Ain’t Misbehavin’

Black Champion: The Life and Times of Jack Johnson

by Finis Farr
Scribners, 256 pp., $4.95

When I was a little boy there were two mentionably unmentionable names in the house, along with the unknown (but guessed at) murderers of Ehrlich and Alter. These were Jack Johnson and Earl Browder. While the Communist was openly execrated (to the point that I grew up half-musing that “Browder” was an obscure religious epithet), the prize-fighter was never talked about in front of me except in the muffled, sidling tones associated with money troubles, infidelity, or surgical illness. It was not until I read Mr. Finis Farr’s courteous biography that I realized what the fuss had been about.

John Arthur Johnson was the first Negro to win the world’s heavyweight championship. In fact, because of who and what he was, he had to do it twice, in 1908 from Tommy Burns (“I’ll fight him and whip him, as sure as my name is Tommy Burns” said the title-holder whose real name was Noah Brusso), and again two years later, in the famous Reno bout, from a frightened Jim Jeffries (“Come on now, Mr. Jeff. Let me see what you got, Do something, man. This is for the champeenship“).

Jeffries had been forced out of cheerful retirement by Nordic supremacists like the writer Jack London, who appeared to speak for a sizeable section of the U.S. male population when he screamed for a White Hope to wipe out the “playful Ethiopian” who not only had the cheek to beat two white men for the crown but also had no objections to white women. Johnson whipped the stuffings out of Jeffries in fifteen masterful rounds, and continued to do so against all comers until floored by age, his own brand of insouciance, the attrition of years of having to declare his manhood in equivocal (if flashy) terms, and a young giant named Jess Willard. Today he lies buried in Graceland Cemetery, among the Chicago elite—the Ryersons, Ishams, Palmers, and McCormicks—with a towering oak tree casting its shade over a massive granite block which reads simply, and probably impudently: “Johnson.”

Johnson was born in Galveston in 1878, twenty-four months after the Tilden-Hayes electoral frame-up gave birth to Negro unter-citizenship. He was the son of a pious janitor, probably himself a former slave. Like the famous boxing slaves from whom he spiritually descended, Johnson won his freedom in the ring, a freedom which made him the most famous Negro of his time but which probably only clumsily approximated what this fascinating, and not very interesting, man seemed to be searching for in his wild automobile rides, the last of which killed him in a North Carolina ditch in 1946.

He was what today we would call a natural counter-puncher, always forcing the other man to lead until he deemed it expedient to deliver a straight, slightly upward left (a “fly-catching motion,” said witnesses) that tended to pole-axe adversaries. Up to, including, and descending from his prime he sounds like a combination Sugar Ray, Lew Jenkins …

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