The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson
By Geoffrey C. Ward
(Knopf, Hardcover, 9780375415326, 512pp.)
Publication Date: October 26, 2004
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He was the first black heavyweight champion in history, the most celebrated–and most reviled–African American of his age. In Unforgivable Blackness, the prizewinning biographer Geoffrey C. Ward brings to vivid life the real Jack Johnson, a figure far more complex and compelling than the newspaper headlines he inspired could ever convey. Johnson battled his way from obscurity to the top of the heavyweight ranks and in 1908 won the greatest prize in American sports–one that had always been the private preserve of white boxers. At a time when whites ran everything in America, he took orders from no one and resolved to live as if color did not exist. While most blacks struggled just to survive, he reveled in his riches and his fame. And at a time when the mere suspicion that a black man had flirted with a white woman could cost him his life, he insisted on sleeping with whomever he pleased, and married three. Because he did so the federal government set out to destroy him, and he was forced to endure a year of prison and seven years of exile. Ward points out that to most whites (and to some African Americans as well) he was seen as a perpetual threat–profligate, arrogant, amoral, a dark menace, and a danger to the natural order of things.
Unforgivable Blackness is the first full-scale biography of Johnson in more than twenty years. Accompanied by more than fifty photographs and drawing on a wealth of new material–including Johnson’s never-before-published prison memoir–it restores Jack Johnson to his rightful place in the pantheon of American individualists.
Geoffrey C. Ward won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1989. With Ken Burns, he is coauthor of The Civil War and Jazz. He lives in New York City.
"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