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What made Jack Johnson's liaisons so dangerous was that he was famous and broke the taboo i

n public. And he did it at a time when other black men were being lynched for the same offense.

But, when a man has defied one taboo, he is sometimes obliged to violate another.



Unforgivable Blackness The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson


An Extensive Criticism by Amin Sharif



It seems that every year Ken Burns offers a new documentary to PBS. This year’s offering is Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson. Though a courageous undertaking, this is far from Burn’s best work. 

One immediately gets the sense that Burns is on unfamiliar ground here. This is all the more disappointing when one remembers the masterful insights that his former documentaries on the Civil War and baseball provided to the public. Not even the beautiful, sometimes dazzling archival footage of the Galveston Giant in pugilistic combat or the charming wit of jazz critic Stanley Crouch can save this film from being only slightly better that average.

Admittedly, Jack Johnson’s story is not an easy one to tell. His rise to become the first black heavyweight champion of the world, at a time when the sport was characterized as “legalized assault,” is filled with complexity. It is a story of personal triumph and failure, black aspirations, white supremacy, and sexual hypocrisy. If Burns seems just a little out of his depths, anyone can readily understand why.

Still, one must be careful in putting forth too much harsh criticism in this case. Burns must, at the very least, be applauded for making such a controversial documentary as Unforgivable in these cautious times. We, as African-Americans, are always clamoring for programs that are relevant to our history. In doing so, we must sometimes accept unevenness in the quality of programming that we get. In this case, even though Burns is not at his best, he has still put together the only comprehensive documentary on Johnson to date. And, that is, indeed, an accomplishment with historical implications.

Jack Johnson whose birth name was John Arthur Johnson was born in Galveston, Texas in 1875, just after the end of America’s first peculiar institution—slavery, and just before the beginning of its second peculiar institution—lynch mob justice. Many African-Americans know Galveston as the place where the “Juneteenth” holiday originated, celebrating the emancipation of Texas’ slaves on June 19, 1865.

But whatever hopes these ex-slaves may have had when Major General Gordon read General Order No. 3 granting them “an absolute right of equality” with white Texans would be short-lived. For, from 1865 to 1868, “white Texans committed over 1,500 acts of violence against blacks; more than 350 blacks were murdered by whites.” In 1873, two years before Johnson was born a racist Democratic Party came to power in Texas. By, 1900, all the gains that newly freed blacks had won were “virtually lost.” It would be within this cauldron of racial hatred that Johnson was born.

Burns has little to say about Johnson’s birthplace. Perhaps, he felt that Texas was, more or less, like any other southern state during and after slavery. Yet the Lone Star State has its own particular history in regards to its black population. History tells us that the first Africans to set foot in this once Spanish territory were not slaves at all. Many, such as was the case with Estevanico, came to what is now Texas with Spanish explorers such as Cabeza de Vaca. As fate would have it, Estevanico and his party were captured and enslaved by the native Indians of this Spanish possession for nearly five years. He eventually escaped only to be killed in1539 by Zuni Indians. 

Prior to the Texas Revolution, there were relatively few slaves in the state—perhaps only a few thousand.  However, just before the Civil War some182,000 black slaves were held in Texas, constituting 30 percent of the entire population. The years from the end of slavery to 1900 saw a 10 percent reduction in the number of blacks living in the state. Not even Mississippi or Georgia where lynching occurred more frequently and racism was considered to be more virulent saw that kind of reduction in their black populations until after World War I. 

How did Johnson’s family deal with the racial conditions in Texas? We are only given the briefest information about Johnson’s father who was a school janitor and his mother who was a laundress. It is almost as if, for Ken Burns, Johnson sprung from the head of Jove rather than being born poor and black in the land of the Alamo. Burns does not even mention Johnson’s nickname “Lil Arthur.”  Nor, are we told anything about Johnson’s siblings. Why Burns, known for his detailed studies of his subject, preferred not to tell us more about Johnson’s family life is somewhat baffling.

Ken Burns does, however, provide us with some sketchy details of Johnson’s youth. But whether the accounts given by Burns are true is doubtful. According to him, Johnson once left home at the age of twelve and stole away on a cotton steamer to New York. The purpose of this journey was so that young Jack could meet his childhood hero—an Irish con man that claimed to have survived a leap from the newly built Brooklyn Bridge. Upon arriving in New York, Johnson, penniless and desperate, stood on the deck of this steamer and threatened to jump overboard. 

His suicide attempt was summarily halted when a woman tossed a dollar into his hat. There are many things that ring false about this account. Not the least is the amount of money Johnson received to abort his suicide. Most colored women were paid much less than a dollar for a days work in the late 1800s. So it is doubtful that a colored woman or even a working class white woman would donate a day’s or more wages to abort a colored boy’s suicide.

Presumably, this story is useful in showing early on that Johnson was a child of extraordinary talent. One gets the notion that Burns is trying to make Jack into some kind of mythical figure. But, this story seems much too fanciful to be taken seriously. The simple fact is that Johnson did work on “boats and sculleries” around the Galveston harbor. Most likely, he held whatever job he could find as did most young colored men at this time. Burns may have also have presented this tale because of its irony. Johnson would live almost his entire life in the company of black and white prostitutes. But, here, Johnson is not paying for the services of a woman but being saved by one. Most probably Burns was simply attempting to establish Johnson as a charismatic figure who could charm as well as fight his way out of almost any situation. 

