Unforgivable Blackness, by Geoffrey C. Ward

Unforgivable Blackness

Unforgivable Blackness is a biography of heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, a companion piece for the Ken Burns documentary of the same name (which I have not seen, but would like to).

That makes it sound more trifling than I intend, like one of those paperback novelizations of a popular movie or TV show. In fact, Unforgivable Blackness is an almost 500 page, meticulously researched work, I would think the definitive biography of Johnson.

Jack Johnson was one of the earliest heavyweight champions in the modern (“gloved”) era, and the first black one. There might well have been an earlier black champion if one or more had been given the opportunity to fight for the title. Instead, the champions and their management drew an unofficial “color line” whereby they refused to fight black challengers. (Many had fought black opponents before becoming champion; that was allowed.)

John L. Sullivan was the last of the pre-modern champions, and then in the first heavyweight championship of the modern era the aging Sullivan lost his title to “Gentleman” Jim Corbett. Corbett was more boxer than slugger, a man who prided himself on being an intelligent, scientific fighter who used movement and defensive skills to frustrate opponents.

Corbett was eventually defeated by hard hitting Bob Fitzsimmons, who fought out of a crouch and is best known for his “solar plexus” body punch, which indeed is the punch that took out Corbett.

Fitzsimmons was in turn beaten by Jim Jeffries. Jeffries was a powerful mauler who held the title for several years before retiring undefeated. I think the consensus of contemporaries was that he was the best of all of them. Not by a big margin though. While Jeffries was excellent, and his retiring as champion speaks for itself, it’s not like he dominated everyone he fought. Fitzsimmons was certainly competitive against him, and actually a comebacking Corbett gave a very good account of himself and very nearly won the title back against Jeffries.

There was no “official” procedure for who could claim to be champion without beating the previous champion in the ring, which now could not happen with Jeffries retired, so the next few months and years in the heavyweight division were uncertain and ambiguous. Various fighters made various claims that they should be champion, or should at least be permitted to fight for the championship.

Eventually most folks settled on a fighter named Marvin Hart as most deserving of being designated champion. But he almost immediately then lost to Canadian Tommy Burns. Burns then was even more fully recognized as champion than Hart had been, though it still wasn’t a total consensus.

Burns was diminutive for a heavyweight, but packed a decent punch for someone his size. One thing that can be said for him is that he defended his title far more frequently than his predecessors. The string of successful defenses he ran up was not against very impressive opponents, but at least he was active.

It was Burns who finally broke down and decided to violate the color line by accepting Jack Johnson as a challenger. Not out of some sort of principle, but for the same reason he fought as often as he did as champion—because he was trying to make as much money as he could.

Maybe Burns shouldn’t have broken with racist tradition, as Johnson took advantage of his opportunity by thoroughly dominating the champion, like the proverbial grown man toying with a child, which pretty much marked the end of Burns as a significant figure in the heavyweight division. Johnson then went on to dominate the heavyweight division for several years, holding the title from December of 1908 to April of 1915. Not that he fought very often either once he became champion, at least not official defenses as opposed to “exhibitions” (more on these below).

So the modern champions prior to Johnson were Sullivan (sort of—he was really more the last champion of the pre-modern era rather than the first champion of the modern era), Corbett, Fitzsimmons, Jeffries, Hart (maybe), and Burns (probably). Though the first four were especially highly regarded, I think most boxing historians would say Johnson was superior to any of those who came before him, though Jeffries would have his supporters.

The title of Unforgivable Blackness comes from an insightful W.E.B. DuBois quote in which he notes that Johnson was a very controversial and much criticized figure, and that while his critics tended to cite seemingly non-racial factors like the immorality of his lifestyle, white champions and public figures never came in for anything like the same volume of invective even when these factors applied just as much to them. Hence, DuBois concluded, the real problem white America had with Johnson was his “unforgivable blackness,” whether they said so or not.

