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The Man with the Golden Smile’

1.

God, it would be good to be a fake somebody rather than a real nobody.”

—Mike Tyson, quoted in The New York Times, May 21, 2002

It was a scandalous and historic American spectacle, yet it took place in Sydney, Australia. It might have been a silent film comedy, for its principal actors were a wily black Trickster and a blustering white racist hero: heavyweight contender Jack Johnson vs. heavyweight champion Tommy Burns for the world title in December 1908. Though the arena in which the boxers fought reverberated with cries of “coon”—“flash nigger”—“the hatred of twenty thousand whites for all the negroes in the world,” as the Sydney Bulletin reported, yet the match would prove to be a dazzling display of the “scientific” boxing skills of the thirty-year-old Johnson, as agile on his feet and as rapid with his gloves as any lightweight.

The setting for this historic encounter was Australia and not North America, because the long-shunned Negro contender had had to literally pursue the white champion to the ends of the earth—to England, Ireland, France, and at last Australia—in order to shame him into defending his title. The bloody outcome of the fight, Johnson’s victory over Burns in the fourteenth round, the first time in history that a Negro defeated a white man for the heavyweight title, was an astonishment in sports circles and seems to have provoked racial hysteria on several continents. Immediately, it was interpreted in apocalyptic terms:

Is the Caucasian played out? Are the races we have been calling inferior about to demand to us that we must draw the color line in everything if we are to avoid being whipped individually and collectively?

Detroit Free Press,January 1, 1909

If, as John L. Sullivan famously declared, the heavyweight champion is “the man who can lick any son of a bitch in the world,” what did the ascendancy of the handsome and stylish “flash nigger” Jack Johnson portend for the white race? Jack London, at that time the most celebrated of American novelists and an ostensibly passionate socialist, covered the fight for the New York Herald in the most sensational race-baiting terms, as Geoffrey C. Ward notes in this powerful new biography of Johnson, transforming a sporting event into a “one-sided racial drubbing that cried out for revenge”:

It had not been a boxing match but an “Armenian massacre”…a “hopeless slaughter” in which a playful “giant Ethiopian” had toyed with Burns as if he’d been a “naughty child.” It had matched “thunderbolt blows” against “butterfly flutterings.” London was disturbed not so much by the new champion’s victory—“All hail to Johnson,” he wrote; he had undeniably been “the best man”—as by the evident glee with which he had imposed his will upon the hapless white man: “A golden smile tells the story, and that golden smile was Johnson’s.”

Summing up the collective anxiety of his race, the poet Henry Lawson gloomily prophesied:

It was not Burns that was beaten—for a nigger has smacked your face.

Take heed—I am tired of writing—but O my people take heed.

For the time may be near for the mating of the Black and the White to Breed.

As if to fan the flames of Caucasian sexual anxiety, the new Negro heavyweight champion returned in triumph from Australia with a white woman as his companion, whom he introduced to reporters as his wife. (She wasn’t.) Through his high-profile career Johnson would flagrantly consort with white women ranging from prostitutes to well-off married women; in all, he would marry three. The first, Etta Duryea, who may have left her husband for Johnson, was so thoroughly ostracized that she attempted suicide repeatedly, and finally succeeded in killing herself with a revolver. Johnson’s other liaisons were equally publicized and turbulent. In the prime of his career as the greatest heavyweight boxer of his time Johnson had the distinction of being denounced by the righteous Negro educator Booker T. Washington for “misrepresenting the colored people of this country” even as he was denounced at a National Governors’ Conference by, among vehement others, the North Carolina governor, who pleaded for the champion to be lynched: “There is but one punishment, and that must be speedy, when the negro lays his hand upon the person of a white woman.” In 1913, Johnson had the further distinction of being the catalyst for the introduction in the legislatures of numerous states of statutes forbidding miscegenation.

It would seem that Jack Johnson was simultaneously the most famous and the most notorious Negro of his time, whose negative example shaped the low-profile public careers of his Negro successors through nearly five decades.1 Only in the 1960s, with the emergence of the yet more intimidating Sonny Liston and the brash, idiosyncratic Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, was the image of Johnson revalued. The massive Liston, hulking and scowling and resistant to all white liberal efforts to appropriate him, was Jack Johnson revived and reconstituted as a blackness ten times black. Ali, as viciously reviled in the 1960s as he is piously revered today, was a youthful admirer of Johnson: “I grew to love the Jack Johnson image. I wanted to be rough, tough, arrogant, the nigger white folks didn’t like.”