It is well established that Johnson left Galveston and soon took up boxing. He traveled to Chicago, New York, and Boston usually in the company of older fighters. We know for certain that in 1897 Johnson was fighting professionally. He would have been 22 years old at this time. Burns” documentary suggests that before turning professional Johnson might have taken part in at least one “battle royal.” Many readers are familiar with the battle royal after reading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. 

In his novel, Ellison describes how his young colored protagonist is brought to a banquet for an award. But soon realizes that he is expected to fight blindfolded in a ring with several other black youths for the pleasure of several locally prominent white men. If this weren’t bad enough, the young hero is forced to watch a white woman strip naked just prior to the contest. The whole thing is a thoroughly bloody and disgusting affair by even minimal standards of morality. 

Still, Ellison skillfully fuses the elements of black physicality with white sexuality in his novel. Perhaps, Burns wishes to accomplish the same thing. Yet, by introducing the subject of the “battle royal,” Burns unwittingly paints Johnson with the same brush as the coerced youth of Ellison’s novel. Johnson’s preference for white women is well documented. And his physicality is apparent from any picture of him. He is an almost archetypical Negro in statue and countenance. But unlike those unfortunate youth who took place in battle royal, Johnson never chose to fight or even to make love to a woman at the behest of white society.  So Burn’s suggestion that Johnson took part in a battle royal seems to be not only unsubstantiated but a bit overdrawn.

There is little doubt that Johnson was fated to be one of the better black heavyweights of the day. His physically attributes guaranteed this. By, all accounts, he was a giant of a man. But, just how good he would have been is a subject for speculation. There were many good black heavyweights in Johnson’s time and he would fight the best of them. But, to be a great heavyweight, a fighter’s skills must be harnessed, honed, and focused. 

Some time, before 1903, Johnson fought a white boxer named Joe Choynski. This fight would be memorable for two reasons. The first reason is that Choynski was the first man, white or black, to knock out Johnson. He accomplished the task in a mere three rounds. Both Choynski and Johnson were hauled off to jail after the contest for “staging a fight between a black man and a white man.” They each were given a twenty-three-day sentence. Johnson complained about the sentence stating, “it was two days” longer than that of a man “who killed his wife.” 

It was while in jail that Johnson got lessons from Choynski. And, here is the second reason that Johnson’s fight with Choynski was memorable. The technical lessons Johnson learned from Choynski would soon elevate him above all of his peers.

In 1902, Johnson fought over 27 times and was earning as much as $1,000 dollars a fight. A year later, he would fight Denver Ed Martin and win the “unofficial black heavyweight title.” With experience and confidence on his side, Johnson felt ready to fight the likes of John L. Sullivan, a mythical figure, in boxing at the turn of the century. Known as the “Boston Strong Boy,” Sullivan was determined that the heavyweight championship should never fall into the hands of a Negro. 

In Sullivan’s mind, the heavyweight crown was not simply the symbol of superiority in the ring. It represented the superiority of white Western civilization throughout the world. Jack London, best known for his novel, Call of the Wild, and who was also a sports reporter stated that boxing was the particular invention of the “English-speaking world ” revealing the “ape and tiger” in us (i.e., white Western civilization). London, as Burns readily points out, was a socialist. But, in the matter of race, he also established that the novelist was as racist as any Klansman.

While, no apology can ever be given for racist attitudes then or now, the views of both London and Sullivan must be viewed in the context of the times in which they lived. The Civil War was, until 9-11, the single must traumatic event in white American history. And Reconstruction, its aftermath seemed to heap even more indignity upon white sensibilities especially but not exclusively in the South. 

The hand of reconciliation tempered by Lincoln’s “malice toward none” in Dixie was soon swept away by the dubious actions of white carpetbaggers and well-meaning radical Republicans. Throughout white America, there was growing resentment of the Negro who came to be seen as rebelling against his “subservient place” in American society.  Whether or not, the Negro should occupy this lower status in American society gave rise to the great debate between Booker T. Washington and W. E. B Du Bois.

Washington advised the Negro to embrace his social role of subservience in his famous Atlanta Address. Dubois, on the other hand, was dead set against any role that placed the Negro on a less than equal footing with whites. Internationally, the emerging imperialism of the European nations, as evidenced by the infamous Berlin Conference, sought to extend the alleged superiority of the white race to the furthest corners of the world. From Bombay to Johannesburg, black, yellow, and brown people were considered to be inferior. And, nearly every argument imaginable maintained that in the natural order of things, providence had blessed the white race and cursed the darker ones. Literary works such as Kipling’s poem "White Man’s Burden" were used to justify the debasement of brown humanity in India by the English and yellow humanity in the Philippines by the United States.

Take up the White man’s burden-

Send forth the best ye breed-

Go bind your sons to exile

To serve the captives’ needs;

Your new-caught sullen people,

Half devil and half child. 


