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Author Keith Boykin probes persistent questions of race


Boxing legend Johnson’s musings now new memoir

Stephanie Reitz

SOUTH HADLEY, Mass. — Jack Johnson, addicted to attention and craving a colorful legacy, loved to chronicle his rise from a restless Texas teen to the world’s first black heavyweight boxing champion.

Now, nearly a century after his most famous bout — the 1910 defeat of “Great White Hope” Jim Jeffries — and decades after his death, Johnson has more tales to tell.

His largely unknown 1911 musings to a French sports magazine, including candid observations on racism likely never intended for American readers, have been translated to English in their entirety for the first time. The result, “My Life and Battles,” is a 127-page book by and about the man considered by many to be one of history’s most important athletes.

“To get new material and new stories from Jack Johnson is significant not just in sports, but sociologically as a look into that whole era,” said Bert Sugar, a boxing historian and author of dozens of books on the sport.

Johnson’s 1908 championship and his 1910 defeat of Jeffries touched off race riots among downtrodden black Americans who considered him a hero and white separatist Americans who deemed him a threat.

“He really was a figure of great hatred and paranoia among many white Americans, and when he won the 1910 fight, it was considered on all sides to be a really monumental event,” said Mount Holyoke College professor Christopher Rivers, who translated and published the 1911 memoirs.

Rivers, a boxing enthusiast who teaches French, first noted references to the French articles in Geoffrey Ward’s 2004 biography, “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson.”

At Rivers’ request, Ward sent him copies of all the French language magazine articles. Rivers translated them and blended them with excerpts already used in Johnson’s 1914 “Mes Combats” (“My Fights”), of which Harvard University’s Widener Library owns the only known complete copy.

The result: Rivers was able to translate and publish the memoirs in their entirety, a rare glimpse into the life of a legend whose extravagant stories are his only descendants.

Johnson’s 1927 memoir, “Jack Johnson: In the Ring and Out,” touches lightly on racism, but only in brief and restrained language.

The 1911 magazine articles, however, assess what he called the “color line” with more frankness, likely because his audience was the more laissez-faire French public and not the tensely divided American populace.

While rarely sounding bitter, Johnson made it clear he did not appreciate being painted as a dumb, brutal animal — a slur he defiantly tossed back in the faces of his critics by indulging in the finest tailored clothes, diamonds, cars and the best possessions his large winnings could buy.

He also questioned the hypocrisy of white fighters who avoided better-skilled black fighters, suggesting they were avoiding the embarrassment of a loss by rejecting the fights under the thin cloak of “scruples.”

“A true fighter should be able to, and want to, fight with anyone with enough talent to aspire to the title,” he said in the memoir. “And that means not building a wall around himself, the gate of which is strictly forbidden to anyone likely to beat him.”

Johnson, renowned for the gusto of his storytelling, also could be counted on to boost a tale’s entertainment value or to burnish his legacy, according to sports historians and his biographers.

“There’s always that caution that Jack Johnson is constantly reinventing himself on the fly, changing stories in midstream, and he knew he could tell different stories to different audiences,” Sugar said. “He was really one to put his finger in the pot and stir.”

Yet for all of Johnson’s amusing tales inside and outside the ring, the reality of his life after the 1911 magazine memoirs was darker.

In 1913, he was convicted under the federal Mann Act of transporting a white woman across state lines for immoral purposes. That woman, Lucille Cameron, would later become his wife. He fled while his case was on appeal and spent seven years in exile in Canada, France, Great Britain and elsewhere in Europe.

He returned to the United States in 1920, a few years after losing a questionable title bout in Havana, Cuba, against Jess Willard. Johnson at various times asserted, then denied, that he had thrown the match.

Once back on American soil, Johnson was arrested to serve eight months in prison for the 1913 immorality conviction.

Many supporters and boxing historians peg the charge as trumped-up punishment for his flouting of racial norms, notably his relationships with white women, including Cameron and his previous wife, Etta Duryea, who committed suicide.

Various presidents have been petitioned over the decades to pardon Johnson posthumously, but none has.

Johnson returned to the ring sporadically after his release from prison, but with limited success. He also owned a nightclub, tried acting and later got a job spinning tales and demonstrating jabs in an amusement arcade.

Johnson died June 10, 1946, at age 68 in a crash in Raleigh, N.C. News accounts at the time said he’d just sped away in his Lincoln Zephyr from a local restaurant, enraged that they refused to serve him unless he sat in the back.

Sugar, who was a young boy when he saw Johnson in his storytelling gig at Hubert’s Museum and Flea Circus in New York’s Times Square, said the newly published memoirs could introduce Johnson to a new generation and cement the legacy the boxer wanted so much to build.

“We owe a debt to understand Jack Johnson and what he stood for, what he came up against in that time and that place,” Sugar said. “He’s a seminal figure in many ways and his life really does transcend just boxing.”

(Associated Press)