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Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson

4.22  ·  Rating Details ·  531 Ratings  ·  47 Reviews
In this vivid biography Geoffrey C. Ward brings back to life the most celebrated — and the most reviled — African American of his age.

Jack Johnson battled his way out of obscurity and poverty in the Jim Crow South to win the title of heavyweight champion of the world. At a time when whites ran everything in America, he took orders from no one and resolved to live as if co
ebook, 544 pages
Published August 4th 2010 by Vintage (first published 2004)
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I've often told the story of how, during the years my parents had split and I lived with my mom, she didn't raise me. She loved me, protected me, provided for me, but didn't raise me; Michael Jordan, Harold Washington (Chicago's first black mayor), Arthur Fonzarelli and Hulk Hogan raised me. As a young boy, I was wildly into my heroes, my idols...these men I looked to for "how to be a man" when my father wasn't immediately available.

Jack Johnson was all of these men rolled into one.

The first b
Nov 03, 2008 Rose rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Rick
Jack Johnson was one of the early twentieth century’s most controversial figures. He was the first black man to attain the world heavyweight championship title, an honor that had been the exclusive domain of white boxers since the sport began. His flashy personality, considerable wealth, and refusal to let his race limit his career and marital prospects belied the traditional concept of the servile, grovelling black. When Johnson beat up white men in the ring and consorted with white women in pu ...more
Feb 28, 2012 Arminius rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, sports, nook-book
This book is not only about the first Black Heavyweight Boxing Champion Jack Johnson but about racism in the early 20th Century. Jack Johnson was a large, fast quick and powerful puncher whose skill at avoiding punches is still to this day legendary. He won the Colored heavyweight Championship. That was an important championship but still only ranked second to the World Heavy Weight Championship that was held in 1910 by the great Jim Jeffries.

Jack Johnson had defeated all the great Black fighte
Jan 04, 2010 Eric marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
I grew up knowing that Johnson had been a dapper man because anything sharp or tight or natty was defined as such by its likeness to "Jack Johnson's hatband." My dad is a storehouse of old southern sayings; I feel ashamed of my teenage eye-rollings.
May 02, 2008 Jill rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A great book about a great man- the first black heavyweight champion of the world- a fascinating, erudite modern man. It makes no difference if you are interested in boxing-Goeffrey Ward gives a highly detailed account of society, sports, politics and good 'ol American pre-civil rights prejudice. Minus the lynchings, reminds us how little has changed today in backwoods white vs. black America (except then the hate was publicly spewed in shocking daily headlines). Because of the champion title of ...more
Jack Strange
Jan 22, 2017 Jack Strange rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Writing and fighting might seem unlikely bedfellows, but boxing often produces great literature - and this book is a prime example of that. It's partly down to the subject-matter and partly down to the author.

Jack Johnson had a life that could have been a work of fiction. On second thoughts, if it had been written as fiction, it would probably seem so far-fetched as to render it unbelievable. In a world where everything was stacked against black people, and they weren't given the chance to fight
Gary Schantz
Oct 29, 2014 Gary Schantz rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
As I read over the other reviews, I find that they are mostly about not wanting to be offensive because the book is about the first black heavyweight champion of boxing. The problem is these reviews are aimed at the subject rather than the book.

The subject is very interesting...the book is a bore.

The book is not only reads like a tale that several people are telling as they sit on a porch and reflect on a subject which occurred many years ago.

Also practically every page is footnoted whi
Nov 10, 2007 stacy marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
Boxer Jack Johnson's 1914 memoir MES COMBATS (My Fights) appears at Harvard University's Widener Library....

Sure wish American audiences at large could read about his largely unknown 1911 musings to a French sports magazine, including candid observations on racism likely never intended for American readers. The comments have been translated to English in their entirety for the first time. The result, "My Life & Battles." 127-pages. But you'll have to hope train, plain or automobile to get to
C Baker
Oct 11, 2014 C Baker rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: sports
In the introduction to his biography of Jack Johnson, Geoffrey C. Ward indicates that his primary source was newspaper articles. And indeed, this biography reads much like a very long newspaper account of the life of Jack Johnson. This isn't good or bad, but an apt description of what it is like reading this biography. In fact, Ward has done a commendable job in weaving what he had to work with into a very readable, informative, and enjoyable work.

