PW: You mention in the acknowledgments to Unforgivable Blackness that a big push to write this book came from your frequent collaborator, Ken Burns.
Geoffrey C. Ward: We've worked together for 20 years, and he tends to interest himself in very interesting topics. In this case, I wrote the script [for the PBS documentary] first and then went on from there to immerse myself fully in Jack Johnson's life and times. I got to do a more scholarly book than the others that have been inspired by the films. I'm very fond of all those books, but this one has footnotes and apparatus and so on. It's an attempt at a real scholarly biography.
How did the way Johnson wrote about himself influence your handling of other people's descriptions of him?
I got fascinated trying to find out what Jack Johnson's real voice was. If you read the newspapers of the time, white newspapermen have him speaking in an Uncle Remus dialect nobody I know of ever spoke in. Two things made me decide to remove the dialect. I heard several recordings of Johnson from his vaudeville career, and his voice is nothing like Uncle Remus. It's a declamatory theatrical voice that has hints of being born in Texas, but just hints. Then there were the prison memoirs, which he wrote when he was in Leavenworth in 1920 and 1921 and have simply sat in his prison files until I was lucky enough to see them. They are absolutely in his own voice. The spelling may be off sometimes, and the grammar isn't always perfect, but it's vivid and clear—he wasn't struggling with the language at all.
The visceral pervasiveness of the racism Johnson faced as depicted in your book is astonishing for modern readers.
I've been writing American history and biography for something like 35, 40 years, and I had thought I understood at least something of what it was like to be a black man in America at the turn of the 20th century. But until I steeped myself in this material, I really had no sense of how awful it was... and this guy emerged out of that world and never gave it a thought. He was simply going to be the best boxer in the world. It's almost irrational; it's hard to imagine how anyone could overcome that to become what he became. It was just his skill, his guts and his determination that made him heavyweight champion.
The racism extended to the sports columns, too.
The language, the derogatory names used not just in opinion pieces but news stories, is unbelievable, but clearly absolutely routine. Even cartoonists, who would try to get a good caricature of Johnson's opponents, would draw him with big lips and big round eyes, a stock minstrel figure against a more realistic portrait. It's very strange and disheartening to see.
You've seen films of Johnson's fights, which is more than many people then did.
Yes, the sight of him beating white fighters was so repellent to the white public when he was champion that a law was actually passed to keep all boxing films from crossing state lines.
How do you think Johnson compares to other great heavyweights?
It's awfully hard to do that. Styles change, people have gotten bigger, and so on, but Nat Fleischer, the first real boxing historian... said Johnson was the greatest he ever saw. He was the master counterpuncher. He waited for his opponent to make a mistake, and people almost always did.