By the way, basically you can replace “Jack Johnson” with “Barack Obama” and Dubois’s remarks apply just as well over a century later. To hear conservatives tell it, their bitter, over-the-top trashing of Obama is never, never, never about race…

Evidently Johnson is not a very easy person to write a biography about. In many areas of his life there is a lack of information, and in perhaps even more areas there is a surplus of (mostly mis)information, a plethora of competing, contradictory claims. Johnson was a controversial figure of whom a disproportionate number of lies were told, not least of all by Johnson himself, who was a consummate bullshitter.

This creates a sticky situation for a biographer. Do you only include in your book claims that have been thoroughly fact-checked and confirmed? You’d surely be leaving out a lot of important facts, not to mention in the case of Johnson you’d end up with a very short book. Or do you loosen up and include claims that are merely plausible, or all that you deem are more likely true than false based on all the available evidence? You’d risk inadvertently including an awful lot of lies and errors in your book that way.

What author Ward does is include it all, but specify the source and explain how certain or uncertain a given claim is. That may well be the least of the available evils, but the result is page after page—this is especially true the earlier you go back into Johnson’s life and career—where as a reader you’re basically being told not to rely on what you’re being told. It’s all about how no one really knows what happened on such-and-such an occasion, how Johnson said this about it, but he routinely made stuff up and messed up details even when he was trying to be accurate, and these other people said, this, this, and this that contradict what he said, etc., etc.

So disappointingly often, when all is said and done it keeps coming back to “no one really knows.”

Certainly there’s no shortage of evidence in the book of the rampant racism of the era. For example, Ward points out that even though when you listen to the few existing tapes of Johnson speaking he was a reasonably articulate man with the resonant delivery of the stage performer that he sometimes was, the newspapers of his day routinely replaced his actual words when quoting him with stereotypical retarded darkie dialect.

All the heavyweight champions who preceded him were openly racist. They weren’t just going along with the color barrier in response to perceived public opinion, but because they themselves did not want to risk sullying the title by allowing black people to compete for it.

Corbett was probably the most vicious of all of them in that regard. This in spite of the fact that Corbett painted himself as more cultured than the typical pug—hence the “Gentleman” nickname. Also, given his emphasis on defense and scientific, cerebral, boxing, he was the closest of any of the former champions to Johnson’s style. Johnson in fact spoke favorably of Corbett’s boxing, but Corbett certainly didn’t acknowledge any alleged connection or similarity with Johnson, in or out of the ring.

Throughout Johnson’s career, the aforementioned public opinion was indeed suffused with the crudest of racist attitudes. Law enforcement not infrequently harassed Johnson more than they would have a white person behaving similarly.

On the other hand, there were times reading Unforgivable Blackness that I was surprised that the racism wasn’t worse.

For one thing, the informal color line was far from universally popular. The pre-Johnson heavyweight champions received a significant amount of criticism from the press and others for refusing to fight deserving black challengers. I’m not saying the color line received more criticism than support, but it did receive plenty of criticism.

And I’m frankly surprised that Johnson got away with as much as he did in that era.

Yes, he was persecuted in various ways due to his race, and in the end he even ended up in prison for a year after fleeing the country for several years when the law was after him. (The main thing that did him in legally was the Mann Act. This was a recent law targeting pimping that made it a federal crime to take a woman across state lines “for immoral purposes,” but where those purposes were at times interpreted broadly to encompass more than prostitution and sex work to include things like interracial sex.)

For many, many years Johnson lived in a way for which blacks in other circumstances who went 10% that far were routinely being lynched. He achieved success, he did it by defeating whites, and he was as often as not taunting and arrogant about it. He broke laws left and right (as far as things like public drunkenness, being involved in prostitution, constantly violating every possible traffic law in his indulging of his love for fast cars, and not honoring his debts—he was terribly profligate and immediately spent every penny he ever received and kept spending at the same pace whenever he had no money, seemingly accepting zero moral responsibility to actually pay for the goods and services he received).

Worst of all he committed the cardinal sin of openly consorting with white women. (Whoever he happened to be traveling with and screwing he routinely referred to as his “wife”—apparently a few of them actually were, legally, though there’s some ambiguity there—and the overwhelming majority of said “wives” were white.)

Yet for a long, long time, all this did was make him highly “controversial,” when I’d have expected what it would have made a black man was highly dead.

