“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.


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.”


Arthur John Johnson was born in Galveston, Texas, on March 31, 1878, both his parents former slaves. Of the Johnsons’ nine children, only four would live to maturity. The third child and first son, Jack was the immediate focus of his family’s attention even as, in time, he would seem to have been the center of attention in virtually every situation, every setting, every gathering in which he was to find himself through most of his life: as naturally charismatic, physically striking, and insouciant as Cassius Clay/ Muhammad Ali decades later.

Like Ali, Jack Johnson was a “cheerful fabulist”—an “inexhaustible tender of his own legend, a teller of tall tales in the frontier tradition of his native state”—as well as a gifted athlete who seems to have seized upon boxing as much as an opportunity to draw attention to himself as a means of making seemingly “easy” money. Unlike Ali, whose IQ was once registered as an astonishing 78, and who is said to have been able to read but a small fraction of the voluminous praise and censure heaped on him over the years, Johnson seems to have been an unusually intelligent, articulate, and, to a degree, cultured man whose emergence out of the Jim Crow South of his era is nothing short of extraordinary.6 It was Johnson’s claim that his having been born in the bustling port city of Galveston with its “more relaxed view of racial separation” than that of inland towns and cities of the South accounted for his sense of himself as a person, and not as a member of a racial minority. Long before he became the first Negro heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson knew himself to be heroic and would have heartily endorsed his biographer’s claim that he “embodied American individualism in its purest form; nothing—no law or custom, no person white or black, male or female—could keep him for long from whatever he wanted.”

Yet everywhere in the United States, in the North no less than in the South, opportunities for Negro athletes were in fact shrinking. The modest advances that had been made in the late 1800s were being taken back by the passage of Jim Crow laws that allowed white professional baseball players, for instance, to force their black competitors off the field and white jockeys to void licenses held by black jockeys. Even the League of American Wheelmen, Ward wryly notes, banned black bicyclists from its ranks. Boxing remained open to Negroes, but only if they fought other Negroes and didn’t aspire to title fights (and the larger purses that came with title fights). In 1895, the prominent newspaperman Charles A. Dana, editor of the New York Sun, warned readers:

We are in the midst of a growing menace. The black man is rapidly forging to the front ranks in athletics, especially in the field of fisticuffs. We are in the midst of a black rise against white supremacy.

Yet Jack Johnson began successfully fighting white boxers in San Francisco in the early 1900s and seems to have been from the first a strikingly original, elegant, and elusive counterpuncher given to shrewd theorizing:

By gradually wearing down a fighter, by letting him tire himself out, by hitting him with my left as he came to close quarters with me, then by clinching or executing my uppercut, I found that I lasted longer and would not carry any marks out of the ring.

Johnson’s technique is a variant of Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope, which means essentially to pretend to be trapped against the ropes, inveigling your opponent into punching himself out. It isn’t surprising that Jack Johnson’s early hero was the counterpuncher Jim Corbett, whose ring style appeared “scientific” in contrast to the stiffly upright, crudely aggressive heavyweights of his time, all forward-lunging offense and no defense, lumbering strongmen looking for a place to land roundhouse punches. (As, in 1926, in the first of their celebrated title fights, Gene Tunney would confound the brawling aggressor Jack Dempsey with a similar “scientific” strategy, landing blows even as he retreated, gliding “like a great skater on ice” to win every round of the ten-round fight on points and take Dempsey’s title from him.7 )

