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In a London bookshop on Monday, Geoffrey Ward pocketed the William Hill award for sports book of the year. The grey-bearded American won for his biography of the black boxer Jack Johnson. Unforgivable Blackness illuminates an American era but probably doesn’t deserve the prize.

Johnson was born the son of former slaves in the port town of Galveston, Texas, in 1878. His birthplace may explain why he always seemed a visitor from another era. In Galveston then, unusually for the US, blacks and whites socialised together. Johnson grew up playing with white boys and never thereafter “kept to his own”. He said he tried to avoid racial prejudice by acting “with people of other races as if prejudice did not exist”. But society would punish his taste for white “wives”.

In Johnson’s day, boxers were America’s sporting heroes. Being heavyweight champion of the world, explained one writer, was like being “Emperor of Masculinity”. Blacks weren’t meant to apply. White champions routinely “drew the colour line”, refusing to fight blacks, a handy form of self-protection. Black boxers were often reduced to spectacles called a “battle royal”. Several of them would be gloved, blindfolded and made to batter each other while whites guffawed. The young Johnson won so many battles royal in Memphis that eventually nobody was willing to fight him.

Johnson was a gifted storyteller and Ward cannot always know which stories are true. What’s certain is that Johnson was an extrovert and a born entertainer. He performed in vaudeville but also in the ring, where he joked with opponents and ringside reporters. In many ways he foreshadowed Muhammad Ali. Longing for celebrity, never content just to be “coloured world champion”, he wanted the real title.

He spent years chasing the white champion Tommy Burns around the world while Burns refused to fight him. When they did meet, Johnson won. Then the legendary Jim Jeffries came out of retirement to defend white honour. The magazine Collier’s tipped Jeffries to win, since being white he could call on “30 centuries of traditions . . . Bunker Hill and Thermopylae and Hastings and Agincourt.”

Johnson beat Jeffries in Reno in 1910, provoking many American whites to violence. The race riots would remain unmatched until after Martin Luther King’s murder. On Canal Street in New Orleans, the 10-year-old paperboy Louis Armstrong was advised to run for his life: “Jack Johnson has knocked out Jim Jeffries. The white boys are sore about it.” Between 11 and 26 people were killed nationwide and hundreds more hurt, almost all black.

Many whites feared Johnson’s title would inspire black rebellion. “The coloured races outnumber the whites and have hitherto only been kept in subjection by a recognition on their part of physical and mental inferiority,” warned the British magazine Boxing.

As champion, Johnson spent fortunes on wine, clothes and cars. He was constantly being arrested for driving offences. But what outraged contemporaries was his love life. While interracial marriage was banned in 30 states and blacks were sometimes lynched for familiarity with white women, Johnson often travelled with multiple white “wives” simultaneously.

In 1912, his legal white wife Etta, ostracised by her parents, killed herself. Three weeks later Johnson strolled into his Café de Champion in Chicago with the blonde teenager Lucille Cameron. The government accused him of leading Lucille into “white slavery”. This was nonsense – Johnson and Lucille were later married for years – but the government investigated Johnson’s life and eventually got him for having transported a prostitute across state borders years before.

The prostitute had been his longstanding girlfriend and Johnson wasn’t her pimp but society’s aim was simply to punish him for his white conquests. Cole Blease, North Carolina’s governor, recommended lynching.
The judge merely sentenced Johnson
to a year in prison, noting: “The defendant is one of the best known
men of his race . . . and the court is bound to consider the position he occupied among his people.”

Johnson fled to Canada and spent seven years travelling the world. The outbreak of the first world war caught him in St Petersburg, Russia, drinking in a glass-roofed amusement park belonging to a black American associate. In 1920, Johnson returned home and went to jail. This was a
fairly cushy experience and while in prison he wrote a memoir, which Ward has unearthed.

Johnson died in 1946 aged 68, possibly killed by an insult. Made to eat “in the back” at a segregated diner in North Carolina, he drove off angry and sped into a telephone pole

Ward is a most professional narrator and has done years of research. But the book plods and the tale is too familiar: poor black fighter rises, meets prejudice and ends badly. David Margolick told the same story about Joe Louis, David Remnick about Muhammad Ali and thousands of journalists about Mike Tyson. “The old, old story,” Milwaukee’s Free Press called it as early as 1909. “Pugilistic champions by the score have gone the same route that Johnson is travelling.” No wonder, because boxers by definition aren’t planning a secure old age.

When Howard Sackler’s play The Great White Hope, inspired by Johnson’s life, opened on Broadway in 1968, Ali was a frequent spectator. “You take out the issue of the white women,” he reportedly said, “and replace that with the issue of religion. That’s my story.”

That story may soon die out. Boxing outlasted most other medieval games but suffered as definitions of masculinity changed and team games conquered. Now boxing is a nostalgia industry inhabiting a pre-1975 past. Ward’s book is a characteristic artefact.

‘Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson’ (Knopf)

simonkuper-ft@hotmail.com

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