Jack Johnson was one of the most significant Americans of his time, brazenly erasing racial and sexual codes, triumphing in the ring when white boxing fans craved nothing more than a “Great White Hope,” and inspiring frantic legislative action (banning fight films, the White Slave Act) to make him less, well, free. That’s what it takes to get Congress to move swiftly.
I write about Johnson and about the two significant documentary films made about him, scored by Miles Davis and Wynton Marsalis, in a new volume edited by Gerald Early, The Cambridge Companion to Boxing. In my “Yesternow: Jack Johnson, Documentary Film, and the Politics of Jazz,” I describe how these two trumpeters and fight fans sparred with each other over the meaning of the blues, and their interpretations of Johnson reveal how complex a figure the great heavyweight champion was and is. I’m in great company with writers I admire like Early (Tuxedo Junction: Essays on American Culture and many others), including Lewis Erenberg on Muhammad Ali in the early 1970s and Shelley Fisher Fishkin on sports writer Ralph Wiley. There are essays on the big names you would expect (Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson) but also examinations of women in boxing, Jews in boxing, and on the way the sport has been written about in its time and over time. And much more.
Gerald Early, well known to PBS viewers as a frequent collaborator with Ken Burns recently appeared on public radio in St. Louis to talk about his love of sports and the new boxing volume.