In the first film footage showing Jack Johnson in the ring, a scratchy fragment from the silent film of Johnson’s title fight with Tommy Burns in 1908, we see a tall, unexpectedly graceful heavyweight with a chiseled upper body, slender waist and legs; Johnson’s head is smooth-shaved and his features might be described as “sensitive.” In the most widely published photographs of Johnson he as much resembles a dancer as a heavyweight boxer. (At six feet, weighing a little more than two hundred pounds, Johnson would be a “small heavyweight” by contemporary standards.) Two years later, in 1910, in his title defense against the much larger ex-champion Jim Jeffries, Johnson would perform with equal skill (despite the distracting presence of his old hero “Gentleman” Jim Corbett striding about at ringside screaming racist insults at him). Only in the last major fight of his career, against the six-foot-six, two-hundred-thirty-pound White Hope giant Jess Willard, in Havana, Cuba, in 1915, did Johnson’s counterpunching style fail him: in the famous, or infamous, photograph of Johnson lying on his back, he has lifted a gloved hand to shield his eyes from the blinding Caribbean sun, and would afterward claim that he’d thrown the fight.8

As heavyweight champion Johnson enjoyed a degree of celebrity unknown to any Negro in previous American history, basking in media attention that kept his handsome, smiling image continuously before the public. Like Muhammad Ali, whose handsome, smiling image would be recognized in parts of the world in which the image of the president of the United States wasn’t recognized, Johnson became an icon of his race: “the greatest colored man that ever lived.” When not training for an upcoming fight (in gyms and training camps to which the admiring public was invited), he embarked upon theatrical tours across the country. He shadowboxed, he sparred, he performed in vaudeville and burlesque routines.

Here was the very archetype of the “sport”—the dread “flash nigger” made flesh—in ankle-length fur coats, expensive racing cars painted bright colors, tailor-made suits, rubies, emeralds, diamonds displayed on his elegant person, and the dazzling gold-capped smile for which he was known. (Naturally, Johnson’s women were decked in jewels as well. Some of these jewels Johnson only lent to women for an evening on the town; others were given as gifts to his wives and remained theirs. Etta, his suicidal first wife, was ensconced in a luxury hotel in London during one of Johnson’s tours of English provincial music halls and provided with a chauffeur-driven $18,000 royal blue limousine with $2,500 worth of interior fittings, which seemed only to increase the unhappy woman’s wish to kill herself.)

It was common practice for Johnson to invite (male) journalists to observe him bathing nude and to allow them to touch his muscled body; his training camps were virtual open houses for the boxer’s self-display, which seemed never to flag. As a New York Herald reporter observed:

…After the camp is escaped by the visitors Johnson discards his smile, forgets his wit and enters upon a tirade against the forces that command him to get into condition. The champion…is a different man entirely when he is not showing off to the crowds, the followers, the curious, the hero worshippers who create an atmosphere which when absent almost seems to leave the negro much in the same condition as a lamp would be if the oil was taken therefrom. Johnson lives on applause. Without it he fades away to nothingness.

Like Muhammad Ali, who compulsively boasted of being “the Greatest”—“the prettiest”—Johnson would seem to have been the very essence of male narcissism; like Ali, who would refuse to be drafted into the US Army in the mid-1960s to fight in Vietnam—“Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcongs” was Ali’s improvised, brilliant rejoinder—Jack Johnson incurred the wrath of the majority of his fellow citizens by declaring in an interview given in London in 1911, “Fight for America? Well, I should say not. What has America ever done for me or my race? [In England] I am treated like a human being.” Both men would be hounded by righteous white prosecutors, fined, and sentenced to federal prison. (While Ali’s conviction for refusing the draft was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1971, Johnson served his full prison sentence on trumped-up charges of violating the Mann Act by crossing state lines with a call girl.)

Yet the parallel between Ali and Johnson breaks down when one considers the boxers’ attitudes toward their profession, for Ali in his prime was a fanatically disciplined and dedicated boxer whose performances in the ring never failed to transcend the pettiness of his public persona, while Johnson appears not to have cared very much about boxing except as a means of celebrity and moneymaking. Johnson had a penchant for making “deals” (in contrast to “fixing” fights), even when he was heavyweight champion. (The most tempting of deals for the better boxer is simply to carry his opponent through a pre-planned number of rounds before knocking him out, for the benefit of gamblers and/or filmmakers, who paid more for film footage in Johnson’s day.) Once he’d achieved a modicum of success, Johnson ceased training seriously for upcoming fights and, sad to say, he managed to avoid leading Negro contenders just as, when Jack Johnson had been the leading contender for the title, the long-reigning Tommy Burns had managed to avoid him.