It’s almost like he was so audacious and unapologetic about it that the white establishment was too flummoxed to respond.

Actually it’s striking how much time Johnson spent around white people, and in a way how comfortable he was with them. Unforgivable Blackness is strong in its portrayal of the areas of society of that period that were integrated, which were where Johnson could consistently be found.

Mostly these were the “fast lane” type neighborhoods in large urban areas. The places where large numbers of people congregated to engage in drinking, drugs, live music, fast dancing, gambling, petty crime, prostitution—prize fighting for that matter—were often places where whites and blacks rubbed shoulders more or less equally. There was a sizable subgroup of this population that consisted of white women—everyone from prostitutes to respectable suburban housewives looking for a thrill—who made themselves sexually available to black men for the thrill of the taboo. (Malcolm X’s autobiography includes an interesting account of his interactions as a young man with women of that type from another time and place.)

Law enforcement would occasionally crack down on folks in this world, but they’d crack down on whites and blacks both, and they were corrupt enough that green was the main color they saw.

So on the one hand you can look at Johnson and think, how could he not have seen it coming, not have known that sooner or later they’d nail him on something—whether it be the Mann Act or whatever—given his penchant for flamboyantly thumbing his nose at the white establishment? On the other hand, you could say he had perfectly good reason for being surprised, namely the precedent of many, many years that he could basically do whatever he pleased as long as he kept it in the “gutter” areas of town and generously spread his money around to buy his way out of trouble when necessary.

There are plenty of parallels between Johnson’s life and career and that of Muhammad Ali. Both were highly controversial black heavyweight champions. Both were rebels that the authorities tried to destroy outside the ring when they couldn’t defeat them inside the ring—Johnson being driven into exile to avoid imprisonment on morals charges, and Ali being stripped of his title and prevented from fighting for over three years of his prime for refusing to cooperate with the draft during the Vietnam War. Both had loud, brash styles. Both were charismatic, natural showmen. Both belittled their opponents and taunted them during fights to gain a psychological edge. Both excelled more at speed, defense, and strategy than at raw punching power.

Ali himself recognized the similarities. He had no more than minimal knowledge of Johnson until during his period of enforced idleness while fighting his draft case and absorbing the hatred of much of society he saw the play The Great White Hope—which was fictional but was strongly based on Johnson’s life—with James Earl Jones in the lead role. He was amazed by it and returned to see it multiple times, telling Jones that if you replace Johnson’s consorting with white women controversy with Ali’s choosing an unpopular black nationalist religion controversy, that was basically his life up there on stage.

The differences are significant too though. Johnson was a major party animal his whole life. Ali did his share of philandering—though apparently rarely if ever with white women—but beyond that was quite puritanical as far as drugs and alcohol and such, in keeping with the tenets of his adopted religion. So they lived very, very different lifestyles.

Also, the way they were perceived by the public during their careers is much more similar than how they were perceived later in life.

Let’s start with Johnson. Johnson of course saved no money to speak of, so he was always looking to get whatever money he could however he could, which to him mostly meant doing and saying any outrageous thing to try (mostly unsuccessfully) to remain in the public eye. He became an increasingly pathetic, clownlike figure, scuffling around in flea circuses, harassing Jack Dempsey for a title shot in the 1920s (about ten years after he would have had any realistic chance of being competitive), etc.

He was especially an ass in regards to Joe Louis, the second black heavyweight champion. Louis closely followed his advisors’ instructions to basically be the anti-Jack Johnson—to be unfailingly quiet and humble, to avoid all racial controversy, to remain very much on the straight and narrow in order to be a “credit to his race.” Which all infuriated Johnson, who responded by trashing Louis at every opportunity.

Though Louis was denigrated as something of an Uncle Tom by later generations, at the time he was beloved, especially by black people. Insofar as the different ways they conducted themselves as champions were in competition, the public voted overwhelmingly for Louis’s style.

Johnson, who had understandably been a hero to many black people for being the first black heavyweight champion and for his proud, defiant style (though they had to be careful not to praise that too openly) ended up largely losing the black public.

