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.”
Johnson received constant death threats, of course, but they seemed only to egg him on. Speaking about his love for barreling racing cars in town and country, he said, “One man gets shot in the leg and is killed. Another gets a bullet in his brain and lives…. I always take a chance on my pleasures.”
Leaving aside the hysteria around race-mixing and African athleticism, what truly sets Johnson’s time apart from our own is the comfort the nation’s most respected newspapers took in race-baiting Johnson. Ward’s book is a cornucopia of mean-minded little clips that vividly demonstrate the tremors of the master race, whose nights were spent awake in fear of a Black planet.
Given the amount of ink and brain time Norman Mailer and George Plimpton spent trying to penetrate the mind and meaning of Muhammad Ali, we shouldn’t be surprised that less enlightened wits of a less enlightened time had their minds blown by Johnson’s far more provocative presence decades earlier. Here, after all, was an unlettered Negro from Galveston, Texas, who slugged his way past a pileup of white hopes before forcing retired Jim Jeffries (who, like John Sullivan and Gentleman Jim Corbett before him, declared he would never fight a Negro for such a racially significant prize) to heed his brethren’s behest and return to the ring for the sake of Anglo-Saxon manhood. An editor for the British magazine Boxing was compelled to confess:
It is not so much a matter of racial pride as one of racial existence which urges us so ardently to desire the ex-boilermaker’s triumph. The colored races outnumber the whites, and have hitherto only been kept in subjection by a recognition on their part of physical and mental inferiority…. Then came Jack Johnson’s great triumph over Tommy Burns and White and Black stood before the world in suddenly inverted positions again. Here we are the hitherto dominant race, compelled to recognize that an American negro, the descendant of an emancipated slave, is the principal figure, our acknowledged master at the one great physical sport in which actual personal superiority can ever be authoritatively tested. Does anyone imagine for a moment that Johnson’s success is without its political influence…?
To this teapot the New York Times added, “[We] hope that the white man may not lose…[and] will wait in open anxiety the news that he has licked the–well, since it must be in print, let us say the negro, even though it is not the first word that comes to the tongue’s tip.”
By all accounts, every white supremacist on the planet not in actual attendance at the historic Jeffries fight was at the telegraph office doors awaiting round reports. There was even, Burns’s film shows, a crude version of instant replay invented for the fight in which two boxers, one Anglo and one Black, re-enacted the outcome of each round. The archival footage shows Jeffries’s supporters leaving the newly constructed stadium with their heads hung so low there must have been no need to sweep up the sawdust and trash left behind.
The boxing world into which Johnson was born reads more as vaudeville, carny sideshow than gladiator arena where the fate of imperialist nations and KKK doctrines hung in the balance. Though the fight game stirred bluebloods into a frenzy, its habitués were more likely to be pimps, hustlers, whores and con artists, sports of the sporting life who placed a premium on grand, outlandish pomp and vice-filled pleasures. In this world Johnson was to the manner born. What anybody who knows the world of hip-hop can see from any photo of Johnson in street gear is that Johnson was a big-pimpin’ baller who loved to dress his ass off, gamble and gambol with fellow playas of all colors and entertain women of easy virtue. Johnson’s skill, style and verbal wit can start one to thinking that late-twentieth-century Black Masculinity as we’ve come to know it from BET and ESPN was, by and large, a Johnson invention.
The trippy thing about Johnson’s self-invention, though, was that it didn’t stop at just being a badass motherfucker. When you’re told that he played classical piano duets with his wife and accompanied his prized collection of opera records on his bass viol, that he recited Kipling and provided court-stenographer evidence of how he adroitly demolished a British policeman during cross-examination in the magistrate system, you realize Johnson’s mind was also a force to be reckoned with–even if, as late as the 1940s, James Thurber couldn’t help rendering Johnson’s quotes in minstrelese. (From recordings and court files we know Johnson’s way around the English language easily matched the deep, dark, mellifluous ease of James Earl Jones.)
The book and film are subtitled The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, but when you take full measure of Johnson’s expansive life and mind and his derring-do in globally eluding the US government for years by various crafty subterfuges (including overbilling the military for living expenses when he briefly turned spy during World War I!), you realize that Burns and Ward’s Gibbonesque framing of his story probably misses the point. Here, after all, was a guy whose greatest fear in life was more likely boredom than anything else, including his own death.