Geoffrey Ward has divided Unforgivable Blackness into two near-equal books: “The Rise” and “The Fall.” Ironically, Johnson’s “fall” begins in the immediate aftermath of his greatest victory, against Jeffries; it would seem to be inevitable that a man so driven, for whom self-display is a kind of narcotic, should begin to self-destruct almost immediately after achieving his greatest success.

Ward provides a dispiriting catalog of increasingly pathological behavior on Johnson’s part after 1910: heavy drinking, suicidal depression, compulsive gambling and womanizing, violence against his wife Etta, lawsuits, feuds, scandals played out in the media. Only two weeks after Etta’s luridly publicized suicide, Johnson appeared in public in Chicago with a very attractive, very blond eighteen-year-old, an act equivalent to tossing a lighted match into a gasoline drum. (Johnson was thirty-four.)

Everywhere Johnson went in the next several years, but especially in the Chicago epicenter, a blaze of notoriety attended him; no other boxer except, in our time, the luckless Mike Tyson has been demonized by the press so relentlessly. Though Johnson understood that boxing per se has nothing to do with race, only with the performances of often idiosyncratic individuals, he seemed not to wish to understand how, even as he used the press as a kind of magnifying mirror, the press was using, and exhausting, him.

The Negro pariah, increasingly under attack from both Caucasians and Negroes, somehow managed to escape being assassinated, lynched, or even injured at the hands of white racists, but he could not escape the toxic fallout of public notoriety. In 1913, his enemies literally conspired to prosecute him under the Mann Act. Though the law was intended to apply to traffickers in prostitution, not individuals involved in extramarital romances, the Chicago district attorney’s office vigorously pursued a criminal case against Johnson based upon the biased and unreliable testimony of a white call girl who’d once been a companion of his:

To corroborate and amplify Belle’s version of events, federal agents quietly fanned out across the country, interviewing prostitutes, chauffeurs, waiters, bellhops, Pullman porters, ex-managers, former sparring partners, looking for something—anything—that could be used to bolster their case that the champion had broken federal law….

Despite paying out bribes to individuals who might have influenced the outcome of his trial, Johnson was found guilty and sentenced to one year and one day in prison. Though he and his second wife, Lucille—the young blond woman whose presence in Johnson’s life had provoked scandal—fled the country and lived abroad for several years, eventually, deep in debt, Johnson returned to the United States to (unsuccessfully) defend his title against the “Pottawatomie Giant” Jess Willard, a lumbering heavyweight with no evident gift for boxing except his size and a reach of eighty-four inches, and to serve his prison sentence in Leavenworth, Kansas, where, true to charismatic form, Johnson made friends not only among his fellow prisoners but among the prison administration, including the white warden who treated his celebrity prisoner with unexpected generosity.

Johnson may have been on the downward spiral, an ex-champion in his early forties with no prospects of a title fight from the new champion, Dempsey (who had overwhelmed the clumsy Pottawatomie Giant in a fight so bloody it would have been stopped within the first minute of the first round of a contemporary boxing match), yet his leave-taking from Leavenworth was newsworthy:

Six motion picture cameramen were on hand to capture the moment. Johnson was dressed as only he could dress: straw hat, exquisite tailored gray suit, blinding-white soft-collared shirt, bright polka-dot tie, gleaming patent-leather shoes…. “There were four bands. Hundreds of people.”

The last sentence is Johnson’s account, from his “cheerful fabulist” autobiography In the Ring and Out.

