‘The Man with the Golden Smile’

Joyce Carol Oates – The New York Review of Books

“God, it would be good to be a fake somebody rather than a real nobody.”
—Mike Tyson, quoted in The New York Times, May 21, 2002
It was a scandalous and historic American spectacle, yet it took place in Sydney, Australia. It might have been a silent film comedy, for its principal actors were a wily black Trickster and a blustering white racist hero: heavyweight contender Jack Johnson vs. heavyweight champion Tommy Burns for the world title in December 1908. Though the arena in which the boxers fought reverberated with cries of “coon”—”flash nigger”—”the hatred of twenty thousand whites for all the negroes in the world,” as the Sydney Bulletin reported, yet the match would prove to be a dazzling display of the “scientific” boxing skills of the thirty-year-old Johnson, as agile on his feet and as rapid with his gloves as any lightweight.
The setting for this historic encounter was Australia and not North America, because the long-shunned Negro contender had had to literally pursue the white champion to the ends of the earth —to England, Ireland, France, and at last Australia—in order to shame him into defending his title. The bloody outcome of the fight, Johnson’s victory over Burns in the fourteenth round, the first time in history that a Negro defeated a white man for the heavyweight title, was an astonishment in sports circles and seems to have provoked racial hysteria on several continents. Immediately, it was interpreted in apocalyptic terms:
Is the Caucasian played out? Are the races we have been calling inferior about to demand to us that we must draw the color line in everything if we are to avoid being whipped individually and collectively?
—Detroit Free Press,January 1, 1909
If, as John L. Sullivan famously declared, the heavyweight champion is “the man who can lick any son of a bitch in the world,” what did the ascendancy of the handsome and stylish “flash nigger” Jack Johnson portend for the white race? Jack London, at that time the most celebrated of American novelists and an ostensibly passionate socialist, covered the fight for the New York Herald in the most sensational race-baiting terms, as Geoffrey C. Ward notes in this powerful new biography of Johnson, transforming a sporting event into a “one-sided racial drubbing that cried out for revenge”:
It had not been a boxing match but an “Armenian massacre”…a “hopeless slaughter” in which a playful “giant Ethiopian” had toyed with Burns as if he’d been a “naughty child.” It had matched “thunderbolt blows” against “butterfly flutterings.” London was disturbed not so much by the new champion’s victory—”All hail to Johnson,” he wrote; he had undeniably been “the best man”—as by the evident glee with which he had imposed his will upon the hapless white man: “A golden smile tells the story, and that golden smile was Johnson’s.”
Summing up the collective anxiety of his race, the poet Henry Lawson gloomily prophesied:
It was not Burns that was beaten —for a nigger has smacked your face.
Take heed—I am tired of writing—but O my people take heed.
For the time may be near for the mating of the Black and the White to Breed.
As if to fan the flames of Caucasian sexual anxiety, the new Negro heavyweigh champion returned in triumph from Australia with a white woman as his companion whom he introduced to reporters as his wife. (She wasn’t.) Through his high-profil career Johnson would flagrantly consort with white women ranging from prostitutes t well-off married women; in all, he would marry three. The first, Etta Duryea, wh may have left her husband for Johnson, was so thoroughly ostracized that sh attempted suicide repeatedly, and finally succeeded in killing herself with a revolver Johnson’s other liaisons were equally publicized and turbulent. In the prime of hi career as the greatest heavyweight boxer of his time Johnson had the distinction o being denounced by the righteous Negro educator Booker T. Washington fo “misrepresenting the colored people of this country” even as he was denounced at National Governors’ Conference by, among vehement others, the North Carolin governor, who pleaded for the champion to be lynched: “There is but one punishment and that must be speedy, when the negro lays his hand upon the person of a whit woman.” In 1913, Johnson had the further distinction of being the catalyst for th introduction in the legislatures of numerous states of statutes forbiddin miscegenation
It would seem that Jack Johnson was simultaneously the most famous and the most notorious Negro of his time, whose negative example shaped the low-profile public careers of his Negro successors through nearly five decades.[1] Only in the 1960s, with the emergence of the yet more intimidating Sonny Liston and the brash, idiosyncratic Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, was the image of Johnson revalued. The massive Liston, hulking and scowling and resistant to all white liberal efforts to appropriate him, was Jack Johnson revived and reconstituted as a blackness ten times black. Ali, as viciously reviled in the 1960s as he is piously revered today, was a youthful admirer of Johnson: “I grew to love the Jack Johnson image. I wanted to be rough, tough, arrogant, the nigger white folks didn’t like.”
