“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.…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.