Thankfully, the hypocrisy of these words were almost immediately pointed out and answered by Henry Labouchere in his The Brown Man’s Burden published in the same year.

Pile on the brown man’s burden

To gratify your greed;

Go clear away the “niggers”

Who progress would impede;

Be very stern, for truly

‘Tis usless to be mild

With new-caught, sullen peoples,

Half devil and half child.

What is astounding about Ken Burn’s work is that there are only the smallest attempts to connect Sullivan and London’s attitudes to the larger events that were emerging within the world at this time. We are instead presented with Sullivan’s drawing of the “color line” as a localized racial phenomenon. There are indeed references made later in the documentary concerning the international implications of a black Johnson defeating a white heavyweight champion. 

But, by the time these references appear, they seem almost incidental to Johnson’s story. Racism has never been a localized phenomenon. It exists full-blown in the world. By not linking the homegrown racism of America with international racism in the form of European imperialism, Burn fails to educate his viewers to the fundamentally racist climate that existed in the world that Sullivan, London, and Johnson occupied.

When Johnson decides to go into exile after being found guilty of violating the Mann Act [white slavery], he is summarily turned out of Canada, England, and France. But what interest would these nations have in expelling Johnson? It is because they see in him a symbol that gives a lie to the concept of worldwide white superiority that makes them weary of having Jack around. He was, as Jesse Owens, Joe Louis, and Muhammad Ali were, pitted not simply against the localized prejudices of his day. 

These champions were also pitted against a universal and long-standing contempt of the darker races. As champions of the blacks in America, they each represented a kind of anti-racist counter example for their times. Though the parallels between the lives of Johnson and Owens, Louis, and (especially) Ali cry out to be recognized in Burns work, they are never made. The result is that Unforgivable comes off shallow and an overly cautious affair. 

This is not to say that Sullivan’s attitude should be taken as a trifling thing. As boxing critic Bert Sugar points out in the film, there had always been a general attempt to hold the “color line” in the three great sports that occupied the American public: horseracing, boxing, and baseball. But what Sugar does not mention is that the color line was broken the earliest in horseracing. 

African-American jockeys were riding to victory and strong finishes in such important races as the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness well before Johnson became heavyweight champion of the world. In late 1800s, Negroes jockeys such as Erskine Henderson, Alonzo Clayton, Babe Hurd and George Garret Lewis and scores of others had all won at least one leg of the coveted Triple Crown. 

Again, Burns makes no mention of whether Johnson was even aware of the existence of these world class athletes. Why? Certainly, the mention of the accomplishments of these historically significant athletes would have added much depth to Burns’ work. Is it not conceivable that Sullivan drew the color line precisely because these Negroes jockeys were already prime examples of what could happen if their kind was placed on an equal footing with white athletes in another sport? Burn sets all this history aside and instead focuses single-mindedly on process by which Johnson obtained the heavyweight crown.

The confrontation between Sullivan and Jack Johnson was never to take place. The Boston Strong Boy would retire shortly after Johnson won the unofficial black heavyweight championship. Succeeding Sullivan as champion was Jim Jeffries. He was a fine but no less racist champion who would retire undefeated. Through a series of elimination fights, the heavyweight championship was passed into the hands of several insignificant white titleholders and then on to Tommy Burns, a Canadian fighter. 

Johnson immediately sought to fight Burns. But like all white champions before him, he also drew the color line with an exception. If Burns were guaranteed the astronomical sum of $30,000, he would gladly fight Johnson. When Burns made the offer he was confident that no promoter alive would be able to come up with such a sum. But he was wrong. Eventually, the money was put up. And, on December 26, 1906, not far from Sidney, Australia, for the first time in modern history, a black man would fight a white man for the heavyweight championship of the world.

We think of December as one of the coldest months of the year in the United States. That is because we live above the equator. But December in Australia is like our summer. While Americans huddle in their houses to keep warm on Christmas, Australians often enjoy their holiday on the beach with a picnic lunch. 

When Johnson climbed through the ropes to face Burns, one might have thought that he too was going to beach or spending his time in some other leisurely endeavor. Though there were nearly 20,000 hostile white fans surrounding him, Johnson showed not the slightest concern for their anger. Each jeer was greeted with a smile. Each racial slur was rewarded with a blown kiss. Johnson was supremely confident and prepared to make history that day.

The fight was itself almost anti-climactic. Tommy Burns was at least 24 lbs. lighter than Johnson. And he probably lost another five or six pounds during the fourteen rounds the fight lasted. Johnson was bigger, faster and had a defense that was almost impenetrable as the archival footage of the fight starkly shows. It is the opinion of most fight historians that Johnson could have ended the fight early on. Stanley Crouch states that the only reason that Johnson did not take Burns out early was that he feared retribution from the hostile crowd. 

But, as Johnson pounded away at Burns in the fourteenth round, it was apparent to all 20,000 spectators that the cause of white superiority was lost. Their voices, once raised in slurs and jeers, turned now to cries of desperation. And, though the bout was stopped before Burns was counted out, the day was lost. All over America, washerwomen, maids, porters, shoeshine boys, and sharecroppers—Negroes who were forced to bear the terrible inheritance of color in segregated America rejoiced. 

