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Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson Hardcover – Deckle Edge, October 26, 2004
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From Publishers Weekly
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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
From Bookmarks Magazine
Jack Johnsons colorful personality and his impact on American racial politics make him a fascinating topic for a biography. Critics were interested in this account of his extraordinary life, but many had complaints. Foremost among these was Wards failure to provide historical analysis and context. Unforgivable Blackness doesnt ask any probing questions about Johnsons influence or his legacy; even though Ward did his research, those seeking an in-depth examination of his life will be disappointed. Ward may lack a historians detachment and sense of the larger picture. However, his work succeeds as a compelling portrait of a man determined to transcend his limits.
Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.
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Top customer reviews
I have two quibbles. First, near the end of the book he made reference to a "remarkable" middleweight fighter he stated fought at least 163 times, losing only 10 in his career - Jack Blackburn. No reference is given for the stat. I was surprised I had never heard of him and checked box-rec.com, where, though he had a long career, and seemed to lose, until later on in his career, mostly to the best, he had nowhere near as good a record as stated - 168 fights, which is close, but 25 losses, and numerous draws. Compare him with Joe Gans, who he lost to more than once. He had almost 200 fights and far fewer losses. In any event, which record is correct - his or box-recs, which provides the result of each fight? Though any author can make a mistake, this was the only one I looked up and it appeared it was at least significantly off. It did make me wonder about his other claims.
However, I'm not suggesting that the book is filled with flaws either. The other problem I had with it may not be the authors fault, but the same themes over and over again began to bore me towards the end.
Overall, though, it was entertaining and I thought it added to my knowledge and presented Johnson in a much fairer light than he usually is.
Jack Johnson was the boxing world heavyweight champion from 1908-1915. And he was the first black heavyweight champion, which dominates the story of his life inside the ring and out. Johnson became heavyweight champion at a time when boxing was just barely out of the bare knuckle era, and while more organized as a sport, was still a rough and tumble and often illegal activity. Boxing, even as it is today, was often surround by unsavory characters. During that era throwing fights for money or to set up matches wasn't uncommon. Johnson learned his craft literally starting from the bottom up in local tough man or boxing contests and his skills eventually lead him to the top of his sport.
What make Johnson's story so interesting are two things - race and his profligate lifestyle. Race played a key role in his life even though he himself ignored race and didn't let it interfere with how he behaved or what he did. He often sported white women on his arm and eventually married a white woman, and did not defer to anyone, black or white. This made him an even more incendiary figure for the race conscious press and America at the time. Many white heavyweights wouldn't fight Johnson - most notably Jim Jefferies who held the title at a time when Johnson was the obvious deserving opponent for a shot at the champion. Eventually Jefferies retired and "conferred" his title on Tommy Burns, a bulked up white middleweight. Johnson chased after Burns and through the pressure of the press he eventually landed his title shot and dominated his lesser opponent, winning the heavyweight championship of the world.
This eventually lead to one of the most pivotal heavyweight boxing matches in history - and certainly the most pivotal fight of Johnson's career - a match with former heavyweight champion Jim Jefferies. Jefferies was obviously reluctant to come out of retirement to fight the new champion but pressure from friends and many in the press and boxing world, who didn't want to see a black man hold the championship, more or less forced his hand. The fight eventually took place on July 4, 1910 in Reno, New Mexico. Thousands were in attendance but millions throughout the country waited for the result. Johnson dominated Jefferies through much of the fight, eventually knocking him out in the 15th round. Johnson's win legitimized his title as heavyweight champion. Unfortunately, it also touched off violence against blacks throughout the country.
Jefferies utter defeat also lead to a search for a "great white hope" to defeat Johnson. Eventually, Johnson was beaten by a huge but less skilled Jess Willard in Havana, Cuba on April 5, 1915. Johnson probably lost as much because of age, he was around 37 at the time, and the rather unfortunate events in is life from the time of the Jefferies victory to his match against Willard in Cuba. During that time he appears to have spent most of his money, married a white woman who eventually committed suicide, and married another white woman against the violent protests of her family. This led, in a rather convoluted way, to his fleeing the country with his new wife in tow after being brought up on charges of violating the Mann Act. During all this time, and the only reason to mention the ethnicity of his wives, was the vilification Johnson received in the press across America and the hatred he engendered among some, including those in law enforcement, who wanted to bring him down. Thus, Johnson had to go through convoluted negotiations and travel arrangements to even defend his title again Willard in Cuba. Eventually, Johnson decided to come back to America but had to face a jail sentence, which he served. After getting out of jail, broke because he spent most of his money, he mostly earned a living through boxing exhibitions and similar activities.
Johnson's lifestyle some would call raucous. He made a lot of money for his era and he spent it freely on clothes, cars, and the women he kept as companions some of which were prostitutes or former prostitutes. One can look up to Johnson for not letting racism stand in the way of living his life the way he wanted to live it and kowtowing to no one. One could also look askance as his philandering, spendthrift way of life, but who are we to really judge? Undoubtedly Johnson brought some of his problems on himself. Also undoubtedly he was treated unfairly because of the era in which he lived in. Had Johnson lived today he might get some negative press, but more likely he would have a legion of fans who willing to overlook some of the things he did in his private life.
Cars were relatively new invention in early 1900's and Johnson loved cars and bought several of them. He often liked to drive fast. This too eventually caught up with him as, while speeding, he swerved to miss a truck and rammed his car into a tree. He died in 1946 after an adventurous 68 years.
Note this book is the companion to Ken Burn's documentary of the life of Jack Johnson using the same title. I have not viewed the documentary yet but plan to.
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