cover image UNFORGIVABLE BLACKNESS: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson

UNFORGIVABLE BLACKNESS: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson

Geoffrey C. Ward, . . Knopf, $25.95 (512pp) ISBN 978-0-375-41532-6

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.