As late as the 1960s, light heavyweight champion Archie Moore was still bitterly denouncing Johnson’s impact on the opportunities of black boxers ever since, angry that what he saw as Johnson’s egotistical excesses so pissed off the powers that be that they tried to prevent other black fighters from being able to follow in his footsteps for as long as possible.

By contrast, Ali has become an almost universally loved figure. The overwhelming majority of people today have no clue that there was a time in the 1960s when he was about as popular with the general public as gonorrhea. He always had a substantial following in the black community, but in time that expanded to include almost everyone else, whereas Johnson not only didn’t gain in popularity after his career but lost much of what he had had.

But purely as a fighter, how good, really, was Jack Johnson?

Nat Fleischer, the dean of boxing writers for over 50 years and the founder of The Ring declared him the greatest heavyweight champion of all time. Many would concur, or at least rank him fairly high, behind only Ali, Louis, and maybe one or two others at most.

I think it’s very hard to say. His record (in terms of wins and losses, knockouts, quality of opposition, etc.) was impressive, but not super impressive. But really it’s difficult to infer much from that when you include the context in which he compiled that record.

While boxing was never as extreme as, say, professional wrestling today in terms of being phony, fights back then, including many Johnson fights, were either not on the level or at least suspected of not being on the level. As you read through Johnson’s career in Unforgivable Blackness, it’s striking how in seemingly fight after fight Johnson is involved in a fix, negotiating a potential fix, thinking there’s a fix and then being betrayed, etc.

And even beyond out-and-out fixes, it seems to have been much more the exception than the rule that Johnson ever gave his best effort, for a number of reasons. In some cases he didn’t want to look too good so as to scare off potential future opponents, especially before he was champion when he was angling for a title shot. In some cases he may well have feared violence if he beat a white opponent too badly. In quite a number of cases his pay for a fight depended in part on how well film of the fight sold, and it was understood that a short fight, i.e., one where he knocked out his opponent quickly, would be a bomb as a film compared to a longer, competitive fight, so he and his opponent were very careful to make sure the fight was a long one. Especially later in his career when he was drinking more heavily than ever he was often poorly conditioned. He often favored a low-risk, “safety-first” strategy of doing the minimum he needed to do to win while lessening any chance of taking significant punishment.

There were typically no official decisions rendered in fights that went the distance back then, so to know how well or poorly he did in a given fight that didn’t end in a knockout we’re often stuck relying on the far-from-unquestionably-reliable newspaper accounts, if there even were any.

Many, many of his fights weren’t even official fights but exhibitions. That was not uncommon at the time, as in the absence of TV, most people would never see any of these famous champions in action in real fights, so fighters like Johnson would embark on barnstorming tours where they would stop in numerous towns to fight the same opponents repeatedly in exhibitions. Obviously in these exhibitions the fighters typically aren’t giving their best effort.

Confusing things further, there was no bright line between official fights and exhibitions. Johnson, in fact, after a series of ill-advised comebacks a decade and more after he lost his title, simply retroactively declared all his fights—which were mostly losses—after a certain date to have been exhibitions.

Certainly in his prime before winning the title he had some solid wins against high level opponents. And then against Burns he was especially dominant in gaining the championship.

Once he was champion, his two best known fights were against a comebacking Jim Jeffries, and against Jess Willard, the man who took his title. What do these fights say about his greatness as a fighter?

Well, for the most part he had his way with Jeffries, but that was six years after Jeffries had retired. It tells us little about what would have happened had they met when they were both in their prime.

(The account of Jeffries and of this fight in particular is among the highlights of the book. Jeffries was a somewhat reluctant fighter who retired in his prime and who only came back after years and years of people begging him to do so to regain the title for the white race. Being a racist himself he was somewhat on board with that project, but only somewhat. He was irritable with his fans and resented being treated as a symbol of white revenge, probably all the more so since he seems—despite all his public pronouncements to the contrary—to have had serious doubts that he could win this fight. He had lost over 100 pounds in his efforts to return to fighting shape, but he and his sparring partners knew that he just didn’t have it anymore, that his reflexes were gone.)