Jack London, who reported on the fight, was as stunned as any racist Aussie that day. He spoke of Jack’s “golden smile” and the desperate need to find someone to wipe it from his lips. Only grudgingly, did London concede that Johnson was not a “yellow” coward—a claim raised specifically against all black boxers and black masculinity in general. London wrote in his article that there was only one man qualified to recapture the heavyweight championship and restore white supremacy to the ring. That man was James Jeffries. “Jim,” London declared, “it is up to you.”  

The Great White Hope Era 

It is at this point that Ken Burns begins to amplify Johnson’s lifestyle, especially his liaisons with white women. If one were to watch The Great White Hope, the play which first brought Jack Johnson to the attention of the modern American public, one would think that he only had liaisons with white women. But Burns points out that Johnson had relationships with at least two black women early on. It was shortly after Johnson defeated Tommy Burns that he began to be seen in public with a white woman named Patty Mcvey, and with Belle Schreiber. It is his relationship with the latter that would cause Johnson untold troubles in the future.

Burns makes it clear that Johnson’s relationship with white women was rooted in two interlocking traits of Johnson’s personality. The first trait was Johnson’s love of the “sporting life” which surrounded boxing culture at this time. Anyone who has seen Porgy and Bess knows that the villain of the musical is a character, once brilliantly portrayed by Sammy Davis Jr., called by the exact same moniker. It is Sportin’ Life who steals Bess away from Porgy at the end of the musical. And, it is this character, half-trickster and half-dandy, which represents the unconventional and sometimes criminal life style of all those consider to be in “the life extraordinaire.” 

It was because Johnson was in “the life” that he came into contact with prostitutes in the first place. The second trait of Johnson’s personality that made him consider liaisons with white women was his uncompromising will to exercise his rights as a free man. It was this trait that made Johnson attempt to exclude himself from the racial barriers and sexual taboos of his time.

Today, we would say that Johnson was just being himself. But, in the early 1900s, any concept of individualism as pertaining to the Negro was nearly unheard of. ken Burns attempts to link Johnson intellectually to the New Negro movement that was emerging at this time. But, it is very doubtful that even progressives in this movement would have embraced Johnson’s miscegenation with open arms. 

Indeed, New Negro intellectuals such as W. E. B Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson seemed to have admired Johnson from a safe distant. But most Negroes including the black press and the highly respected Booker T. Washington openly disapproved on his associations with white women. More importantly, white Americans were appalled to see a white woman in the arms of a colored man who had already bested their champion.

There is a third trait of Johnson’s personality that Burns does not recognize but which may have also played a part in why Johnson sought out the company of white women. Like so many athletes of today, Johnson was possessed of an exaggerated sense of invincibility.  It is this sense of invincibility that allows the sports personality, now as then, to believe that he is beyond the rules of nature and man. 

We have only to consider the risk-taking activities of Lawrence Taylor or Magic Johnson to understand how corrosive such a factor can be in the life of those you set themselves beyond established mores. There have always been black men in America who have sought to violate the taboo of touching a white woman. Johnson was breaking no new ground in this matter. 

What made Jack Johnson's liaisons so dangerous was that he was famous and broke the taboo in public. And he did it at a time when other black men were being lynched for the same offense. But, when a man has defied one taboo, he is sometimes obliged to violate another. And it is not surprising that after Johnson had beaten Tommy Burns and won the championship that he not only took to consorting in public with not just one white woman but with several. 

Ken Burns sees in Johnson’s attitude toward white women an expression of personal freedom. And, as we said before, there was indeed an element of personal preference involved in Johnson’s choosing to consort with white women. But a more discerning eye would have also recognized that in the context of American race relations in the 1900s, Johnson’s choice to live and love white women was an almost pathological wish for his own destruction. 

We have said that after Johnson defeated Tommy Burns white America immediately sought out a Great White Hope to restore White Supremacy to the sport of boxing. America’s first, best hope was Jim Jeffries. But Jeffries had retired to raise alfalfa on a farm in California. So America turned to a number of lesser white heavyweights to take the title away from Johnson. 

In photographs, Burns reveals the images of a number of white hopes raised for this single purpose. Many remind one of the boxers, some white and some black, sent out to “shut Muhammad Ali’s mouth” when he ruled the ring. Just as these boxers were unsuccessful in defeating Ali, the boxers who were hastily rushed out to defeat Johnson fared no better. But each time a white hope was raised up and defeated, white America grew more desperate. 

Finally, it became more and more apparent that the only white man alive, their only real white hope to beat Johnson was Jim Jeffries. All of white America demanded that Jeffries come out of retirement and face Johnson. Tex Rickard, a former U.S. marshal turned fight promoter put up the unheard of sum $100, 000 for the contest, Jeffries acquiesced to America’s demands and the stage was set for the “fight of the century.”

It is at this point that Burns could have turned to more modern history to amplify the past.