Like many aging ex-champions, Johnson continued to seek the spotlight that, in his biographer’s words, “gave his life meaning.” He contracted to appear in a vaudeville company in which, as he boasted, “all the performers except myself were white.” He was hired (and very well paid) as a sparring partner for the cocky young Argentine heavyweight Luis Angel Firpo, and soon fired for playing to the crowds gathered in the gym. He toured the boondocks in degrading burlesque revues that called for him, the well-spoken Jack Johnson, to tell jokes in stage-darky dialect. He began drinking heavily. Lucille divorced him but, out of a seemingly endless supply of white women, a third wife, Irene Pineau, almost immediately materialized. At the age of fifty-seven, grudgingly impressed with the boxing skills of the young Joe Louis, Johnson offered to help make a champion of him but was viciously rebuffed by Louis’s manager:

“He cursed Johnson out,” Louis recalled, “told him how he’d held up the progress of the Negro people for years with his attitude, how he was a low-down, no-good nigger and told him he wasn’t welcome in my camp anymore.”

To retaliate, Johnson would bet heavily on Max Schmeling to beat Louis in their first fight and, after Schmeling won, boasted so openly of his winnings that he had to be rescued by (white) policemen from a crowd of angry Negroes.

For the remainder of his life Johnson would ply his trade as the ex-first-Negro-heavyweight champion, with diminishing rewards. Well into his sixties, he sparred with young boxers, shadow-boxed for whatever public would pay to see him, and impersonated himself in a cellar sideshow off Times Square called Hubert’s Museum and Flea Circus. A nightmare end for Jack Johnson, or so it would seem:

To see Johnson in person, visitors had to pay a quarter…. Yellowing newspaper clippings from Johnson’s career were taped to a booth in which a bored hawker sat making change without looking up…. Visitors pushed through a little turnstile, made their way down a flight of stairs, and took their seats in the dank, dimly lit cellar. One dreary act followed another—a sword-swallower, a trick dog, a half-man-half-woman….

Johnson stepped smoothly onstage, wearing a blue beret, a blue tie, and a worn but sharply cut suit. He held a glass of red wine with a straw in it. He smiled and asked his visitors what they would like to know.

It’s true that Joe Louis was a public relations dream, a gifted athlete who acquiesced, as Jack Johnson could never have done, to being made into a “good Negro”—i.e., marketable to a white public; yet in the way of one of those cruelly ironic fairy tales collected by the Brothers Grimm, Louis would find himself in the afterlife of his championship impersonating “Joe Louis” as a greeter at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas: more deeply in debt than Johnson, deeper in despair, and sicker. Despite Hubert’s Museum and Flea Circus, Johnson seems to have remained supremely himself to the very end: he would die at the age of sixty-eight in an automobile crash outside Raleigh, North Carolina, at the wheel of his high-powered Lincoln Zephyr, reportedly speeding at more than seventy miles an hour. The reason for Johnson’s speeding is said to have been indignation that, at a diner, he’d been told he could only eat at the rear.

Since Unforgivable Blackness is likely to be the definitive biography of Jack Johnson, the absence of a chronology of Johnson’s fact-filled life is unfortunate. Often, in medias res, it’s difficult to figure out the year without consulting the index, to determine when a newspaper article appeared. Most readers of a boxing biography can be assumed to have more than a passing interest in boxing, yet Ward doesn’t include a record of his subject’s boxing career, a frustrating and inexplicable omission.9 Also, the biography ends somewhat too abruptly with Johnson’s death and funeral. We feel the need for an epilogue to provide an overview of Johnson’s legacy, historic and mythic. No sport is more mindful of its iconic past than boxing, and at a time when even the outlaw figure of Sonny Liston is being revalued, Johnson merits this consideration.

In any case, Unforgivable Blackness is a significant achievement. Geoffrey Ward provides an utterly convincing and frequently heartrending portrait of Jack Johnson, “the man with the golden smile” for whom the ideal representation would be the Janus-face of simultaneous comedy and tragedy.

This Issue

November 18, 2004