The Heavyweight Bookshelf: Jack Johnson

In the title song of his 1968 album, John Wesley Harding, Bob Dylan valorized a nineteenth-century gunfighter in lines that some have suggested could describe Dylan himself:

All across the telegraph his name it did resound

But no charge held against him could they prove

And there was no man around who could track or chain him down

He was never known to make a foolish move.

If Dylan had called that song “John Arthur Johnson”—it’s got the right number of syllables—its meaning would have been about the same. Like other protagonists in Dylan songs, Jack Johnson was a trickster genius, never an easy man to characterize. Making definitive judgments about him is probably a fool’s errand.

It’s been some years since I’ve been deeply immersed in the Johnson literature. I wrote The Boxing Kings chronologically, drafting two chapters in 2013 and the remaining ten in 2014. Then I spent 2015 and 2016 revising and rewriting them, six each year, which comes out to about two months per chapter. Of course, I didn’t follow this schedule religiously—I was always going back into chapters to amend things, and I had a running “punch list” of unresolved items—but  it was early 2015 or so when I was last walking around with Johnson’s universe in my head. I have extensive notes, but they read now like someone else wrote them. Sometimes it seems like 100 years ago that I was working on this book.

With that caveat, I can say with some confidence that there are three major books on Johnson: Black Champion, by Finis Farr (1964); Papa Jack, by Randy Roberts (1983); and Unforgivable Blackness, by Geoffrey Ward (2004). These three works tower over everything else published on the first black man to win the heavyweight championship—though other things have certainly been published.

Ward’s book is the best known, as he is not only a prominent author in his own right but also Ken Burns’s longtime editorial partner, writing the scripts for many of the Burns documentary opuses. Unforgivable Blackness, published late in 2004, served as the companion volume for the film, which debuted in early 2005 on PBS. It is one of Burns’s best efforts (Stanley Crouch’s appearances are a special pleasure), and it is frank about Johnson’s failings, which included hedonism, egotism, and wife-beating, but somehow it still winds up making him into something of a hero. Even Crouch can’t resist putting Johnson in the company of Thomas Edison and Abraham Lincoln, though he qualifies the comparison.

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As for Unforgivable Blackness, the book, its outstanding quality is its comprehensiveness—but perhaps it is comprehensive to a fault. Though gracefully written, it somehow feels much longer than its 450 pages of text. Ward pretty much covers it all, but his exhaustive detail, and his tendency to slap lengthy, digressive footnotes on the bottom of many pages, suggests a difficulty in selecting. A book can be both good and a slog, and Unforgivable Blackness is one of these. The other problem I had with Ward is the liberties he takes with rendering history as he believes it happened. In an endnote, he concedes that he took editorial license with the reported ringside dialogue from the Johnson-Jeffries fight. “Don’t let the nigger knock him out!” Ward has spectators shouting, as the fight neared its end. As his source, Ward cites Jack London’s Stories of Boxing, but then adds: “London used a more polite term; I’ve restored the one ringsiders surely used.” Surely? No newspaper accounts that I read included the offensive term, which doesn’t mean that people didn't say it—it would be easy to believe that they did, in 1910. But in the absence of documentary evidence, Ward simply layers in his contemporary sensibility, as if the whites of Johnson’s time don’t already have enough to answer for.

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If there is a single indispensable book on Johnson, I’d steer readers to Randy Roberts’s Papa Jack, which has all the Roberts strengths: extensive scholarship leavened with penetrating analysis, eloquent writing, and a gift for moving the narrative along. He manages the intricacies of Johnson’s legal case with authoritative detail. Roberts’s book has a more academic feel than Ward’s—it has a terrific four-page bibliographic essay that would keep you busy for years, if you were so inclined—yet somehow it manages to be the more compelling read. Near the end, Roberts summarizes Johnson in a paragraph that hasn't been improved upon:

The real Jack Johnson was not a stereotype. Nor was he the black hero that young black radicals of the 1960s were looking for. He was not the ghost in the house, as the poetic Bundini Brown told Ali. Where Ali was proudly black and political, Johnson’s racial attitude was much more confused. His hatred of the white world was almost as deep as his longing to be part of it. Although he was admired by thousands of blacks during his own day, he refused the responsibility of leadership, and he could not lead by example for to follow his example was to court disaster. On only one point was Johnson consistent throughout his life: he accepted no limitations. He was not bound by custom, background, or race. He saw no inconsistency in ridiculing a white boxer in the ring and then celebrating with white friends. And if his conquest of white women was in part a desire to humiliate the white race, it was also because he preferred white women to black women. He was not a simple man.

