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Ring Bearer

By Allen Barra

IN 1908, Arthur John "Jack" Johnson defeated Tommy Burns to become the first black heavyweight champion of the world, and nothing in America would ever quite be the same. No athlete, not even Muhammad Ali, did more to shake up a complacent America. Two subsequent generations all but grew up thinking that Johnson was not a real person but a fictional character brought to life by James Earl Jones in The Great White Hope. Jack Johnson was real, though, and Geoffrey C. Ward's new biography, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (Knopf; $25.95), brings him to life in all his vulgar and splendid glory. No less an astute ring observer than Nat Fleischer, founder of Ring magazine, thought Johnson to be the greatest of all time. Outside of the ring, Johnson was alternately selfish and generous, arrogant and pompous yet capable of great warmth and sincerity. Born in 1878 in the port city of Galveston, Texas, a town relatively relaxed on racial matters, Johnson grew up unaware of the restrictions he would face in the outside world. When he found out what his boundaries were supposed to be, he simply ignored them, racing automobiles down public streets, mocking and taunting white opponents and making his own deals without white managers. He flaunted his success and, most shocking of all, romanced and even married white women.

Ward demolishes the myth of Jack Johnson as a role model for black activists. His victories sparked race riots in which scores of blacks and more than a few whites were killed, but Johnson took no pains to calm the waters he had stirred. "He never seems to have been interested in collective action of any kind," Ward observes. "How could he be when he saw himself always as a unique individual apart from everyone else?" Johnson expressed no solidarity with other black Americans and even took pains to distance himself from their spokesmen.

Prominent black leaders like D.A. Hart, editor of The Nashville Globe, were as disgusted by Johnson's preoccupation with white women as most whites were. "No respectable Negro," wrote Hart, "has the least patience with him." But Johnson answered to no one and made no apologies for his choices: "I have the right to choose whom my mate shall be without the dictation of any man. ... So long as I do not interfere with any man's wife, I shall claim the right to select the woman of my own choice." Johnson, writes Ward, "was both more and less than those who loved and hated him ever knew. He embodied American individualism in its purest form; nothing—no law or custom, no person white or black, male or female—could keep him long from whatever he wanted. He was in the great American tradition of self-invented men ... and no one admired his handiwork more than he did." Johnson died as he had lived; in 1946, at age 78, he drove his high-powered Lincoln Zephyr off a curve at 70 mph, leaving both blacks and whites to ponder whether he had forced race relations ahead or set them back.

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From the November 3-9, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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