Christopher Carbone's Reviews > Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson

Unforgivable Blackness by Geoffrey C. Ward
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's review
May 29, 2009

really liked it
Recommended for: sports fans
Read in January, 2005

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 boxer whop used his strange style, quick hands and long reach to easily defeat his opponents- white and black (but he lost to both white and black fighters as well). Johnson's out-of-the-ring exploits also told much about Johnson- he told great stories that were usually wildly untrue; he partied very hard and knew how to antagonize the extraordinarily vile white media.

The common theme throughout the books is the bald, blatant and toxic racism of America at the turn of the twentieth century. Johnson is depicted as crudely as a monkey, a black devil, and most notably a sub-species that was beating up on the "gentlemen" of the sport.

Johnson captured the title by defeating Tommy Burns in Australia (Burns was fighting all away around the world, trying to avoid Johnson). After that a long list of "Great White Hopes" (that is where the term derives) lined up to reclaim the superiority of the white race- Stanley Ketchel, Bob Fitzimmons, and Gentlemen Jim Jacobs, all were touted as the men to take back the title, and all were mercilessly destroyed. All the while, the white media vilified Johnson and made him out to be a true villain. The book explains how Johnson truly played along, antagonized the media and made his image up to help his amazing career. Johnson married only white women and was involved in an almost career-ending sex scandal.

Ultimately, Johnson trained less and less and took fighters lighter and lighter, culminating in his defeat at the hands of Jess Willard in Havana Cuba. The book notes purposefully that despite many rumors, Johnson diod NOT take a dive, and Willard defeated the fading champion fair and square.

The book then catalogs Johnson's pathetic demise- fighting for too long afterwords, is money problems, how he drank, and how he sold his "story" for a buck, making it more and more outlandish at each telling. The story is clear- Johnson's mouth was as unreliable as his hands were reliable. While his punches were true, his stories were anything but.

The book's truest glory is in the unvarnished struggle Johnson had against the unimaginable tide of racism, hatred and the color barrier. It would be 30+ YEARS before another black man would fight for the title, the color line having been drawn. The media's stories and coverage of Johnson is almost a parody of itself; its as if Saturday Night Live printed their headlines, except its not funny. That is the truest value of this book- it reminds us of how ridiculous we were and how scathing that hatred was, and maybe still is.

I recommend this book to non-boxing fans as well; the story is far more about race and society at the turn of the century than it was about boxing. And that's what makes the story so very compelling.

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