The rise of Johnson as the first black heavyweight champion in the early 1900s parallels that of a more contemporary champion, Muhammad Ali aka. Cassius Clay, in many ways. Both men were magnificent boxers possessing both great defensive and offensive skills. Both Johnson and Ali were keenly interested in exceeding and at times openly defying white America’s definition of what a black man could be in their day. Johnson exceeded sexual norms. Ali did the same in the realms of religion, cultural identity, and politics. Each man was to fight the great white hope of their times. Johnson would face Jim Jeffries. Ali would fight a black surrogate—Floyd Patterson

The implication of both fights would also be felt far beyond the boxing ring. And the accomplishments of both men would make them the most famous black men in the world. In fairness, Burns does attempt to make a passing connection between Ali and Johnson. He trots out James Earl Jones who played Johnson in The Great White Hope and some small lip service is given to Ali. But there is nothing substantial in these few comments.

One can only imagine the atmosphere in America and in the greater world before the fight between Jeffries and Johnson. Emotions on both sides would have been at fever pitch. Negroes were confident that Johnson could beat any white man alive. Whites assured that Jeffries would put him in his place. Both champions were caught up willingly or unwillingly in the swelling tide of these unbridled emotions. 

Burns does his best to establish the atmosphere in America prior to the match. He presents accounts of blacks being brutalized by whites if they openly supported Johnson. There are comments by prominent figures in religion and politics speculating on the implication of victory for both sides. The sense of foreboding is almost visceral. There is a telling picture of a little white girl pointing up at Jeffries as if chastising the grizzly giant for not immediately defending the aspirations of the white race. It seems not even a small, white child was free from the pressures of the fight. Burns is thankfully on form and sets up the historic confrontation between Jeffries and Johnson nicely.

Fight of the Century in Reno, 1910

The fight was set for July 4, 1910 just outside of Reno, Nevada. Jeffries had been retired for six years and was woefully out of shape at this time. But by the date of the contest, he had lost an astonishing 100 lbs. and seemed to be ready for the confrontation. Johnson seemed carefree not seeming at all worried about his opponent. The crowd in Reno, as it did in Sydney, numbered nearly 20,000. They, too, bowed and slandered Johnson as he entered the ring. 

Again, Johnson met their disapproval again with smiles and blown kisses. It was then that Jeffries stepped through the ropes. Jeffries appeared to be a monster of a man. He was a tall, imposing figure who possessed matted hair all over his chest. His hands, arms and legs were enormous. It was said that he “never hit a man with all his might for fear of killing him.”  

Jack London said that “all the primordial adjectives” that were ever applied to Jeffries were “fully justified” when he entered the ring that day. Certainly, the photographs of Jeffries before the fight testify that all that London stated was true. There is one terrifying shot of Jeffries snarling with arms and legs spread in anticipation of tearing Jack apart. It seemed that Johnson could not have drawn the ire of a more formidable opponent if he tried. There was great anticipation in the crowd as the bell rang and the fight began.   

Anyone who remembers the fight between Floyd Patterson and Muhammad Ali knows that it was a punishing affair. The fight was characterized by vicious pre-fight claims by both parties. Patterson claimed that Ali was tarnishing the “image” of the Negro and that he stood in opposition to both white and black decency. He would forever “shut” Ali’s mouth. Ali leveled the claim that Patterson was an “uncle tom” who refused to recognize the prevailing racism of the day. Patterson’s refusal to call Ali by his adopted Muslim name proved that he was a surrogate for white ambitions. 

When the two men entered the ring, there was no doubt that the past and future role of Negro manhood was being contested. Ali who was younger and faster beat the living daylights out of Patterson during the fight. Each stiff jab was punctuated by a single question asked by Ali to Patterson time and time again: “What’s my name? What’s my name?” And, though Patterson never answered the question in the ring, the world saw the end to the subservient Negro in sports that day. A seismic shift had taken place in the boxing world and in the consciousness of black America; neither would never be the same. 

When Johnson and Jeffries faced each other in the ring on July 4, another seismic shift took place. For it was soon evident that Jeffries was no match for Johnson. For fourteen rounds, Jack either effectively tied up Jeffries or battered him. Six years out of the ring had significantly diminished Jeffries skill. And what time had not taken from him, the Nevada heat stole. 

By the later rounds of the fight, Jeffries was struggling to breathe. And just as Ali had put a single question to Patterson, Jack had a few more questions for Jeffries to answer. “Does it hurt Jim?” Jack asked with a smile after hitting him with a stinging punch, “Are you tired?” For thirteen rounds Jack beat his opponent to the punch staying just outside of his reach. Then, in the fourteenth round, Johnson sought to put and end to the fight. The crowd saw it coming. 

Tommy Burns and Jack London were ringside. Choynski was also there along with Jack’s former managers. They all had bet against him. Once again white supremacy stood on the precipices of certain defeat. A film camera was recording the fight. And now it occurred to the predominately white and racist crowd that the world would see with their own eyes the trouncing of white manhood. 

