Last edited: January 23, 2005

‘Unforgivably’ Black & All-American

New York Daily News, January 17, 2005

By Stanley Crouch

In “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson,” presented tonight and tomorrow on PBS, director Ken Burns again delivers a difficult piece of American history with such assured pacing and technical command that it is a lesson in narrative eloquence.

I was proud to be a talking head in the four-hour documentary, along with my late friend Jack Newfield. For those who have come of age in these United States without knowing who Johnson was, the film will illuminate the startling, absurd facts about race relations in the first half of the 20th century.

Johnson was the first black heavyweight champion. The story of how he became champion and the way in which “the white world” reacted to him are hard to believe, though we never doubt we are being told the truth. Johnson’s story, and the casual racism attending it, seems absolutely fantastic. But, of course, any racist story if examined enough seems fantastic—because racism is based in superstition and is no more than a nightmare fairy tale imposed upon another ethnic group.

In Johnson’s era, plantation slavery had not been over for a full 50 years when he beat down a white man and took the belt. There is always the attempt to compare him to Muhammad Ali, which is a stretch. Ali was never as sophisticated or worldly as Johnson, who seems to have been one of the very first men who chose to live his life as freely as possible. Johnson was a type unlike any before him and like no one who has come since.

He was a dandy, a fan of literature, opera and fast cars, a man who felt completely himself in the night world, who lived his life as though he were a toreador taunting a ring full of bulls.

No one told him what to say, where to live, what color women he could go out with. Jack Johnson went his own way, and his manner, which was always to keep his head up, got him into deep trouble. Very quickly, he became a scandal.

He was a defensive fighter who wore a big smile on his face as he chipped away at his opponents round by round. He treated the police who harassed him in his fast cars as though they were low-level bureaucrats. He partied all night in Atlanta with a room full of white women. Johnson, as older black people used to say, was “a mess.”

Above all, Johnson was one of those boxers who made his bloody craft an art, elevating it above brute force. He would have been a remarkable man at any time and in any place, but Johnson was purely American. His story defines the greatness and the limitations of our nation. Give it a shot.

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