“Black Jack Johnson N.Y.C., R-O-C-K-I-N-G” – Mos Def “Ghetto Rock”
Just when you thought that you knew a thing or two about a thing or two, information has a way of reminding you that you are merely a young padawan but the force is still with you. Okay, blame that Star Wars reference on how much I loved watching Rogue One. I assumed that I knew Jack Johnson’s story. Black boxer in the early 20th Century becomes champion in a time where people of color had little to no rights. Slavery was barely over for four decades during the reign of Jack Johnson, so one could imagine how immensely difficult it was for America to take a black champion seriously.
During Winter Break, I had the chance to watch a documentary by Ken Burns titled Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson and it stuck to my ribs like grandma’s old fashioned cheese and grits. I found myself cheering while watching footage of boxing matches that happened over a hundred years ago. He like Ali, fought a plethora of opponents simultaneously. Imagine having to not only be in a war against your direct foe that’s trading blows with you inside the ring but to also battle racism, public opinion, and a government that did all that it could to fleece him of his pursuit of happiness.
The documentary detailed Johnson’s humble beginnings as well as his desire to leave his small town surroundings. He wanted to be a great pugilist and while working his way through the ranks and chance meetings with other renowned boxers, his dream was brought to fruition. Yet as hard as he fought (and won), the champions of his day refused to match up with black boxers. But eventually, after proving his worth again and again he prevailed and won the championship and that’s when the fall began to roll downhill like a boulder building speed ready for the ultimate collision. How could one’s goal, something that is sought after through much sacrifice be the loose thread that leads to an undoing? Oh and did I mention that my main man Jack had quite the appetite for white women. With Anti-Miscegenation laws locked and stocked, he quickly became a public enemy and the powers that be of that era did everything possible to ruin his life and unfortunately they succeeded. Jack had critics on both sides of the fence. There were African Americans of the time that weren’t thrilled with how Johnson “milly rocked on any block” and of course there were detractors in White America.
After watching the film, I had the thought that Jack Johnson being “our” champion was thrust upon him and maybe he didn’t want that kind of burden. He lived his life the way that he chose: money, cars, and women. Whether you like him or not, you have to respect his contribution. We all want to impact the world in some way and leave a legacy. Johnson did that. Even during his darkest periods, underneath the weary and beaten exterior, still beat the heart of man that refused to lose.