Ali had the distinct advantage of being born in 1942, not 1878. He had the advantage of a sports career in the second half of the twentieth century, not the first. And, by instinct or by principle, he seems to have avoided white women entirely.

2.

Of great American heavyweight champions, Jack Johnson (1878–1946) remains sui generis. Though his dazzling and always controversial career reached its zenith in 1910, with Johnson’s spectacular defense of his title against the first of the Great White Hope challengers, the former champion Jim Jeffries,2 Johnson’s poised ring style, his counterpunching speed, precision, and the lethal economy of his punches, seem to us closer in time than the more earnest and forthright styles of Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Larry Holmes, Gerry Cooney, et al. That inspired simile “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” coined to describe the young Cassius Clay/ Muhammad Ali in his early dazzling fights, is an apt description of Jack Johnson’s cruelly playful dissection of white opponents like Tommy Burns. Ali, a virtuoso of what was called in Johnson’s time “mouth-fighting,” a continuous barrage of taunts and insults intended to undermine an opponent psychologically, and the inventor of his own, insolently baiting “Ali shuffle,” can be seen as a vengeful and victorious avatar of Jack Johnson who perfected the precarious art of playing with and to a hostile audience, like a bullfighter who seduces his clumsy opponent (including the collective clumsy “opponent” of the audience) into participating in, in fact heightening, the opponent’s defeat. To step into the ring with a Trickster is to risk losing not only your fight but your dignity.

What was “unforgivable” in Johnson’s boxing wasn’t simply that he so decisively beat his white opponents but that he publicly humiliated them, demonstrating his smiling, seemingly cordial, contempt. Like Ali, except more astonishing than Ali, since he had no predecessors,3 Johnson transformed formerly capable, formidable opponents into stumbling yokels. Like Ali, Johnson believed in allowing his opponents to wear themselves out throwing useless punches.

Like Ali, Johnson understood that boxing is theater. Geoffrey Ward describes the 1909 (mis)match between Johnson and the white middleweight champion Stanley Ketchel in Colma, California:

For eleven rounds the bout went more or less the way the Burns fight had gone. Johnson towered over his opponent, picking off his punches, smiling and chatting with ringsiders, landing just often and just hard enough to cause Ketchel’s mouth and nose to bleed but to do no more serious damage. Several times Johnson simply lifted the smaller man into the air, feet dangling like an oversized doll, and put him down just where he liked. One ringsider called it a “struggle between a demon and a gritty little dwarf….”

After a reckless attempt to knock Johnson out, the fight ended brutally for Ketchel with four of his teeth strewn across the ring, or in variants of the account, embedded in Johnson’s glove, and the hostile white crowd fell silent. After Johnson’s equally decisive defeat of Jim Jeffries, in 1910, Jeffries was unexpectedly generous in conceding to a reporter, “I could never have whipped Johnson at my best. I couldn’t have reached him in a thousand years.” More often, white reactions to Johnson’s victories were bitter, vicious, hysterical. After Jeffries’s defeat, as word of Jack Johnson’s victory spread, riots began to break out across the United States. “No event yielded such widespread racial violence until the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., fifty-eight years later.” In all, as many as twenty-six people were killed and hundreds more hurt in the rioting, most of them black.

Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson is as much a portrait of the boxer’s turbulent time as it is of Johnson himself, in the way of such exemplary recent boxing biographies as David Remnick’s King of the World (1998), which deals with the early, ascending years of Cassius Clay/ Muhammad Ali, Roger Kahn’s A Flame of Pure Fire: Jack Dempsey and the Roaring ‘20s (1999), and The Devil and Sonny Liston (2000) by Nick Tosches, a brilliantly sustained blues piece in prose perfectly matched with its intransigent subject. (Of heavyweight champions, Liston remains the “taboo” figure: the doomed black man unassimilable by any racial, cultural, or religious collective. Even the nature of Liston’s death by heroin overdose—suicide? murder?—remains a mystery.)

