro remained modest. […] Suddenly, the black cloud broke and M. René Maran wrote Batouala (Montgon).

Victory leads not only to visibility but also, perhaps, to domination, at least in the minds of some of the more anxious observers of the socio-political scene.  Two days after the Carpentier-Siki bout, a journalist reproduced (or, more likely, imagined) a dialogue on the subject:

Sunday was the victory of the negro.

--Absolutely, someone said to me.  And this victory is not the last.  We are destined to be “eaten” by the negroes. […] The negroes are stronger than we are [he continued]. They can take a punch better. […] They “hold their ground,” as we used to say during the war. They’re everywhere. Whether you like them or not, you see them everywhere: in the ring, in jazz bands, in the Chambre des députés… […] I fear that greater France is going to end up swallowing France,  I mean France France. It’s already being said that we can’t defend ourselves without a black army.

--[But] Siki himself, like so many of his comrades, showed during the war that colored Frenchmen were Frenchmen, as good as they come.

[…]

-- […]Even when it comes to art and literature, the negroes have managed to assert their supremacy this year. The Académie Goncourt has proclaimed it.

--We might as well resign ourselves. The time may be fast approaching when the brothers of Siki and the dark-skinned nephews of Batouala may reign over the Old World… (Piot).

This dialogue neatly sums up the two poles of the ambivalence surrounding the Maran/Siki phenomenon: on the one hand, the strength of black Frenchmen was seen to represent the strength of “greater France,” a vindication of the mission civilisatrice; on the other, it was seen as the beginning of the end for France as a white nation. In keeping with a characteristically French discursive tradition, one that can be traced back at least to Voltaire and his writing on slavery, commentary on the matter was often shot through with ambiguity, ambivalence and irony. The irony itself is sometimes ambiguous: in pieces of writing such as the dialogue above, the overtly racist position seems to be lampooned, suggesting a serious critique of racism, but its foundations are ultimately left undisturbed. In such cases, racial thinking is mocked for its excesses but not actually deconstructed at its center.

Civilization and Savagery

Siki’s victory in the ring led a number of commentators to propagate the fundamental racist notion that black men were particularly well suited to brutal activities like boxing. It was implied and sometimes actually stated, that they were physically tougher, more able to take and administer beatings--in short, more like animals than men. The age-old racist trope of black man as ape was of course not absent from the mix: in a particularly hateful and childish move, Siki was given the nickname “Championzé” (a conflation of “champion” and “chimpanzee”) (Bretagne 91).   It was repeatedly stated that he was incapable of the kind of thought required by “scientific” boxing or, for that matter, of any thought at all. His defeat of Carpentier was described as “the triumph of brute force, completely lacking in elegance, over prowess and style” (Massard).

The alleged inability of Africans to think was a notion that Maran had put into question in both his preface and his novel: “The Negroes of Equatorial Africa are unreflective … and will never have any type of intelligence,” he wrote, before gently suggesting that this might be erroneous, adding: “At least, that’s what is claimed.” We have seen how, in the body of the novel, Batouala is revealed to be very much a thinker.

The largely imaginary persona created for Siki by the newspapers made of him, like Batouala, a primitive, a “savage,” a “natural man.” He represented, as Gerald Early has said, “what blackness was imagined to be before the coming […] of the white man and the modern world” (Early 81). Many journalistic commentators drew an explicit parallel between Siki and the title character of Maran’s novel, underscoring the way(s) in which they were supposedly the same type of man (Benson 246). One commentator referred to the pro- and anti-Siki factions among boxing fans “the friends and enemies of Batouala” (Vanderem). Another professed to be pleased that Siki is not “the same type of guy as Batouala” (Messac). A third expressed overtly racist disgust at the idea that Siki’s victory means that “[i]t is Batouala who is smiling, glorious and triumphant… A negro has gotten in” (Prax). Newspapermen were not the only ones to see a link between the fictional Batouala and the real-life Siki: there was talk at one time about having Siki play Batouala in a film version of Maran’s novel (Benson 246).

Truths and Fictions

Both “civilized” man and “savage” man are of course literary constructs, largely nourished by imaginary notions. Complex issues of truth and fiction underpin both of the affaires that we have been discussing. The tension, examined above, inherent in the notion of Maran’s book being both roman and véritable is echoed in the duality between truth and fiction at the heart of the Siki/Carpentier fight. It was a fixed fight; fixed fights are at bottom fictions, theatrical performances. They are not sporting contests but rather representations of sporting contests. If some amount of improvisation is allowed and even inevitable, a basic script must be followed and the athlete-performers must strive for the highest level of verisimilitude possible.