Jack Johnson was the boxing world heavyweight ch
Aug 22, 2007 Jacob rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Jack Johnson is one of the great Self-created characters of American History. The things he did and said are the stuff of legend, and would be remarkable regardless of his race. The fact that he did these things as a black man in a time when lynchings were routine, and segregation was the norm, is incredible. The Comparison to Muhammad Ali is often made, and perhaps rightfully so, however it should not be overlooked that Johnson built HIS eccentric legend without an entourage, without television ...more
Jul 25, 2007 Joslyn rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anybody
Shelves: recentlyread
This is a biography of Jack Johnson (the boxer) and it is a really good read. It is a tragic story, but is very reflective of the spirit it took for African-Americans to succeed in anything at that time. Although he eventually was his own downfall, you can see the chain of events that led to his demise. One thing I admired about him was that he reveled in his heritage and loved what and who he was. He never apologized for being black, which was the custom in those days, and he never tried to dow ...more
Feb 09, 2017 Ben rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
It's a very well reached book but found it a little frustrating ...frustrated in the time in took Jack to get a title shot & cowardly colour line ( no fault of Author! )but also frustrating in Jacks life is so interesting and colourful yet I found this book a slog to read . Just didn't do it for me .
Nov 10, 2016 David rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
A fascinating book about a fascinating man.
The prejudice of the times is shown in all its ugliness.
A bit heavy going at times and could maybe have benefitted from some editing in parts just to speed things up.
An exhaustive comprehensive book, all worth any boxing fans time.
Apr 11, 2016 Edward rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Before Muhammad Ali, there was Jack Johnson. Their lives share remarkable similarities: a Black boxer famed for his skill in the ring, loathed by Whites for his refusal to bow to their will, persecuted by the government on trumped up charges designed to thinly veil their racist motivation. Throughout both his rise and fall, you see his indomitable spirit and faith in his right to exist.

It's remarkable that there hasn't been a major motion picture about this equally fascinating sports figure. Joh
G.d. Brennan
Aug 11, 2012 G.d. Brennan rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Once upon a time, before Ron Artest, Latrell Sprewell, and Allen Iverson started undoing the legacy of NBA saints like Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, before the Kobe trial and the O.J. trial and the Tyson trial, before Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised Black Power fists at the 1968 Olympics, and before Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted, there was one original Controversial Black Athlete. Like so many others, his personal life spawned as many newspaper headlines as his professional accompli ...more
Jo Stafford
Sep 23, 2016 Jo Stafford rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I grew up in an era when Black men - especially Muhammad Ali - dominated heavyweight boxing. Reading about Jack Johnson's battle to even get a fight against a white opponent, then, was an education for me.

Ward tells the story of Johnson's life in a straightforward linear narrative. Unforgivable Blackness's strengths lie in its exposure of racism in the boxing world - I shook my head at the racial stereotyping sports writers of the time employed - and in its recounting of the persecution Johnson
Christopher Carbone
May 29, 2009 Christopher Carbone rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: sports fans
The first black heavyweight champion of the world was, for a time, the most hated man in America, drawing the color line into sharp contrast. The story of Jack Johnson is a complicated, stark one filed with contradictions and easy to hate and hard to love men and women. Overall, its the story of Jack Johnson and the way he lived his life.

The book explains in very good detail Johnson's life, how he got into boxing and how his personality exploded onto the world stage. Johnson was a crafty, sleek
David Longo
"Unforgivable Blackness" by Geoffrey C. Ward, a biography on the great and controversial African-American boxer Jack Johnson, gives me mixed feelings. My ambivalence stems from the research vs. the written word. Few biographies, of sports figures or otherwise, are as well studied or chronicled as Ward's work on Johnson. A lot of the information, in chunks, felt incidental however. The lead up to some of Johnson's ringside bouts, especially those of lesser consequence, took up pages upon pages. W ...more
Dec 17, 2013 Jeremy rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Unforgivable Blackness is the story of Jack Johnson, the first black Heavyweight champion of the world. And while boxing is the reason this book exists, the societal and cultural aspect of Jack Johnson's impact on the world is the real story. Johnson saw no reason he shouldn't do whatever he wanted, like anyone else, regardless of his color. Spending large sums of money, driving fast cars, or even seeing/dating/marrying white women, Johnson did it all, in the face of a society that told him he c ...more
Owen Hurd
Mar 05, 2010 Owen Hurd rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a fascinating account of Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight boxing champion. As a Chicagoan who's read a little bit about our city's history, I was especially drawn to the passages describing Johnson's domestic life (such as it was), the home where he put up his mother, and the club he opened in the city's red-light district, the Levee.