The sidebars of Johnson’s life are a biographer’s dream–even in his deepest decline they are immensely colorful and entertaining, as in gangster Owney Madden’s 1923 takeover of the Café de Luxe, a club Johnson fronted for his mob partner, Budd Levy. Madden, by the way, renamed it the Cotton Club. Given Johnson’s brains, guts, culture, charisma and ambition, becoming a world champion pugilist appears to have been a meager rise indeed–albeit the best one on the table for a brother at the time, not to mention one that netted him the equivalent of a million dollars in a single day.
In victory and defeat, though, Johnson seems to have kept getting bigger while the world got smaller. At his loss to Jess Willard in 1915 the pale throngs appropriately and without a hint of irony waved tiny white flags in support of their man while the Detroit News blared, “The Ethiopian has been eliminated…there will never be a black heavyweight champion.” For his part, Johnson had always pshawed the notion that his fights were blows against the white empire on behalf of the beleaguered Black man. Hearing how nightriding mobs showed their murderous displeasure to his people after his defeat of Jeffries, Johnson probably decided they needed no further incitement from him. Only when it came to openly marrying white women did Johnson not seem to know how hard he could push against the color line.
Johnson’s “fall” was largely the result of vehement and relentless Justice Department prosecution on a Mann Act charge. His real crime, he always thought, was whipping Jeffries; marrying not one but two white society women, the younger one only weeks after the first committed suicide, just might have provided the insult-to-injury tipping point. The Fed’s lead witness was one of his jilted-prostitute lovers. When asked on the stand if she had ever loved Johnson, she coyly replied that she didn’t know what love was. The seven years over which the fighter expended much of his wealth as a fugitive in Europe and Mexico after his conviction didn’t leave him with much. There was even less after he surrendered to the Feds and remarkably served an unbowed and unbloodied year in the infamous Leavenworth penitentiary. Part of Johnson’s haughtiness and hubris was born of innate confidence, but another part was his inordinate luck: When he went to prison the director of federal prisons was his old bud, former Nevada governor Denver Dickerson. Dickerson, who’d OK’d the Jeffries fight in Reno, insured that Johnson’s year inside was a relative picnic–much to the consternation of the prison’s petulant and pouting guards, men known more for their frequent, excessive inmate beatdowns than their complaint-box bitchery.
Like most champions, Johnson didn’t know when to quit. Even before his release at age 43, he was trying to arrange a fight with then-champion Jack Dempsey, who, like his forebears, decided the trauma of losing the heavyweight belt to a Black man was not one he was going to inflict on the Anglo-Saxon race. Without a champ to fight, Johnson spent the last two decades of his life in pursuit of any sideshow that would employ him, though he never lacked for loyal female companionship. His second wife, Lucille, endured and even shone in Johnson’s fugitive years–at one point during his trial getting Johnson’s money back at gunpoint from a flim-flamming associate; Irene, his third wife, divorced her hubby to devote herself to Johnson for the lean and mean years ahead.
The story of Johnson’s final years isn’t pretty–his nights as a coonish entertainment in squalid Times Square dives rivals anything in Raging Bull for cringe-inducing Palookaville pathos–but it does have a certain quixotic charm. Whatever step Johnson may have lost as a boxer seems not to have diminished his dandyness, loquacity or enthusiasm for fast cars and the fast life.
What does seem to have finally made the tape become unglued was the rise of Joe Louis. Johnson had angled to become Louis’s trainer and was received with open arms by the young champion. But Louis’s handlers, who included a trainer who despised Johnson, had decided the road to the championship, closed to African-Americans since Johnson’s victory over Jeffries, might be opened by a boxer who never smiled, taunted his opponents or publicly courted white women. Their gambit obviously worked, but not before irking Johnson, who took Louis’s every success as an attack on him, and who not only badmouthed the upstart in the press but tried to train Louis’s foes. This not only made Johnson look like a bitter, aging grappler; it cost him what little respect he had left in the African-American community.
Sadly yet appropriately, given what lay ahead on America’s racial bend, Johnson’s real fall to earth occurred one day in 1946, when he became enraged at being forced to dine in the back of a segregated Raleigh, North Carolina, restaurant and then fatally drove himself into a telephone pole. After so many dazzlingly decadent years defying and flying above the racial fray, Johnson’s long-deferred Black Rage flared up in the heart of Dixie over not being able to share a dining room with crackers. The Freedom Riders surely would’ve empathized.