Saturday, October 30, 2004


By Geoffrey Ward

Knopf, $25.95, 384 pages


“We are in the midst of a growing menace,” wrote New York Sun editor Charles A. Dana in 1895. “The black man is rapidly forging to the front ranks in athletics, especially in the field of fisticuffs. We are in the midst of a black rise against white supremacy.” Dana had no idea.

In 1908, Arthur John “Jack” Johnson defeated Tommy Burns to become the first black heavyweight champion of the world, and nothing in America would ever quite be the same. No athlete before or since, not even Muhammad Ali, who claimed a spiritual kinship with Johnson, did more to shake up a complacent America.

So hard did white Americans try to exorcise Johnson from their consciousness that it was 22 years after he lost his title before another black man, Joe Louis, was allowed to fight for the heavyweight belt. Two subsequent generations all but grew up thinking that Johnson was not a real person but a fictional character brought to life by James Earl Jones’ Academy Award-winning performance in the screen version of Howard Sackler’s play, “The Great White Hope.”

Jack Johnson was real, though. In many ways, he was more than real, and Geoffrey C. Ward’s “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson” (the basis for the upcoming Ken Burns PBS documentary) brings him to life in all his vulgar, splendid glory. Engrossing and definitive, “Unforgivable Blackness” is a great biography of a great and utterly fascinating subject.

Biographers, it is said, are supposed to decide at some point when writing their books whether or not they like their subjects. Mr. Ward has settled for being fascinated by Johnson without admiring him, allowing Johnson’s greatness without ever trying to make a case for his goodness. In the ring, no less an expert than Nat Fleischer, founder of “The Bible of Boxing,” Ring magazine and an astute observer of every heavyweight champion from John L. Sullivan to Muhammad Ali, thought Johnson to be the greatest of all time.

Big for his day at six-one and 210 pounds, Johnson was a virtually flawless ring mechanic, packing a tremendous punch with either hand and possessed of a dazzling array of defensive skills. (“It’s not how hard you hit that other fellow,” he once said, “it’s how tired he gets trying to hit you.”

Outside of the ring, Johnson was alternately selfish and generous, arrogant and pompous yet capable of great warmth and sincerity. Born in 1878 in the port city of Galveston, Texas, a town relatively relaxed on racial matters for the Deep South, Johnson grew up playing with white kids, unaware of the restrictions he would face in the outside world as he grew older. When he did find out what his boundaries were supposed to be, he simply ignored them, or, as he expressed it, “I have found no better way of avoiding race prejudice than to act with other people of other races as if prejudice did not exist.”

It never occurred to Johnson that perhaps other black people who could not earn tens of thousands in the prize ring did not have this option; he saw the world in terms of his own good fortune. He raced his automobiles down public streets, mocked and taunted his white opponents, derided his black competitors, made his own deals without white managers, flaunted his success in public, and, most shocking of all, romanced and even married white women. (The singer Ethel Waters, who apparently resisted Johnson’s ardent advances, told him, “It’s universally known, Jack, that you have the white fever.”

Mr. Ward demolishes once and for all the myth of Jack Johnson as a role model for black activists. His victories sparked race riots in which scores of blacks and more than a few whites were killed, but Johnson took no pains to calm the waters he had stirred. “He never seems to have been interested in collective action of any kind,” Mr. Ward observes, “how could he be when he saw himself always as a unique individual apart from everyone else?”

Johnson expressed no solidarity with other black Americans and even took pains to distance himself from their spokesmen. “White people,” he told a journalist, “often point to the writings of Booker T. Washington as the best example of a desirable attitude on the part of the colored population. I have never been able to agree with the point of view of Washington, because he has to my mind not been altogether frank in the statement of the problems or courageous in his solution to them ?”

For their part, prominent black leaders like D.A. Hart, editor of The Nashville Globe, were as disgusted by Johnson’s preoccupation with white women as most whites.

“No respectable Negro,” wrote Hart, “has the least patience with him. Out of the hundreds of thousands, yea, millions of honorable, intelligent Negro womanhood, any male member of the race can find a worthy and congenial companion.”

But Johnson answered to no one and made no apologies for his choices: ” ? I am not a slave” and “? I have the right to choose whom my mate shall be without the dictation of any man ? So long as I do not interfere with any man’s wife, I shall claim the right to select the woman of my own choice.” Johnson, writes Mr. Ward, “was both more and less than those who loved and hated him ever knew. He embodied American individualism in its purest form; nothing — no law or custom, no person white or black, male or female — could keep him long from whatever he wanted. He was in the great American tradition of self-invented men ? and no one admired his handiwork more than he did.”

After losing his title to gigantic Jess Willard in 1915 — a fight which Johnson later claimed he intentionally lost, though Mr. Ward finds no supporting evidence for the claim — Johnson was relegated to a sideshow, literally, earning $35 a week in Hubert’s Museum and Flea Circus on Times Square. He died as he had lived; in 1946, at age 78, he drove his high-powered Lincoln Zephyr off a curve at more than seventy miles an hour, leaving both blacks and whites to ponder whether he had forced race relations ahead or set them back by years.

If he had been born several decades later, he’d be hosting his own cable TV sports show.

Allen Barra is the author of “Brushback and Knockdowns: The Greatest Baseball Debates of Two Centuries.” He writes regularly for

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