The Jack Johnson story is about many things, but none more emphatically than the meaning of manhood to the Anglo-Saxon imagination at the turn of the century. Or, more pointedly, the degree to which white masculinity had become dependent on the symbolic dominance of colored men. The upheaval that Johnson’s boxing successes and success with white women produced in white supremacist minds generated an embarrassment of riches in the leading newspapers of the day. After Johnson became heavyweight champion, the Los Angeles Times served up: ”A word to the Black Man…. Do not point your nose too high. Do not swell your chest too much. Do not boast too loudly. Do not be puffed up…. You are on no higher plane, deserve no new consideration, and will get none…because your complexion is the same as that of the victor at Reno.” What such quotes make evident is that racism isn’t just an attitude or an action but a philosophy and that, as with most forms of organized oppression, blame begins at the top.
As James Earl Jones (who played Johnson in the 1968 Broadway and film production The Great White Hope) observes in Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, Ken Burns’s recently aired four-hour documentary, while race may have framed the story, its real subject is power. The symbolic power of African-Americans’ winning big in sports that were once the province of white champions has made Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters not just star athletes but pop stars and corporate endorsement zillionaires. What seems to have changed since Johnson’s time is white male acceptance of Black men beating their symbolic ass in sports, and the degree to which “lifestyle” corporations and their Middle American consumers believe anything Black people touch automatically becomes really, really cool.
As the remarkable details of Johnson’s anomalous, futuristic life emerge in Burns’s film and in the exhaustively detailed book of the same title by Burns’s scriptwriter Geoffrey C. Ward, the man comes off more as a contemporary of Muhammad Ali, Miles Davis, Michael Jordan and 50 Cent than as some ancestral Stagolee figure. This is largely because it was not until the 1960s and the rise of Malcolm X, Jimi Hendrix and the Black Panthers that the Anglo-Saxon male had to contend with an onslaught of African-American men as publicly defiant, accomplished and quick-tongued as Johnson.
The book and the film complement each other well–Burns’s footage of Johnson in action is astounding, and the commentary from Stanley Crouch, Gerald Early and James Earl Jones provides acerbic, one-two punching Black male insights far more pointed and pithy than anything in Ward’s rousing, encyclopedic narrative. Ward’s telling, however, won’t arouse the ire Burns does among some African-American documentarians and viewers who feel he’s been liberally colonizing our stories. That’s another story for another day, not just about Burns but about who gets to touch the historical Black image. To be honest, as an insatiable watcher of Black history on PBS, I’m on the fence about the matter, much as I am about Scorsese’s Blues. Then again, I’m not a Black filmmaker who’s been told fuggedaboudit because Burns practically owns the extant footage of Johnson or Martin Luther King Jr.
Johnson believed he countered the racism of his day simply by acting as if prejudice didn’t exist. Ralph Ellison thought this very Zen form of Black being has always defined a particular African-American strain, even on the plantation. It is one whose attitude toward racism was to outfox and outfight it rather than lament it. What distinguished Johnson’s defiance from even this white-man-do-your-worst strain is how openly oblivious, ostentatious and confrontational it was 24/7/365, particularly out of the ring: Johnson married three white women as indiscreetly as possible, at a time when, as Ward points out, “interracial marriage was officially outlawed in thirty of the forty-six states and discouraged by custom and the threat of violence in many of the rest. Nearly seven hundred Negroes had been lynched in the United States since 1900, some simply because someone had whispered that they had been ‘too familiar’ with white women.”