Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Jack Johnson and Racism

Last week, I had my students in my Gilded Age/Progressive Era course read Geoffrey C. Ward's Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson. Some readers have likely read the book (which I recommend highly). More may have seen the PBS series based upon it.

I have studied American history for a very long time now. I knew what to expect from early 20th century racist writers. And even I was amazed and shocked by the horrible stuff people wrote about Johnson.

I'll quote a few. It's not for your "pleasure" exactly. For your edification maybe. And a little shock value never hurts either. Anyway:

First, I found it amazing that whites cared so much about the heavyweight championship. The connections between boxing and white masculinity in this period would be amusing if they weren't so bloody disturbing.

From the Detroit Free Press:

"Is the Caucasian played out? Are the races we have been calling inferior about to demand of us that we draw the color line in everything if we are to avoid being whipped individually and collectively?" (130).

Boxer Jim Corbett agreed, blaming Tommy Burns for losing to Johnson:

"The white man has succumbed to a type which in the past was conceded to be his inferior in physical and mental prowess." (132)

Johnson eventually lost his title to Jess Willard in a match set in Havana. Herbert Bayard Swope wrote in the Chicago Tribune.

"Never in the history of the ring was there such a wild, hysterical, shrieking, enthusiastic crowd [as] the 20,000 men and women who begged Willard to wipe out the stigma that they and hundreds of thousands of others, especially in the south, believe rested on the white race through the negro holding the championship. Nowhere was the feeling stronger than in Cuba, whose race hatred is near the surface, although the negro is ostensibly received on a parity with the white." (377).

And then this lovely bit from the New York Times:

"Even those who have an absurdly exaggerated horror of prize fighting as a 'brutal' sport should gently warm in their sensitive minds a little hope that the white man may not lose, while the rest of us will wait in open anxiety the news that he [Jim Jeffries] has licked the--well, since it must be in print, let us say the negro, even though it is not the first word that comes to the tongue's tip." (165).


But not quite as subtle as this line from the Baltimore American expressing surprise of Johnson's relaxed nature before a fight.

"To all appearances, the black man is as happy and carefree as a plantation darky in Watermelon time." (197).

I could go on, but it's making me too depressed.