Their cry of desperation must have started out softly. But it soon became the last roar of some wounded, cornered, and rabid animal. “Don’t let the nigger knock him out! Don’t let the nigger knock him out!” The film camera stopped recording the fight just as Johnson landed the critical blow. Jeffries falls forward frozen in time. The world outside of Reno would never see Jeffries knocked out. 

But the word of Jack Johnson’s victory spread like a terrible, virulent wildfire throughout America. And a stunned world, white and dark, came to know the simple truth—the son of a Negro slave had defeated the best white America had to offer. Jeffries was man enough to reprieve some of his own humanity that day. He admitted that he could have never beat Johnson in a “thousand years.” But the rest of white America would not take his defeat so graciously. The white man would have his revenge and it would be terrible. 

Burns eloquently tells us that while Johnson celebrated his victory on the train back to Chicago, race riots were breaking out in nearly every city across America. One black man in Chicago had his throat cut on a street car. In the San Juan Hill district of New York a tenement was set on fire by whites who then barred the doors. In Saint Louis and Baltimore Negroes were attacked on the street. Even a small black child named Louis Armstrong was forced to “run for his life” after the fight.  

Over 151 Negroes lost their lives the day after Johnson beat Jeffries. But as William Pickens of Talladega College pointed out after the riots, “it was better that the Negro suffer a physical death than to be killed in spirit” that day. How wonderful those words must have sounded to a battered Negro community. But white revenge was not simply visited upon the Negro community in general. Soon, after the fight, a white man with a rifle attempted to enter Johnson’s home and kill him. This attempt was aborted by the police.

Strangely, there is no mention of how Johnson felt about the riots. Perhaps he chose to ignore them or felt that they were an inevitable outcome of his victory. Burns does tell us what Johnson did next. He took to vaudeville, opened an interracial nightclub in Chicago called the Café de Champion and drove expensive race cars around the city. Things were going swell for Johnson—at least he thought so. 

He even had a new wife, Etta Duryea, whom he married in 1911. But things soon changed for the worst. In August of 1912, Etta Duryea would commit suicide. And, that same year, Johnson would be tried and convicted of violating the Mann Act. He would choose to leave America rather than serve time on the trumped up charge of transporting white women across state lines for the purpose of committing an “immoral act.” It would be Belle Schreiber, Johnson’s old girlfriend and common-law wife, who would give testimony against him.

For seven years, Johnson remained in exile. He would not even attend the funeral of his own mother. Europe was hostile to Johnson for reasons already explained. South America also proved to be an uncertain haven. Finally, Johnson accepted a fight against a white American heavyweight named Jess Willard. It was rumored falsely that if Johnson lost the fight he would be allowed to return to America. 

On April 5, 1915, Johnson fought Willard and was defeated. It is evident from the film of the fight that Johnson was grossly out of shape. African-American mythology will always claim that Johnson was never defeated in the ring. It will cite as evidence the picture of Johnson on the canvas appearing to shade his eyes from the sun while he is being counted out. But folklore can never be a certain substitute for the truth. Johnson was beaten soundly that day. Finally, the Great White Hope of white supremacy was fulfilled.

Johnson was to fight again in Canada and Spain. But all that had once made him great was gone. He returned to the United States in 1920, served his time and was released on July 9, 1921. He died in 1946 in a fatal car accident. 

Burns leaves out much of the sordid detail of Johnson’s life after he left prison. There are interviews with Stanley Crouch that are substituted instead. Johnson is heard to say in the closing moments of the film that he wanted people to know after all was said and done the “he was a man.” With all its faults and weaknesses, Unforgivable Blackness reveals Johnson’s humanity. This redeems Burns’ work. 

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John Arthur ("Jack") Johnson (March 31, 1878 – June 10, 1946), nicknamed the “Galveston Giant”, was an American boxer, the first African American world heavyweight boxing champion (1908–1915). He was trained in the art of pugilism by the ageing Joe Choynski, who also became his friend and sparring partner.

Johnson was born in Galveston, Texas, the third child and first son of Henry and Tina "Tiny" Johnson, former slaves who worked at blue-collar jobs to raise six children and taught them how to read and write. He dropped out of school after just five or six years of education to get a job as a dock worker in Galveston.—Wikipedia

*   *   *   *   *


The Brown Man's Burden

                         By Henry Labouchère

Pile on the brown man's burden

To gratify your greed;

Go, clear away the "niggers"

Who progress would impede;

Be very stern, for truly

'Tis useless to be mild

With new-caught, sullen peoples,

Half devil and half child.


Pile on the brown man's burden;

And, if ye rouse his hate,

Meet his old-fashioned reasons

With Maxims up to date.

With shells and dumdum bullets

A hundred times made plain

The brown man's loss must ever

Imply the white man's gain.


Pile on the brown man's burden,

compel him to be free;

Let all your manifestoes

Reek with philanthropy.

And if with heathen folly

He dares your will dispute,

Then, in the name of freedom,

Don't hesitate to shoot.


Pile on the brown man's burden,

And if his cry be sore,

That surely need not irk you—

Ye've driven slaves before.

Seize on his ports and pastures,

The fields his people tread;

Go make from them your living,

And mark them with his dead.