Geoffrey Ward is the author of numerous historical studies including A First Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt (1989) and a frequent collaborator with the documentary filmmaker Ken Burns.4 “Unforgivable blackness” is a quote from W.E.B. Du Bois in his publication The Crisis (1914), with which Ward begins his biography:

Boxing has fallen into disfavor…. The reason is clear: Jack Johnson…has out-sparred an Irishman. He did it with little brutality, the utmost fairness and great good nature. He did not “knock” his opponent senseless…. Neither he nor his race invented prize fighting or particularly like it. Why then this thrill of national disgust? Because Johnson is black. Of course some pretend to object to Johnson’s character. But we have yet to hear, in the case of White America, that marital troubles have disqualified prize fighters or ball players or even statesmen. It comes down, then, after all to this unforgivable blackness.5

Geoffrey Ward notes that, in researching the biography, he had no Jack Johnson “papers” to consult apart from such self-mythologizing autobiographies as Johnson’s In the Ring and Out, and that much of his book is based upon contemporaneous newspaper accounts heavily saturated with “racist contempt.” In order to “recapture something of the atmosphere of the world in which [Johnson] always insisted on remaining his own man,” Ward resists the “anachronistic term ‘African American’” in favor of the one that whites of Johnson’s generation used grudgingly and blacks most hoped to see in print: “Negro.”

  1. 1

    After Johnson lost the heavyweight title to Jess Willard in 1915, the title would be held by white boxers until 1937, when twenty-three-year-old Joe Louis became champion. The shrewd (white) managers of Joe Louis, who made his professional boxing debut in 1934, when the thorny memory of Jack Johnson still rankled in the public’s memory, drew up a list of specific rules for Louis: he was never to have his picture taken with a white woman; he was never to go into a nightclub alone; he would be involved in no “soft” fights, and no “fixed” fights; he was never to gloat over a fallen opponent; he was to “live clean and fight clean.”

    Arguably a greater heavyweight than Jack Johnson, certainly one with a more impressive record of victories over worthy opponents, Joe “The Brown Bomber” Louis became an American sports success of immense natural talent shaped and controlled by marketing strategies. Though Louis ended his career humiliated and broken, owing back taxes on even the “income” of two purses he’d naively donated to the war effort in the early 1940s, addicted to cocaine and plagued by the paranoid, but not inaccurate, suspicion that the FBI had him under surveillance, yet in public memory he continues to occupy a mythic identity as the “good” American Negro heavyweight champion who beat the “Nazi” Max Schmeling in 1938.

  2. 2

    Howard Sackler’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play The Great White Hope (1968), subsequently made into an acclaimed film, is a bravura portrait of the first Negro heavyweight champion, here named Jack Jefferson, whose intransigent personality and affair with a white woman in the face of virulent white racism are the focus of the drama. Jefferson was played by James Earl Jones in both play and film. The play begins with a “white hope” challenger reminiscent of Jim Jeffries and ends with a younger, more dynamic “white hope” challenger called the Kid, in the role of Jess Willard, who ended Johnson’s career as a serious boxer. Oddly mistitled, the play makes little of the Negro champion’s exceptional boxing skills and presents, as the champion’s language, an annoyingly garbled “black American English” at odds with what is generally believed to have been the historic Jack Johnson’s speech:

    All de way now! dass where Ah is and dass whut Ah’m gittin, gonna git it de same sayin Yassuh, Nossuh, don’ mattah whut Ah does—Ah in dere, unnerstan?

  3. 3

    Johnson had no Negro Trickster predecessors but of course he had Negro predecessors in the literal sense, foremost among them the West Indian– born heavyweight Peter Jackson (1861– 1901). Jackson was the best Negro boxer of his era and very likely would have beaten John L. Sullivan if Sullivan, an avowed white racist, had granted him a title fight. White champions commonly “drew the color line” against Negroes out of a fear that, like Tommy Burns, they would be humiliated in the ring. Until the rise of Joe Louis in the 1930s, a white champion like Jack Dempsey could avoid Negro boxers throughout an entire career. For this reason, the history of boxing before Louis is not an authentic history.

  4. 4

    Ward has collaborated with Burns on a documentary of the life of Jack Johnson, to be broadcast on PBS in January.

  5. 5

    It isn’t clear to which fight Du Bois is alluding, since Johnson’s major fights in 1913–1914 took place in Paris and Buenos Aires, and it’s unlikely that Du Bois saw these fights or even, judging by the broad terms with which he described Johnson’s fighting style, that Du Bois ever saw Johnson fight.

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