Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson” as Want to Read:
Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson

4.22  ·  Rating details ·  577 Ratings  ·  51 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
Paperback, 546 pages
Published January 3rd 2006 by Vintage (first published 2004)
More Details... edit details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about Unforgivable Blackness, please sign up.

Be the first to ask a question about Unforgivable Blackness

Community Reviews

(showing 1-30)
Rating details
Sort: Default
Feb 04, 2014 rated it it was amazing
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
James Hartley
Aug 17, 2017 rated it liked it
Jack Johnsons story is fascinating - he was hero and anti-hero in one lifetime. An example to his people and the world of how to live and of how not to live. He was a man who changed the world - or America at least - and who became one of the most hated public figures in the same nation.
Johnson always compared himself to Napoleon in the way he managed to drag himself up from relatively obscure beginnings to what he considered the top of the world - in this case, the World Heavyweight Boxing Cham
Nov 03, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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 rated it it was amazing
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
Jack Strange
Jan 22, 2017 rated it it was amazing
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
Jan 04, 2010 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 rated it it was amazing
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
Gary Schantz
Oct 29, 2014 rated it did not like it
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 marked it as to-read
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 rated it it was amazing
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 rated it it was amazing
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 rated it really liked it
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
Apr 11, 2016 rated it it was amazing
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
Sep 20, 2017 rated it it was amazing
"Unforgivable Blackness" by Geoffrey Ward is one of the best books ever written on the subject of boxing. It follows the rise and fall of Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion in boxing. Ward situates Johnson both within the era of his time as well as the greater scope of the American landscape. Johnson's triumphs and flaws are equally highlighted. Like many great athletes (in particular those in combat), Johnson loved the fast life - cars, women, booze, and media attention.

One of
Sep 27, 2017 rated it it was amazing
"Unforgivable Blackness" by Geoffrey Ward is one of the best books ever written on the subject of boxing. It follows the rise and fall of Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion in boxing. Ward situates Johnson both within the era of his time as well as the greater scope of the American landscape. Johnson's triumphs and flaws are equally highlighted. Like many great athletes (in particular those in combat), Johnson loved the fast life - cars, women, booze, and media attention.

One of
G.d. Brennan
Aug 11, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
Christopher Carbone
May 29, 2009 rated it really liked it
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
Jul 09, 2016 rated it liked it
"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
Jo Stafford
Sep 23, 2016 rated it really liked it
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
Dec 17, 2013 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 rated it really liked it
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 rated it really liked it
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
Feb 09, 2017 rated it liked it
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 .
Oct 17, 2008 rated it really liked it
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 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 rated it really liked it
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 rated it really liked it
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
Sep 20, 2014 rated it really liked it
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
Jan 09, 2015 rated it really liked it
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.
« previous 1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 next »
There are no discussion topics on this book yet. Be the first to start one »
  • A Flame of Pure Fire: Jack Dempsey and the Roaring '20s
  • Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink
  • Four Kings: Leonard, Hagler, Hearns, Duran and the Last Great Era of Boxing
  • Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times
  • King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero
  • Dark Trade: Lost in Boxing
  • The Devil and Sonny Liston
  • Cinderella Man: James Braddock, Max Baer, and the Greatest Upset in Boxing History
  • Ghosts of Manila: The Fateful Blood Feud Between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier
  • The Sweet Science
  • The Fight
  • Hands of Stone: The Life and Legend of Roberto Duran
  • Johnny U: The Life and Times of John Unitas
  • Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson
  • Raging Bull: My Story
  • The Last Great Fight: The Extraordinary Tale of Two Men and How One Fight Changed Their Lives Forever
  • The Good Son: The Life of Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini
  • On Boxing
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...