Pile on the brown man's burden,

And through the world proclaim

That ye are Freedom's agent—

There's no more paying game!

And, should your own past history

Straight in your teeth be thrown,

Retort that independence

Is good for whites alone.

Truth (London); reprinted in Literary Digest 18 (Feb. 25, 1899)

Source: GUHSD

*   *   *   *   *'s 25 Best Selling Books



#1 - Justify My Thug by Wahida Clark
#2 - Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree
#3 - Head Bangers: An APF Sexcapade by Zane
#4 - Life Is Short But Wide by J. California Cooper
#5 - Stackin' Paper 2 Genesis' Payback by Joy King
#6 - Thug Lovin' (Thug 4) by Wahida Clark
#7 - When I Get Where I'm Going by Cheryl Robinson
#8 - Casting the First Stone by Kimberla Lawson Roby
#9 - The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth by Zane

#10 - Covenant: A Thriller  by Brandon Massey

#11 - Diary Of A Street Diva  by Ashley and JaQuavis

#12 - Don't Ever Tell  by Brandon Massey

#13 - For colored girls who have considered suicide  by Ntozake Shange

#14 - For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree

#15 - Homemade Loves  by J. California Cooper

#16 - The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper

#17 - Player Haters by Carl Weber

#18 - Purple Panties: An Anthology by Sidney Molare

#19 - Stackin' Paper by Joy King

#20 - Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey

#21 - The Upper Room by Mary Monroe

#22 – Thug Matrimony  by Wahida Clark

#23 - Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark

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#1 - Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable
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#7 - The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight
#8 - The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing
#9 - The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson

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#17 - Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell

#18 - A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose by Eckhart Tolle

#19 - John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard

#20 - Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris

#21 - Age Ain't Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice

#22 - 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino
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#25 - Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class  by Lisa B. Thompson

*   *   *   *   *


My Life and Battles

By Jack Johnson

African American historian Gerald Early refers to Jack Johnson (1878–1946), the first African American heavyweight champion of the world, as “the first African-American pop culture icon.” Johnson is a seminal and iconic figure in the history of race and sport in America. My Life and Battles is the translation of a memoir by Johnson that was published in French, has never before been translated, and is virtually unknown.

It covers Johnson’s colorful life, both inside and outside the ring, up to and including his famous defeat of Jim Jeffries in Reno, Nevada, on July 4, 1910, in one of the iconic ring battles of the early twentieth century. In addition to the fights themselves the memoir recounts, among many other things, Johnson’s brief and amusing career as a local politician and provides portraits of some of the most famous boxers of the 1900–1915 era..

Johnson comments explicitly on race and “the color line” in boxing and in American society at large in ways that he probably would not have in a publication destined for an American reading public. The text constitutes genuinely new, previously unavailable material and will be of great interest for the many readers intrigued by Jack Johnson.

In addition to providing information about Johnson’s life, it is a fascinating exercise in self-mythologizing that provides substantial insights into how Johnson perceived himself and wished to be perceived by others. Johnson’s personal voice comes through clearly—brash, clever, theatrical, and invariably charming. The memoir makes it easy to see how and why Johnson served as an important role model for Muhammad Ali and why so many have compared the two. With a foreword by Geoffrey C. Ward.  Translated from the French by Christopher Rivers

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Unforgivable Blackness

The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson

By Geoffrey C. Ward

Johnson (1878–1946), boxing's first black heavyweight champion, was a lightning rod for controversy in early 20th-century America. Even many of his fellow African-Americans resented his unapologetic dominance of the ring and steady succession of white girlfriends and wives, viewing his behavior as a setback to race relations.

Ward (A First-Class Temperament) depicts the fear and resentment Johnson spurred in white Americans in voluminous detail that may startle modern readers in its frankness. Contemporary journalists regularly referred to Johnson as a "nigger" and openly advocated his pummeling at white hands, though ample quotations from supporters in the Negro press balance the perspective.

Ward first documents the obstacles the boxing world threw in Johnson's path (including prolonged refusals by top white boxers to fight against him), and then probes the government's prosecution of the champ under the Mann Act (which banned the interstate transport of females for "immoral purposes") for taking his girlfriends across state lines. Ward brings his award-winning biographical skills to this sympathetic portrayal, which practically bursts with his research—at times almost every page has its own footnote. Though the narrative drags slightly in Johnson's declining years, the champion's stubborn, uncompromising personality never lets up. Even readers who don't consider this a knockout will concede Ward a victory on points. Photos— Publishers Weekly

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Unforgivable Blackness  

The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson

With actors Adam Arkin and Philip Bosco

Ken Burns's documentary style is so unencumbered; the subject matter is effortlessly presented. His regular mix of photos, subtle sound effects, excellent musical score, and actor readings of historical text hasn't changed since his breakthrough of The Civil War. And it doesn't need to. Even though this 220-minute production is a biography—on heavyweight champion Jack Johnson—the film resonates about how race was dealt with in the early part of the 20th century. Four decades after the Emancipation, the American black was still struggling to find elementary terms of equality. Along came a strong and headstrong man who took on sport decades before Jackie Robinson and became the key figure in heavyweight fighting, a champion against the longest odds.