I was interested to learn that Johnson was arrested for violating the white slave act (Mann Act), for transporting a white woman over s
Jan 02, 2014 David rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Racial politics in turn of the 20th Century America and a supremely talented, cocksure, black heavyweight boxer who refused to play by the rules of society is a mixture that was never going to work well.

Jack Johnson spent years looking for an opportunity to reach the peak of his sport, as a succession of white heavyweights refused to step into the ring with him because of the colour of his skin.

Once he finally gained the title, his approach to life, particularly his relationships with white wom
Oct 17, 2008 Patrick rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: history/sports fans
Recommended to Patrick by: read a review
Simply eye opening look at racism in America through the eyes of sports.
Johnson's unforgivable sins were a: pummeling white fighters in the ring, and b: cavorting with white women outside the ring. But he was the rarest of men who simply lived his life (albeit not simply) without regard for how others saw him.
At the time I read it, Terrell Owens was in the news for doing something stupid, and the contrast between the perception and tolerance for two similar men in the span of 100 years was a fas
Bookmarks Magazine

Jack Johnson's 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 Ward's failure to provide historical analysis and context. Unforgivable Blackness doesn't ask any probing questions about Johnson's influence or his legacy; even though Ward did his research, those seeking an in-depth examination of his life will be disappoi

Mark Desrosiers
Nov 08, 2014 Mark Desrosiers rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: sports
I know it's tough to top Nick Tosches, but this bio's refusal to do what Nick always does -- get inside the minds of everyone involved and try to think through their gonzo acts and decisions -- makes for a very dry read. As a thoroughly researched just-the-facts bio, this is an interesting and useful read, but there's just so much I still don't understand. I mean, really, how did such a sexually prolific guy end up with no children, acknowledged or otherwise? And what worm turned in Jim Jeffries ...more
J.B. Shearman
Nov 19, 2010 J.B. Shearman rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Reading this biography made me wonder what magnitude of celebrity Jack Johnson would have been if he were a heavyweight in today's day an era. His brash and confident personality was vilified because of his skin color but today his individualism would be celebrated. His ability to look at society and life beyond the black and white of that era was met with tons of opposition.

I'm glad I picked this book up randomly on a trip in to borders after reading the back cover because I now know about the
Jan 29, 2016 Fishface rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I picked this up because I knew that a bomb used in WWI was named after him, and wanted to know who could inspire that kind of admiration. This is a remarkably deep and wide-ranging biography of Jack Johnson, the man for whom -- I should says "against whom!" -- the boxing world created the term "The Great White Hope." Talks about the temper of the times, how Jack Johnson managed to become the world's heavyweight boxing champion in a time when blacks were not even allowed to compete for that titl ...more
Michael Jackson referred to Jack Johnson's story as one of the stories that gave him strength during the second false accusation so I decided to give it a chance and watched it as a documentary, it was beautiful.
It is a biography of Jack Johnson, the first African-American Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the World and it is a documentary about injustice, inequality and racism back in Jim Crow damned era.
How white America went after him and changed LAWS just to get this strong black man who was un
Jesse Christopherson
Well-written, sympathetic but not hagiographic, about a great man who never got his due. I kept wanting things to turn out better for him personally, but the quality of his life was a bell curve that peaked too early. People at the time blamed him for exercising privileges that were supposed to be reserved for white men. They reveled in his struggles. In retrospect, the racial double standard, not his "unseemly" conduct, deserves the blame.
Shalon Montgomery
I am not into long books, but this was worth it. Johnson was a man who took advantage of his gifts and answered to few and he wasn't alone in his thinking and actions. The book deglorifies America but its a great book that shows the beginning of boxing, corruption of sports and the importance of sports in society.

If you are searching for your next captivating read visit my website, I am an author looking for an audience.
Dec 29, 2008 Sebastian rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A little too methodical at times (a fighter of Jack Johnson's stature, who brought his own distinct and remarkably successful approach to the ring, deserves something with a bit more style to match!), but generally speaking a very interesting look into one of the most significant and overlooked figures in American sports history.
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Geoffrey Champion Ward is an author and screenwriter of various documentary presentations of American history. He graduated from Oberlin College in 1962.

He was an editor of American Heritage magazine early in his career. He wrote the television mini-series The Civil War with its director Ken Burns and has collaborated with Burns on every documentary he has made since, including Jazz and Baseball.
More about Geoffrey C. Ward...

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