Jack Johnson: Unforgivable Blackness

12.01.05 - By Matthew Hurley: The so called "intellectuals" that deem what is worthy of praise and what should be cast aside with the backwards wave of a hand have always gotten it wrong in my estimation. There is an arrogance there that disavows anything less than pristine or seemingly cultured. Therefore boxing or a fighter could never represent beauty, civility or class. Boxers are brutes with no redeeming values or virtues and certainly have no claim to cultural progression. The primitive disgusts these egotists because there is nothing primal about them, other than their lust for money, power and face lifts. The fight game is frowned upon by the mass media and those who simply deem its combative allure abhorent in the same way they frown upon nudity or profanity, when in open company. How could the simple act of two men hitting each other represent anything of historical significance? The literati would have you believe otherwise, but Jack Johnson would dissuade you of that notion with a gold toothed smile, a shot of booze and a flair for the dramatic. Jack Johnson was having none of it in the early 1900s and his mesmerizing audacity is still being felt today..

The words I've just strung together are more than a bit over the top, but I've been around people like that and the minute I mention that one of the things I write about is boxing the noses tilt up and I'm left sipping my beer in an awkward silence as they sip on tall, thin glasses of champagne. What would Jack Johnson do in a situation like that? He'd probably snatch a glass of that sickly sweet drink, down it and then grab the arm of the nearest woman and lead her to the dance floor. Johnson was a man crippled by no inhibitions. He loved being alive and he loved pissing people off. He exuded arrogance, charm and a lust for life. He was also a black man of prominence, the heavyweight champion, in a time when race divided and dissected every aspect of existence.

Mike Tyson, the craziest non-conformist boxer one could ever hope to meet, once said, "Johnson… now, he was actually crazier than me. They wanted to kill him." Tyson was right. As was Muhammad Ali who acknowledged that Johnson did it all before he did and in a much tougher and even more racially divided world than he had known. Johnson was born in 1878 in Galveston, Texas. His philosophy of life was not political in its bent, he simply wanted to do what he wanted to do. He didn't see himself as a black man who should capitulate to the racial tenants of the times. He saw himself as a man above, a man empowered and ultimately he achieved what should have been the glory of being heavyweight champion of the world.

Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns has pieced together a four hour film on Johnson with the help of historian Geoffrey Ward. During the final editing process Ward published a critically acclaimed biography of Johnson in November. The passion both men bring to the task of telling Johnson's story resonates with the aforementioned indifference of the general public and also the naiveté of even the most loyal young boxing fan.

"I think he (Johnson) has largely been forgotten," says Ward. "And I've been trying to think why it is. It would be hard to exaggerate how famous he was in his lifetime. He was certainly the most famous black man in the world."

Burns' documentary "Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson" premieres on January 17 on PBS. The film follows last years film "The Fight" which dealt with the two bouts between Max Shmeling and Joe Louis, who became the second black heavyweight champion in 1938. The differences between the shy, retiring Louis and the loquacious, brash Johnson are stark. Johnson's individuality in a society that desperately wanted to beat him back has at last connected with a generation far removed from his troubles. Artists from Mos Def to Spike Lee have recently been honoring the late champion and now comes Ken Burns' latest epic.

"He acted all his life on the basic American premise that if you had superior skill and enough ambition you could achieve anything you want," Ward says. "Except that he had that belief in a country which did not extend that basic premise to him." Hence the title, "Unforgivable Blackness."

Johnson's legal battles have also extended far past his death in an automobile accident that killed him at sixty-eight years old. The boxer was convicted in 1913 under the Mann Act for allegedly transporting prostitutes across state lines. However, the one woman in question was his wife, a nineteen year-old white girl. Johnson had recently bested former heavyweight titlist Jim Jeffries and many white people simply could not abide the verbose black champion.

After the guilty verdict, the district attorney later said publicly, "This Negro, in the eyes of many, has been persecuted. Perhaps as an individual he was. But it was his misfortune to be the foremost example of the evil in permitting the intermarriage of whites and blacks."

A nonbinding resolution urging a pardon passed the US Senate in November of last year. But it's all a little too late if you ask me. Johnson had to flee the country in the wake of the conviction and defended his title abroad. Ultimately, at thirty-seven, the tired champion took on Jess Willard and lost his belt in the 26th round. He later insisted that he threw the bout as part of an arrangement with the government so he could come back to the US. After the bout he surrendered to authorities and served eight months in the US Penitentiary in Leavenworth.

What followed was a downward spiral into alcohol and bitterness. Johnson began to look down on other black fighters, most famously when he helped train Max Shmeling for his first fight with Joe Louis. Louis of course had been groomed by his people to be the anti-Johnson – polite, quiet and deferential. Yet in spite of his anger and resentment, he never lost his pride or the belief in his self-worth. He became something of a talkative sideshow in Times Square, taking quarters for time to talk with the former heavyweight champion.

Despite all the egregious wrongs done to Johnson the film never caters to sentimentality. Burns and Ward do not turn a blind eye to the fighter's failings. To do so would dehumanize him. In Ward's view, Johnson was narcissistic, pompous, unforgiving and abusive to women. In essence he was a very flawed individual which gives his story even more weight.

In Ken Burns' view Johnson represents an individual of his era and one who transcended it. "I call it the rise, fall and rise again of Jack Johnson. He loses his way – he drinks a lot, abuses his girlfriend and the government comes down on him. He is excluded from the game he loves. But he regains his dignity. He doesn't go to seed. He stays married to the same woman for more than twenty years. He lived in a racist environment, and he did the best he could. That ought to be a lesson for us."

Article posted on 12.01.2005

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