Samuel L. Jackson voices Johnson's words with great verve and helps create an absorbing picture of Johnson along with various historians and boxing experts laying down the tale of the tape. 

Here's a man so smart and patient in the ring who took great liberties in his day-to-day life, unafraid to showcase his success, and ruffle the morals of the time (including, most scandalously, marrying a white woman). Viewing film of his prizefights, the amateur eye can understand Johnson's style and bravura. Burns certainly takes his time and, as usual, has a vast array of facts of how the world reacted to news of Johnson's success and the conspiracy which led to his downfall. The highlight matches are two of Johnson's epic fights near the end of his reign as champ (and the search for a "Great White Hope"). The appearance of James Earl Jones (who won a Tony for his portrayal of Johnson in 1959) and Wynton Marsalis's musical score are grand touches.—

*   *   *   *   *

Jack Johnson's Jazz BandTiger Rag

After his sports career was over, boxer Jack Johnson ran a nightclub in New York. Here he conducts the band with "Tiger Rag". Bobby Sands is on clarinet and Charlie Dixon (ex Fletcher Henderson) on banjo.

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Miles Davis—Jack Johnson—Right Off, part 1

"Right Off" is the first song on Miles Davis's LP A Tribute to Jack Johnson

Miles Davis’ Complete Jack Johnson Sessions

The Jack Johnson sessions are a tribute to the protean guitar work of John McLaughlin, well-reined in by the counter punching of Miles Davis, and to the incredible editing skills of Teo Macero.

The sessions themselves show Miles in terrific command of his horn, but the real dynamics exist in the lunge and parries of Davis and McLaughlin.

How Macero managed to pull such a finished gem as what became A Tribute to Jack Johnson album from these sessions is all the more remarkable when you remember that this was all done long before digital editing.

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Africa Makes Some Noise—Documentary on contemporary music from Africa

*   *   *   *   *

1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

By Charles C. Mann

I’m a big fan of Charles Mann’s previous book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, in which he provides a sweeping and provocative examination of North and South America prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus. It’s exhaustively researched but so wonderfully written that it’s anything but exhausting to read. With his follow-up, 1493, Mann has taken it to a new, truly global level. Building on the groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby (author of The Columbian Exchange and, I’m proud to say, a fellow Nantucketer), Mann has written nothing less than the story of our world: how a planet of what were once several autonomous continents is quickly becoming a single, “globalized” entity.

Mann not only talked to countless scientists and researchers; he visited the places he writes about, and as a consequence, the book has a marvelously wide-ranging yet personal feel as we follow Mann from one far-flung corner of the world to the next. And always, the prose is masterful. In telling the improbable story of how Spanish and Chinese cultures collided in the Philippines in the sixteenth century, he takes us to the island of Mindoro whose “southern coast consists of a number of small bays, one next to another like tooth marks in an apple.” We learn how the spread of malaria, the potato, tobacco, guano, rubber plants, and sugar cane have disrupted and convulsed the planet and will continue to do so until we are finally living on one integrated or at least close-to-integrated Earth. Whether or not the human instigators of all this remarkable change will survive the process they helped to initiate more than five hundred years ago remains, Mann suggests in this monumental and revelatory book, an open question.

*   *   *   *   *

The Persistence of the Color Line

Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency

By Randall Kennedy

Among the best things about The Persistence of the Color Line is watching Mr. Kennedy hash through the positions about Mr. Obama staked out by black commentators on the left and right, from Stanley Crouch and Cornel West to Juan Williams and Tavis Smiley. He can be pointed. Noting the way Mr. Smiley consistently “voiced skepticism regarding whether blacks should back Obama” . . .

The finest chapter in The Persistence of the Color Line is so resonant, and so personal, it could nearly be the basis for a book of its own. That chapter is titled “Reverend Wright and My Father: Reflections on Blacks and Patriotism.”  Recalling some of the criticisms of America’s past made by Mr. Obama’s former pastor, Mr. Kennedy writes with feeling about his own father, who put each of his three of his children through Princeton but who “never forgave American society for its racist mistreatment of him and those whom he most loved.”  His father distrusted the police, who had frequently called him “boy,” and rejected patriotism. Mr. Kennedy’s father “relished Muhammad Ali’s quip that the Vietcong had never called him ‘nigger.’ ” The author places his father, and Mr. Wright, in sympathetic historical light.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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update 16 February 2012




Home  Amin Sharif Table  Satchel Paige Sports   Table for the Education History of the Negro

Related files:  The Defeat of the Great Black Hope  Clines Reflects on Clemente, Stargell, and the Team of Color     Unforgivable Blackness     Dick Tiger  Pediatrician Eliseo Rosario Dreams Like Roberto Clemente   

Leroy Robert ("Satchel") Paige   Battling Siki: A Tale of Ring Fixes  Baseball: A job African Americans wont do?   Nonwhite Manhood in America   The Defeat of the Great Black Hope     Education History of the Negro  

History of the Eucation of the Ngro  Atlanta Exposition Address