Jack Johnson And Black Manhood Before Malcolm X And Muhammad AliBoxing, The Fam — By Fight Like Sugar on April 24, 2013 at 3:00 am
“Boxing is a celebration of the lost religion of masculinity all the more trenchant for its being lost.” – Joyce Oates
The 1960s are often looked upon as the decade of free love, the era of civil rights and the British musical invasion. But to many African Americans, the decade stands out more than any other as the harbinger of modern black manhood. No two men defined that manhood more than Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. But this week, as the Senate voted to urge President Obama to issue a pardon to Jack Johnson, we must pay homage to a fighter who loudly proclaimed a view of black manhood half a century ahead of his time.
Much has been written and said about Jack Johnson, probably none more fair and complete than Ken Burns’ documentary “Unforgivable Blackness.” As boxing fans, we must recognize and celebrate Johnson as the first black man to become heavyweight champion of the world. As men, we must recognize the courage, risk and price Johnson paid for the opportunity to carry the title with a bravado that might have shocked Ali, and a quick wit that may have even impressed Malcolm.
Johnson held the belt from 1908 to 1915, and along the way fought the “Fight of the Century,” trouncing former heavyweight champion and the “great white hope,” Jim Jeffries. In a time when Johnson was demolishing the myth of white superiority one bout at a time, the bitter realities of black-skinned people in the United States were filled with Jim Crow, anti-miscegenation laws, voting restrictions, lynchings and countless other dehumanizing oppressions.
Despite Johnson’s boxing prowess, he may have never become an icon had it not been for how he chose to carry his heavyweight title. Johnson once said, “I have found no better way of avoiding race prejudice than to act with people of other races as if prejudice did not exist” — a truly shocking statement to believe in and even more to practice in the early 1900s.
Outside the ring, Johnson broke the mold; he wouldn’t play the quiet, humble victor, as a “good black” should. Perhaps it was this attitude that made it seem so easy for Johnson to live the life of a “sport.” A “sport” in the early 1900s was a man in the know, the type of gentleman who wooed women but still enjoyed houses of prostitution, the kind of man who took great pride in his dress, his walk and even the way in which he drank. Johnson’s life as the heavyweight champion of the world epitomized a “sport.” His enthusiasm for exotic cars was well-documented, almost as much as his finely tailored suits and unique hats, which often landed him on the covers of newspapers. It seems as if images of Johnson dressed in the finest garb of his day were printed as much in admiration of the enviable life he lived as for the shock value of having Johnson’s black face and gold-toothed smile showing behind the clothes most whites could not afford.
Maybe what most angered a large section of white boxing enthusiasts was that Johnson broke the mold inside the ring as well. Inside the ring, he wasn’t the brute that his imposing physical stature might suggest. Instead, Johnson boxed with a level of elegance that marveled onlookers. Celebrated prohibition-era short fiction writer and newspaperman Damon Runyon went as far as to say, “No greater defensive fighter than Jack Johnson ever lived.”
In short, Johnson was a man of contrasts. Whatever the norm was, inside or outside the ring, Johnson refused to be encapsulated by it. And no norm did Johnson despise and denounce more loudly than the dividing line between black men and white women.