We know that Siki and Carpentier consented to enact an agreed-upon scenario—a fictional scenario. Ultimately, Siki changed his mind, began to fight for real, and the beating he inflicted on Carpentier was in no way fictional. Fans at the Buffalo Stadium thus saw a fight that morphed from fiction into reality—from roman to véritable--before their very eyes. It is important at this point to reiterate the extent to which the newspaper writing of the period was also at once fictional and factual, both véritable and roman. While, in most cases, most of the facts tended to be reported as accurately as possible, the portraits of the principal personalities involved tended to veer off in the direction of fiction. Real people became literary, often even allegorical, characters in the ongoing serial narrative of their lives constituted by daily newspaper articles.  Carpentier, his appealing qualities notwithstanding, was neither an aristocrat, a super-hero, a knight in shining armor nor a saint. Siki did not come from the jungle, was not a wild-eyed “savage” and did not speak petit nègre. The newspapers nonetheless cast them in those respective roles. Truth may be stranger than fiction but fiction, it seems, sells more newspapers.[23]

Indeed, the semi-fictional story of Siki as told in the newspapers can be seen as a sequel to Batouala. It is as if Maran’s protagonist, instead of dying, continues his adventures in Europe (and, later, America) through the person of Siki. Both stories recount a primal conflict between “natural” man and “civilization” that ends tragically for “natural” man. As one New York journalist said of Siki’s life and death: “Siki challenged civilization, civilization accepted his challenge, they fought a good fight, and civilization won” (Early 78, quoting The New York Amsterdam News, December 23, 1925).

Conclusion

Both René Maran and Siki were French but not white. We have seen the awkwardness—indeed the untenability—of Maran’s position as a “colonized colonizer” and how Batouala both reflected and, eventually, destroyed that position. The affaire Batouala and its consequences cut off the branch that Maran lived on. He was a representative of France in Africa but, with the novel, made himself the literary spokesman of voiceless Africans in France. The system could not allow this duality to continue, so Maran’s career as an administrator ended.

Both Maran and Siki were not only French citizens but patriots. Siki had risked his life to protect France; Maran had devoted his to furthering her interests internationally. The debate surrounding their victories was thus centered not on nationality but rather on race, on the nature of  Frenchness and on the relations, present and future, between France and “greater France.

It would be easy to dismiss a boxing match and a novel as matters of less than earth-shattering importance and unworthy of such voluminous commentary. Importance accrued to them, however, precisely by dint of the volume of attention they received in high-, middle- and low-brow daily newspapers and of the seriousness of the questions much of that coverage addressed. Literature and boxing served as springboards for more essential—and essentialist—topics. Nguyen Ai Quoc recognized that the commentary in the newspapers about both Maran and Siki was itself a significant event, one that transcended the seemingly trivial domains of literary prizes and prize fights: “Rene Maran and Siki have caused much black ink to flow. Siki, furthermore, caused red blood to flow. People are behaving as if both our African brothers need as much ink again. Following Maran’s ironical pen, Siki’s gloves have stirred everything, even […] the political sphere.”

In 1922, the black man made a triumphal entry onto the center stage of mainstream French culture. His entry provoked a public and publicized re-examination of the very concepts of race and empire: the first of its kind in France. The conversation would only last for a time, but it foretold things to come.

Bibliography: Prize Fights: René Maran, Battling Siki and the Triumph of the Black Man in France, 1922

 

[13] See also the excerpts printed in “La Vie intellectuelle,” 2. Return to text

[14] Maran remained a favored subject of articles and interviews in L’Humanité, which cited his status as a non-communist to show the reach of their anti-colonial views. Return to text

[15] Journal officiel: Chambre des députés no 16, Débats parlementaires, vol 54, p. 393. Session of February 14, 1922. Return to text

[16] See Sartre, ix: “… le blanc a joui trois mille ans du privilège de voir sans qu’on le voie … Aujourd’hui ces hommes noirs nous regardent …” (ix). Return to text

[17] On Diagne, see Dieng. Diagne was a radical pro-colonial deputy and had been responsible for recruiting the tirailleurs in World War I. A lawsuit pitted Maran against Diagne in 1924; see Conklin. Return to text

[18] This concept is central to Joyce Carol Oates’s seminal work, On Boxing. Return to text

[19] In addition to Runstedtler, our work on Siki was informed in many instances by Benson, Early, Jobert and Bretagne. Return to text

[20] Siki’s decorations have been accepted as fact, both at the time and since. Benson, however, was unable to find unambiguous official documentation of them. See Benson, 103. Return to text

[21] Siki later became a national hero, or at least a cult figure, in Senegal.  The World Boxing Council paid to have his body, which had lain in a grave in Queens for nearly seventy years, repatriated for re-burial in his native city of Saint-Louis in 1993. See Anderson. Return to text

[22] This translation comes from: www.marxists.org/reference/archive/ho-chi-minh/works/1922/12/01.htm Return to text

[23] Siki was the direct or indirect inspiration for several works of literary fiction. The title character of Orio Vergani’s 1929 novel, Io, povero Negro (translated into English as Poor Negro) is clearly based on him. Although the connection is not obvious, it is often said that Hemingway’s famous story of a fixed fight, “Fifty Grand” (1927), was inspired by the Siki/Carpentier bout. Much more clearly linked to Siki’s story is an anecdote told in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926), about a prizefight in Vienna in which a “wonderful negro” knocks down a “local boy” and is cheated out of his money by unscrupulous promoters angry because he hasn’t followed the agreed-upon scenario (to let his white opponent win). Siki is mentioned by name (in an overtly racist allusion) in Canto 74, l. 704, of Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos. In Plexus (1953), Henry Miller tells the tale of having spent some time one evening in the company of a rather bumptious Siki in a bar in New York. Percival Christopher Wren, best known as the author of Beau Geste, wrote a novel, Soldiers of Misfortune (1929), in which there is a minor character reminiscent of Siki (M’Bongu, a Senegalese/French soldier-boxer). Return to text