Synopses & Reviews
He was the first black heavyweight champion in history, the most celebrated and most reviled African American of his age. In Unforgivable Blackness
, the prizewinning biographer Geoffrey C. Ward brings to vivid life the real Jack Johnson, a figure far more complex and compelling than the newspaper headlines he inspired could ever convey. Johnson battled his way from obscurity to the top of the heavyweight ranks and in 1908 won the greatest prize in American sports one that had always been the private preserve of white boxers. At a time when whites ran everything in America, he took orders from no one and resolved to live as if color did not exist. While most blacks struggled just to survive, he reveled in his riches and his fame. And at a time when the mere suspicion that a black man had flirted with a white woman could cost him his life, he insisted on sleeping with whomever he pleased, and married three. Because he did so the federal government set out to destroy him, and he was forced to endure a year of prison and seven years of exile. Ward points out that to most whites (and to some African Americans as well) he was seen as a perpetual threat profligate, arrogant, amoral, a dark menace, and a danger to the natural order of things.
Unforgivable Blackness is the first full-scale biography of Johnson in more than twenty years. Accompanied by more than fifty photographs and drawing on a wealth of new material including Johnson's never-before-published prison memoir it restores Jack Johnson to his rightful place in the pantheon of American individualists.
"Johnson (18781946), boxing's first black heavyweight champion, was a lightning rod for controversy in early 20th-century America. Even many of his fellow African-Americans resented his unapologetic dominance of the ring and steady succession of white girlfriends and wives, viewing his behavior as a setback to race relations. Ward (A First-Class Temperament) depicts the fear and resentment Johnson spurred in white Americans in voluminous detail that may startle modern readers in its frankness. Contemporary journalists regularly referred to Johnson as a 'nigger' and openly advocated his pummeling at white hands, though ample quotations from supporters in the Negro press balance the perspective. Ward first documents the obstacles the boxing world threw in Johnson's path (including prolonged refusals by top white boxers to fight against him), and then probes the government's prosecution of the champ under the Mann Act (which banned the interstate transport of females for 'immoral purposes') for taking his girlfriends across state lines. Ward brings his award-winning biographical skills to this sympathetic portrayal, which practically bursts with his research at times almost every page has its own footnote. Though the narrative drags slightly in Johnson's declining years, the champion's stubborn, uncompromising personality never lets up. Even readers who don't consider this a knockout will concede Ward a victory on points. Photos. Agent, Carl Brandt. (Nov. 1) Forecast: An accompanying documentary directed by Ward's frequent collaborator, Ken Burns, airing on PBS in January 2005 will boost sales. 60,000 first printing." Publishers Weekly (Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"A Muhammad Ali for his time rises and falls in this vigorous history....A sturdy and surprising work: good reading for fans of boxing and American history alike." Kirkus Reviews
"Throughout the book, Johnson's energy never flags, and neither does our interest." The Washington Post
Author of A First-Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Los Angeles Times Prize for biography, and the Francis Parkman Prize from the Society of American Historians; and, with Ken Burns, author of The Civil War, Baseball, and Jazz Geoffrey C. Ward now brings his biographer's skill and grasp of American history to the most admired, and most reviled, African American of his era, heavyweight champion Jack Johnson. This full-scale biography which draws on a wealth of contemporaneous documents, including Johnson's never-before-published prison memoir restores to vivid life the real Jack Johnson, who was both more and less than those who loved or those who hated him ever knew.
The award-winning author brings his biographer's skill and grasp of American history to the most admired, and most reviled, African American of his era, heavyweight champion Jack Johnson. Unforgivable Blackness draws on a wealth of contemporaneous documents, including Johnson's never-before-published prison memoir.
The powerful story of boxing legend Floyd Patterson, civil rights activist, national icon, and the youngest man to win the World Heavyweight Champion title, and the first to ever win the title twice, from critically acclaimed author W.K. Stratton.
"A well-researched and overdue tribute. Like one of Patterson's reliable left hooks, Stratton sharply recounts the life of an important, but often forgotten, two-time world heavyweight champion." and#8212; Gary Andrew Poole, author of PacMan: Behind the Scenes with Manny Pacquiao
In 1956, Floyd Patterson became, at age twenty-one, the youngest boxer to claim the title of world heavyweight champion. Later, he was the first ever to lose and regain that honor.
Here, the acclaimed author W. K. Stratton chronicles the life of "the Gentle Gladiator" and#8212; an athlete overshadowed by Ali's theatrics and Liston's fearsome reputation, and a civil rights activist overlooked in the Who's Who of race politics. From the Gramercy Gym and wildcard manager Cus Dand#8217;Amato to the final rematch against Ali in 1972, Patterson's career spanned boxing's golden age. He won an Olympic gold medal, had bouts with Moore and Johansson, and was interviewed by James Baldwin, Gay Talese, and Budd Schulberg. A complex, misunderstood figure and#8212; he once kissed an opponent at the end of a match and#8212; he was known for his peekaboo stance and soft-spoken nature.
Floyd Patterson was boxingand#8217;s invisible champion, but in this deeply researched and beautifully written biography he comes vividly to life and is finally given his due and#8212; as one of the most artful boxers of his time and as one of our great sportsmen, a man who shaped the world in and out of the ring.