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Farr’s book, Black Champion, was one of the first attempts at a broad-ranging, serious biography of Johnson. It appeared in 1964 after first being excerpted in Sports Illustrated, and it is never less than an engaging read. Farr seemed to be regarded more as a journalist than an author, despite his numerous books. (His Chicago: A Personal History of America’s Most American City sits on my shelf, tauntingly unread.) Farr’s narrative gifts are especially in evidence in his description of Johnson’s post-championship years, before he comes back to the U.S. to serve his prison sentence, during which time, in the midst of World War I, he manages to have one adventure after another—including a stint as a bullfighter in Spain. Farr is also clear-eyed in shooting down the conspiracy theories that tend to surround Johnson’s fights—not just his title loss to Jess Willard but also the rampant rumors that preceded his greatest victory, over Jim Jeffries in 1910. Speculation ran heavy that Johnson might throw that fight, but as Farr points out, such talk always ignored a fundamental fact—Johnson could do much better financially by winning. Besides, to believe that Johnson would willingly lose, it “would have to be assumed that Johnson had no pride—an assumption not justified by the facts of his career, which indicated when looked at with sympathy that pride was the power of his life.” Indeed.

The Big Three Johnson books all have something to recommend them. My shorthand breakdown: best book, Roberts; most comprehensive, Ward; most enjoyable, Farr.

I’ve written separately about Johnson’s autobiography, In the Ring and Out, which puts just about any other athletic autobiography to shame for the urbanity and complexity of its narrative voice, not to mention the one-of-a-kind story that that narrator has to tell. According to Ward, Johnson authored the book with the help of a ghostwriter named Bill Sims, who must have been good, because the language sure sounds like it's Jack Johnson talking to you (or how you might imagine Jack Johnson talking to you). “The more that is written and said concerning one who has held public interest, the less the public knows about that person,” Johnson says, and he's among the most qualified people who ever lived to deliver such a judgment. The trick is to learn something about Johnson from this book without necessarily accepting anything he says as fact. If his egotism and self-aggrandizement are breath-taking, so is his charm irresistible.

Other Johnson books abound. As I found with other major figures in The Boxing Kings, the Johnson bibliography was too extensive for me to digest entirely. Books I wanted to read but didn’t get to include Bob Lucas’s Black Gladiator (1970) and especially Al-Tony Gilmore’s 1975 Bad Nigger! The National Impact of Jack Johnson. Roberts mentions Denzil Batchelor’s Jack Johnson and His Times (1956) and Robert H. deCoy’s The Big Black Fire (1969), of which I had not heard. As part of Black Dynamite, his multivolume history of black boxers, Nat Fleischer published Fighting Furies: Story of the Golden Era of Jack Johnson, Sam Langford and their Contemporaries in 1939. I tried to read Theresa Runstedtler’s 2012 Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner: Boxing in the Shadow of the Global Color Line but found its academic prose and posture uncongenial. 

Johnson also figures prominently in two major studies of boxing, race, and American history, Jeffrey Sammons's Beyond the Ring: The Role of Boxing in American Society (1987), which is particularly good on boxing's tangled legal history, and Louis Moore's recently published I Fight for a Living: Boxing and the Battle for Black Manhood, 1880-1915, which shines a light not only on Johnson but also on a whole generation of black fighters of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, who saw prizefighting as a path to economic self-sufficiency in a deeply racist culture. 

As part of his ambitious effort to write boxing-oriented biographies of all the heavyweight champions, Adam Pollack has authored a two-volume work on Johnson—a truly massive two-volume work. In the Ring with Jack Johnson, Part I: The Rise, comes in at an incredible 712 pages—and covers only the period leading up to Johnson’s winning the heavyweight title! In the Ring with Jack Johnson, Part II: The Reign surpasses it, totaling 880 pages. The scope of Pollack’s work seems overwhelming to me, but it’s likely that his exhaustive research and fight descriptions have uncovered many errors and discrepancies in the public record.

One of those errors I discovered not long ago from another book, Arly Allen’s Jess Willard. Allen's book, the first known bio of Willard, offers far more than you would probably ever want to know about the man who won the title from Johnson and lost it to Jack Dempsey—the book could have been about half as long—but it does correct, apparently definitively, an historical error that has been repeated ever since (including by me, in The Boxing Kings): that it was blazingly hot in Havana on April 5, 1915, for the Johnson-Willard fight. In accounts handed down over the years, the commonly given temperature is about 105 degrees; Willard himself was quoted as saying, “it was hotter than hell down there.” And maybe it was, for him, after 26 rounds of fighting under a Cuban sun—but the evidence from the Havana newspapers that Allen cites is that the day was comparatively mild, with temperatures in the low 70s at fight time. Allen’s finding is another illustration of a timeless truth of which we must be constantly reminded: if you don’t have a primary source for whatever you’re claiming, you’re not fully in charge of your words.



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