Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson

Article excerpt

Geoffrey C. Ward, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004, 475 pages, $25.95.

Jack Johnson, one of the greatest heavyweight boxers ever, won the heavyweight title from Tommy Burns in Australia in 1908. That the championship bout took place in Australia indicates that it was not a fight that most Americans welcomed. All previous heavyweight champions, including John L. Sullivan, Jim Jeffries, and even Tommy Burns, had for quite a long time, adopted the policy of not fighting Black men. But Burns eventually broke the rule because of newspaper taunts that he was afraid of Jack Johnson. Moreover, because Burns was always after money, the fight took place, and Johnson easily won.

According to many sources, after the fight, as African Americans euphorically rejoiced (because to them, Johnson's victory was proof that Black people were equal to white persons, if nowhere else, then at least in the ring), more than 26 of the rejoicers were killed by whites, and hundreds more were reported hurt in many places throughout the United States, but mostly in the South. This could not have been unexpected because, between 1900 and the time that Johnson won the heavyweight championship in 1908, more than 700 negroes had been lynched in the United States. Black men were lynched for being too uppity, being too familiar with white women, and on the trumped up charge of rape. Jack Johnson was never charged with rape, but unlike most Black men, he was certainly uppity and familiar with white women.

Unforgivable Blackness details all of Johnson's fights on his way to the heavyweight championship. It's a story of an odyssey, a testimony to Johnson's dedication and single-mindedness in his quest for a championship that he thought would rid him of bigotry and provide for him a good and stable life. It is also a story of the intractableness of racism, and its hideous effects throughout all of American society. Most of the participants and characters in Johnson's life are prime examples of the deformities and racist rage resulting from the prejudice against anyone who defies racist laws and conventions, and who seeks to live as a free person in a free country. And in this rich tale of lying, cheating, and perversion of the laws, not only were individuals involved, but also state governments, well-respected persons in high society and officials of the federal government.

It is interesting that throughout Johnson's life he always seemed to have been the victim of bad timing. He was born March 31, 1878 in Galveston, TX, as Arthur John Johnson, the son of former slaves. His father had fought in the Civil War on the Union side, and expected some consideration for his efforts. But such considerations were hard to come by after 1876. In fact, by 1876 the Republican Party and the North essentially abandoned efforts to improve the lot of Black people in the South, leaving them at the mercy of terrorist societies and a vengeful legal system. The Johnson family, like so many others, were left to fend for themselves. But Jack Johnson was determined from an early age that he would not be told what to do by white people, regardless of the consequences. In his teens he chose boxing as his vocation, and as he ascended boxing's ladder he never backed down in the face of prejudice, stating that in his life, he intended to act as if race prejudice did not exist. It was an attitude that flew in the face of the facts, because apart from lynching, which was automatic for those Black men who dared to consort with white women, it was a time when winning Black jockeys were barred from riding in the Kentucky Derby; and a time when even in bicycle racing the best rider, Marshall Taylor, an African American, was banned. But Johnson believed he could do as he wished by merely being excellent at what he did.

Even though the white heavyweight champions would not fight him, there were some white men who would, if the money was right. …