About the Author
Geoffrey C. Ward won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1989. With Ken Burns, he is coauthor of The Civil War and Jazz. He lives in New York City.
Table of Contents
Prologue: Nothing Short of Miraculousand#8195;xi
.and#8194;I Donand#8217;t Like That Boy!and#8195;1
.and#8194;Taken Up with Boxingand#8195;13
.and#8194;Floyd Patterson Is Out of This Worldand#8195;26
.and#8194;Cus Answers the Questionsand#8195;34
.and#8194;Do I Have to Fight Floyd?and#8195;53
.and#8194;Youngest King of the Mountainand#8195;64
.and#8194;A Black Champion in Americaand#8195;73
.and#8194;Lightning and Toonderand#8195;94
.and#8194;Not the Time to Quitand#8195;106
.and#8194;Standing at the Peakand#8195;126
.and#8194;Confronting a Certain Weaknessand#8195;157
.and#8194;A Title for Americaand#8195;167
.and#8194;A Boxing Manand#8195;189
Acknowledgments and Sourcesand#8195;219
Floyd Patterson Boxing Recordand#8195;245
Q:Could you tell us where the title, Unforgivable Blackness, comes from?
A:It’s from a 1914 editorial by W. E.B. Du Bois in which he tried to account for the vicious hostility directed toward the heavyweight champion by so many white people. Johnson was a fair, sportsmanlike fighter, he said, and his morals were no worse than those of celebrated white athletes. The only reason he could find for what he called “this thrill of national disgust’ was Johnson’s race. “It comes down then, after all,” he wrote, “to this unforgivable blackness.”
Q:Jack Johnson might have avoided much of the trouble he found himself in if he had not fraternized with or married white women. Why do you think he refused to do that?
A:Jack Johnson recognized no limits imposed by others. He embodied American individualism in its purest form; nothing – no law or custom, no person black or white, male or female – could keep him from doing what he wanted to do. “I have found no better way of avoiding race prejudice,” he once said, “than to act with people of other races as if
prejudice did to exist.”
Q:What about Johnson’s life fascinated you the most?
A:I wanted to understand how a black man with only a fifth grade education, born to former slaves in post-Reconstruction Texas and growing to manhood in a white-run world in which black inferiority was taught in schools, preached from pulpits, reiterated on editorial and sports pages, could have determined to ignore it all – and managed to get away with it, a least for a time. No one can ever fully explain it: like Lincoln and Edison and Louis Armstrong, Johnson was wholly self-invented. But Unforgivable Blackness does include a wealth of detail about his rise that has appeared nowhere else and shows how extraordinary Johnson was.
Q:In 1908, Jack Johnson became the first African-American to win the heavyweight championship and one of the most controversial figures of his time. Yet, many outside of boxing circles have never heard of him. Why do you think that is?
A:Sadly, Americans have short historical memories. I think also that the racism that permeates Jack Johnson’s story remains an embarrassment to us – at least it should be an embarrassment. But I hope people who read the book will get a greater understanding both of this flawed but amazing man and of the complex country which mistreated him but also made it possible for him to use his gifts and grit to make himself the most celebrated black man on earth.
Q:Some black people, including Booker T. Washington, were almost as critical of Johnson as whites were. What were his feelings about this? Did he ever feel betrayed?
A:Johnson was a realist. He delighted in being a hero to millions of African Americans, but he never wanted to be a racial role model or a civil rights spokesman. At the height of his popularity among blacks –after he defeated Jim Jeffries, the Great White Hope, at Reno in 1910 – he said he hoped they would stick by him but feared that like the French who had turned against his hero, Napoleon Bonaparte, they would desert him when times got lean. He did resent the preachers and politicos who tried to tell him how to live his life.
Q: Patronizing white sportswriters routinely stereotyped Johnson as ignorant as well as “uppity.” It’s clear from your book that he was nothing of the kind.
A:Johnson was enormously intelligent and intellectually curious. He held three patents, played the bass viol and never went anywhere without his Victrola and stack of classical records. He studied the life of Napoleon (with whose rise to power from total obscurity he identified), and wrote – or helped to write – four autobiographies. He was also so skilled at negotiating for his own fights (something few fighters, black or white, have ever been equipped to do) that prominent white managers shrank from facing him over the bargaining table.
Q:You are presently part of a committee working to have Jack Johnson exonerated. If you are successful, he will be the second man to have been pardoned post-humously. What would you say are the strongest arguments for this happening?
A:I drew extensively on Johnson’s Justice Department files to show that his conviction for violating the Mann Act in 1913 was racially motivated -- and that his own efforts to obtain a pardon were crushed by government bureaucrats who knowingly made further false allegations against him. That sort of injustice, it seems to me, should not be allowed to stand.
Q:You also wrote a documentary of the same name which will air on PBS next year. How did that process differ from that of writing the book?
A:I love writing documentaries. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have worked on so many of them over the past twenty years. But for me there is nothing quite like making the sort of historical discoveries you can only experience when digging deep into biographical materials for a full-scale book, nothing to compare with making one’s way down corridors where no one else’s footsteps have sounded before. Writing Unforgivable Blackness provided me with plenty of that kind of excitement, especially when I began to work my way through the never-before-consulted autobiographical manuscript found among his prison papers at Leavenworth. I had no idea when I began this book that Johnson would be such an eloquent spokesman for himself.