As far as Willard, here the tables were turned and it was Johnson who was old and past his prime (and woefully out of shape due to his partying lifestyle), so I don’t know that you can put much weight on that fight when assessing Johnson’s career.

Johnson insisted later that he had thrown that fight, but I agree with Ward that based on the available evidence the chances of that being the case are very small.

Incidentally, I’m inclined to rate Willard somewhat higher in general than Ward does. Ward basically treats him as a mediocrity, as never much more than a joke as a heavyweight who got lucky to have caught Johnson at just the right point of the downside of his career to beat him, and who never accomplished much else before or after that, eventually being thrashed by Dempsey in three rounds to lose his title, a title he’d mostly sat on and not risked defending, for good reason.

I don’t think Willard was great, but he was a giant of a man with some boxing skills who mostly due to sheer size packed decent power and was almost impossible to hurt. Even though Johnson was past his prime when Willard defeated him, I suspect he was still good enough that only a handful of heavyweights would have stood much of a chance against him, so that was still an impressive win for Willard.

And as for the Dempsey fight, there have long been allegations that Dempsey cheated by loading his gloves to greatly increase the damage his punches would do. I’m not convinced that that’s true—in fact I read a long article online that makes a pretty strong case that those allegations are false—but it’s a possibility (and one that, surprisingly, Ward fails to even mention). Plus even if there were no such shenanigans, Dempsey is regarded by many as one of the all-time greats (I think he’s slightly overrated), and Willard was 37 at the time of their fight, so once again there’s that issue of judging a fighter based on a loss suffered when he was well past his prime.

Anyway, let’s return to the question of how good Johnson was. Probably his greatest asset as a fighter was his defense. Whether he was the overall best heavyweight champion of all time or not, he may well have been the best in terms of defense.

But not in the Ali sense of extraordinary foot speed to dance and stay out of the range of his opponent’s punches. He seems instead to have been a master at reading body language, at knowing exactly when a punch was coming and where it was headed, and at being able then to block it and counter. He clinched constantly, which makes for very boring fights but also frustrated his opponents and kept their arms tied up so that they couldn’t punch freely with them. And then he was very skilled at hitting on the break—which is technically illegal—being especially effective with a quick uppercut inside.

There’s an intriguing anecdote late in the book about a 67 year old Johnson entertaining people at a dinner party by effortlessly blocking the punches of two bantamweights while casually carrying on a conversation. Not that bantamweights are likely to be able to hurt even an old man of Johnson’s size, but even with their lack of reach you would think based on sheer speed—and there being two of them—that they could hit him. But allegedly they could not, due to his extraordinary defensive anticipation.

So his defense was evidently amazing. But overall? As I say it’s very hard to judge such things on such limited evidence from that long ago, but I’m inclined to rate him maybe in the bottom half of the top ten of heavyweight champions.

How about as a human being, rather than as a fighter? I think that depends in part on how much you regard his flaws as being mitigated by the times—by the hatred and persecution directed at him as an individual and at black people collectively.

In reading Unforgivable Blackness I found him to be a more sympathetic, more admirable person than not, but with plenty of caveats.

For a person of little education he seems to have been surprisingly intelligent, articulate, and cultured. He read extensively, and played and listened to classical music. He could hold his own not only in trashy gin joints, but on the rarer occasions that he was in more “exalted” company. Certainly it took a great deal of courage and fortitude to have the career he did in such a hostile environment. He was, in that respect, the Jackie Robinson of his day.

But he could be a jerk too. He cheated in the ring as far as being willing to participate in fixed fights, and he cheated out of the ring in his financial transactions, showing a lack of character. He was a liar. Though he was often a happy, friendly sort who treated people well, there were plenty of exceptions, including his often being emotionally abusive—and apparently at least on occasion, physically abusive—toward his “wives.” He was blatantly disrespectful toward some people, most notably Joe Louis.

So he was probably a better person than you could reasonably expect someone to be in his circumstances, but not all that impressive without that qualification.

I see this piece has gone far longer than most, and yet there’s more from this book that I could comment on. That’s a pretty good indication that I experienced Unforgivable Blackness as a very good read, a solid biography of an intriguing figure.

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