"Unforgivable Blackness is likely to be the definitive biography of Jack Johnson . . . A significant achievement. Geoffrey Ward provides an utterly convincing and frequently heartrending portrait of Jack Johnson." Joyce Carol Oates, The New York Review of Books
"A formidable accomplishment . . . Ward has successfully brought this deep and colorful personality, this insufficiently understood and altogether amazing man, back to life." David Margolick, The New York Times Book Review
"Brings [Johnson] to life in all his vulgar, splendid glory. Engrossing and definitive, Unforgivable Blackness is a great biography of a great and utterly fascinating subject." Allen Barra, The Philadelphia Inquirer
"An engaging and well-researched popular biography . . . Throughout the book, Johnson's energy never flags, and neither does our interest. [Ward] has drawn a portrait of a fascinating figure, whose oversized personality fills every page." Bruce Schoenfeld, Washington Post Book World
“This remarkable book is at one and the same time a rousing story, a terrific biography, and first-rate history. With immense skill, Geoffrey Ward has not only brought Jack Johnson back to life but has provided a telling window onto what it was like to be a great black athlete in early-twentieth-century America.” —Doris Kearns Goodwin
“Geoffrey Ward’s Unforgivable Blackness is a stunning exploration in the unbelievable bigotry of whites in early-twentieth-century America.” —David Levering Lewis, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of the two-volume biography of W. E. B. Du Bois
Jack Johnson (1878-1946) was not only the first black world heavyweight boxing champion; according to many sports historians, he was the greatest heavyweight of all time. Those credentials alone would spur interest in Geoffrey C. Ward's Unforgivable Blackness, the first biography of Johnson in 15 years. But this is not your average biography of a sports hero, nor is Ward your average sports biographer. This National Book Critics Circle Award winner is the coauthor of several Ken Burns PBS documentaries. Unforgivable Blackness recounts the life and times of the Galveston scrapper with unprecedented historical detail; instead of a motley scrapbook of fight reports, we are offered a ringside view of a proud black man fighting for survival in Jim Crow America. Ward utilizes previously unpublished original material, including the manuscript diary that Johnson kept while serving his Mann Act sentence in Leavenworth Prison.
Ward, a frequent collaborator of documentary filmmaker and author Ken Burns, has written an engaging and well-researched popular biography, long on expository footnotes and short on perspective. But if his Jack Johnson behaves like a cartoon character, it's because Johnson was a cartoon character. He'd stride from place to place in his dandified attire, drive rapidly and dangerously (an auto enthusiast, by 1909 he owned five of the nation's fewer than half a million cars, and he once explained to a traffic judge that his constant speeding was an advertisement for himself and his lifestyle), drop off one attractive woman at the apartment he kept for her, then race off to collect another. Throughout the book, Johnson's energy never flags, and neither does our interest.
The Washington Post
Johnson (1878-1946), boxing's first black heavyweight champion, was a lightning rod for controversy in early 20th-century America. Even many of his fellow African-Americans resented his unapologetic dominance of the ring and steady succession of white girlfriends and wives, viewing his behavior as a setback to race relations. Ward (A First-Class Temperament) depicts the fear and resentment Johnson spurred in white Americans in voluminous detail that may startle modern readers in its frankness. Contemporary journalists regularly referred to Johnson as a "nigger" and openly advocated his pummeling at white hands, though ample quotations from supporters in the Negro press balance the perspective. Ward first documents the obstacles the boxing world threw in Johnson's path (including prolonged refusals by top white boxers to fight against him), and then probes the government's prosecution of the champ under the Mann Act (which banned the interstate transport of females for "immoral purposes") for taking his girlfriends across state lines. Ward brings his award-winning biographical skills to this sympathetic portrayal, which practically bursts with his research-at times almost every page has its own footnote. Though the narrative drags slightly in Johnson's declining years, the champion's stubborn, uncompromising personality never lets up. Even readers who don't consider this a knockout will concede Ward a victory on points. Photos. Agent, Carl Brandt. (Nov. 1) Forecast: An accompanying documentary directed by Ward's frequent collaborator, Ken Burns, airing on PBS in January 2005 will boost sales. 60,000 first printing. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Many viewed Jack Johnson (1878-1946), boxing's first black heavyweight world champion (1908-15), as a bad man. Ward, the prize-winning FDR biographer and screenwriter with Ken Burns of The Civil War, Baseball, and Jazz, works to explain the way blacks and whites saw Johnson and the way Johnson saw himself. Laying out both the American social context and Johnson's self-concept, Ward insists that what enraged so many about Johnson was his uncompromising individuality in insisting on being his own man. He fought in and out of the ring against being trapped by color and race. In the ring, he won; outside, he lost. His bravado, especially with white women-three of whom he married-embittered many blacks and angered many whites. Ward's detailed narrative chronicles Johnson as champion, fugitive from justice, federal convict, and pitch man who succumbed too often to his own bluster. The story line conjures images of two more recent boxing champions, the youthful Muhammed Ali shouting his greatness while fending off federal prison and the mature George Foreman selling everything and anything as a consummate showman. Ward draws on Johnson's 1927 autobiography, previous biographies by Finis Farr, Al-Tony Gilmore, and Randy Roberts, and many unpublished sources. In an era of much discussion of celebrity athletes and the social impact and imagery of sports, Ward's work is well suited for collections on American society, sports, or race relations. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 6/1/04; in mid-January, PBS will air Ken Burns's documentary of the same name, for which Ward wrote the screenplay.-Ed.]-Thomas J. Davis, Arizona State Univ., Tempe Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
A Muhammad Ali for his time rises and falls in this vigorous history by Ken Burns collaborator Ward (Not for Ourselves Alone, 1999, etc.). Born Arthur John Johnson in Galveston in 1878, Jack Johnson "was an inexhaustible tender of his own legend, a teller of tall tales in the frontier tradition of his native state." He remembered his father, for instance, as "the most perfect physical specimen I have ever seen," even though the man was only five and a half feet tall and was disabled by a bad leg earned in the Civil War. Years later, he would allow a legend to surround him that he single-handedly captured a U-boat on the high seas, "subdued the Austrian captain and blew up the submarine and was rescued after drifting three days." Johnson himself, Ward writes, was magnificent, handsome, and picture-perfect, and he attracted women of all races as he traveled from city to city and continent to continent, taking on all contenders in prize matches. Indeed, he wrote, "I have found no better way of avoiding race prejudice than to act with people of other races as if prejudice did not exist." It did, of course, in those days of Jim Crow, and Jack Johnson was derided by the press and eventually investigated by the fledgling FBI on charges of having engaged in white slavery. He was, Ward writes, "a master of timing in the ring. . . . Outside the ropes, that mastery often deserted him." Johnson eventually fled the charges and lived in exile in Paris and elsewhere abroad, evidently regarding WWI as a personal affront but taking pride in the fact that the French artillery had named a big cannon after him for the punch it packed and the black smoke it raised. On returning to the US, Johnson spent onlynine months in federal prison and was released for good behavior, but his magic was broken. A sturdy and surprising work: good reading for fans of boxing and American history alike. First printing of 60,000. Agency: Brandt & Hochman