Monday, December 27, 2004

Unforgivable Blackness

I've been fortunate to read some outstanding books lately, and I just finished another one that was a remarkable read. Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson is a brilliant, memorable biography of the first black boxer to win the heavyweight championship. Johnson's life was amazing, and even a bare recounting would be interesting, but Geoffrey Ward has done a masterful job of recounting the details of his life and the world he lived in.

There were two things that were stunning to me as I read the book. The first was the absolutely astonishing degree of racism in the United States at that time. Johnson's prime was around 1910-1915, and it is nothing short of incredible to read the excerpts from newspapers and magazines around the country. It's frightening, really. Ward does an outstanding job of letting the actual words and language of the era tell their own story, and that story is sad and ugly beyond all conception.

The second stunning moment was when I saw some of the photographs of Johnson. In his prime, he only weighed a little over two hundred pounds, but in a time when there was no scientific knowledge about weightlifting methods or nutrition, Johnson was absolutely ripped. His physique looked like it had been carved out of granite. Nearly a century later, his body would not look out of place in the world of professional sports, and I don't know of anyone else in that category.

Johnson led an amazing and incredibly controversial life. He makes Muhammad Ali look conservative, if that gives you any idea. Great subject, great author, great book.

This is a companion volume to a Ken Burns documentary that will be showing sometime in January, and I assume it will be just as brilliant as the book.

Site Meter