I recently finished the three-and-a-half hour epic Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise & Fall of Jack Johnson, a masterful documentary based on the life of the former heavyweight champion of the world. Created by the one and only Ken Burns, I was inspired to see it following his recent pardoning by none other than President Trump this year. I was hungry to know the facts of the case but what I got was a biopic that left my jaw on the floor.
Jack Johnson was a man of unprecedented charisma, the first black man to contest and win the boxing heavyweight title of the world in 1908. A pure individualist in a time when such a choice could have you strung up from a tree, Johnson was a proudly unapologetic figure. A man known to taunt his opponents in the ring, cavort with white women and brandish his wealth and fame in an era where African-Americans were meant to ‘know their place.’
What struck me to the core was his self-awareness, his cogent understanding that his journey was singularly unique in the histories. This only made his indifference to the rampant hostility from an entire nation all the more sobering to witness. To look upon footage of Johnson sparring and charming the mostly white crowds is uniquely compelling. When he shares his million-dollar smile with the camera, his gold capped teeth glistening in the sunlight, you’re left speechless. How could such a larger-than-life figure have survived in an age of such brutality and racial intolerance.
As a young man (and a straight white male at that), Johnson’s devout self-belief left me stumped. I’ve always found it terrifying to find yourself alone on the open seas, even when you’re doing what you love. Johnson never had the comfort of such privilege. Born in Galveston, Texas, deep in the Jim Crow south, Johnson grew up dirt-poor and hungry to make his mark on the world. From an early age he saw himself as special and was remarkably unaffected by the racial prejudice showered upon him. “I have found no better way of avoiding race prejudice than to act with people of other races; as if prejudice does not exist.”
He was a born entertainer, a man who exuded a sense of warmth and charm that rivals our most revered celebrities. His skills in the ring consistently overwhelmed the ‘Great White Hopes’ who were tasked with returning the title to the 'master' race. His acclaim in and out of the ring was to cultivate a wave of racially motivated violence for years to come, resulting in a surge of lynchings from coast to coast. When the white race couldn’t topple him in the ring, they shamed him into submission. His alleged crime was miscegenation -- for marrying a white woman -- when his greatest crime was flouting his independence in the face of public opinion.
Contesting the alleged grievances, Johnson shot back: “So long as I do not interfere with any other man’s wife, I shall claim the right to select any woman of my own choice. Nobody else can do that for me. I am not a slave and I have the right to choose whom my mate shall be without the dictation of any man. I have eyes and I have a heart and when they fail to tell me who I shall have as mine I want to be put in a lunatic asylum.”
Not even Johnson could overcome the power of the system. Eventually found guilty by an all-white jury, Johnson’s reputation would forever be tarred by allegations that had no foundations in reality. “Johnson was one of the few people in sports who transcended sports,” said Mike Silver, a boxing historian. “He transcended the athletic world to become really part of the culture and the racial history of the country.”
I fell into stitches at a story that speaks to Johnson’s sense of humour and charm. Known to drive his sports cars at top speed, he was once pulled over by a police officer down some ‘dusty, red-clay section in the Jim Crow South.' Chiding him for driving too fast, the officer punished him with an on-the-spot fine of fifty dollars (a huge sum in those days). Not batting an eye Johnson pulled out a huge wad of cash and peeled off a hundred-dollar bill. Shocked, the officer told him the he couldn’t possibly change such a huge bill. Johnson smiled and told him to keep it— he’d be coming back the same way he’d come.
Come feast your eyes on the inimitable All-American right here.