Ali had the distinct advantage of being born in 1942, not 1878. He had the advantage of a sports career in the second half of the twentieth century, not the first. And, by instinct or by principle, he seems to have avoided white women entirely.
Of great American heavyweight champions, Jack Johnson (1878–1946) remains sui generis. Though his dazzling and always controversial career reached its zenith in 1910, with Johnson’s spectacular defense of his title against the first of the Great White Hope challengers, the former champion Jim Jeffries,[2] Johnson’s poised ring style, his counterpunching speed, precision, and the lethal economy of his punches, seem to us closer in time than the more earnest and forthright styles of Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Larry Holmes, Gerry Cooney, et al. That inspired simile “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” coined to describe the young Cassius Clay/ Muhammad Ali in his early dazzling fights, is an apt description of Jack Johnson’s cruelly playful dissection of white opponents like Tommy Burns. Ali, a virtuoso of what was called in Johnson’s time “mouth-fighting,” a continuous barrage of taunts and insults intended to undermine an opponent psychologically, and the inventor of his own, insolently baiting “Ali shuffle,” can be seen as a vengeful and victorious avatar of Jack Johnson who perfected the precarious art of playing with and to a hostile audience, like a bullfighter who seduces his clumsy opponent (including the collective clumsy “opponent” of the audience) into participating in, in fact heightening, the opponent’s defeat. To step into the ring with a Trickster is to risk losing not only your fight but your dignity.
What was “unforgivable” in Johnson’s boxing wasn’t simply that he so decisively beat his white opponents but that he publicly humiliated them, demonstrating his smiling, seemingly cordial, contempt. Like Ali, except more astonishing than Ali, since he had no predecessors,[3] Johnson transformed formerly capable, formidable opponents into stumbling yokels. Like Ali, Johnson believed in allowing his opponents to wear themselves out throwing useless punches…
…In the first film footage showing Jack Johnson in the ring, a scratchy fragment fro the silent film of Johnson’s title fight with Tommy Burns in 1908, we see a tall unexpectedly graceful heavyweight with a chiseled upper body, slender waist an legs; Johnson’s head is smooth-shaved and his features might be described a “sensitive.” In the most widely published photographs of Johnson he as muc resembles a dancer as a heavyweight boxer. (At six feet, weighing a little more tha two hundred pounds, Johnson would be a “small heavyweight” by contemporar standards.) Two years later, in 1910, in his title defense against the much larger ex-champion Jim Jeffries, Johnson would perform with equal skill (despite the distractin presence of his old hero “Gentleman” Jim Corbett striding about at ringside screamin racist insults at him). Only in the last major fight of his career, against the six-foot-six two-hundred-thirty-pound White Hope giant Jess Willard, in Havana, Cuba, in 1915 did Johnson’s counterpunching style fail him: in the famous, or infamous, photograp of Johnson lying on his back, he has lifted a gloved hand to shield his eyes from th blinding Caribbean sun, and would afterward claim that he’d thrown the fight [8]
As heavyweight champion Johnson enjoyed a degree of celebrity unknown to any Negro in previous American history, basking in media attention that kept his handsome, smiling image continuously before the public. Like Muhammad Ali, whose handsome, smiling image would be recognized in parts of the world in which the image of the president of the United States wasn’t recognized, Johnson became an icon of his race: “the greatest colored man that ever lived.” When not training for an upcoming fight (in gyms and training camps to which the admiring public was invited), he embarked upon theatrical tours across the country. He shadowboxed, he sparred, he performed in vaudeville and burlesque routines.
Here was the very archetype of the “sport”—the dread “flash nigger” made flesh—in ankle-length fur coats, expensive racing cars painted bright colors, tailor-made suits, rubies, emeralds, diamonds displayed on his elegant person, and the dazzling gold-capped smile for which he was known. (Naturally, Johnson’s women were decked in jewels as well. Some of these jewels Johnson only lent to women for an evening on the town; others were given as gifts to his wives and remained theirs. Etta, his suicidal first wife, was ensconced in a luxury hotel in London during one of Johnson’s tours of English provincial music halls and provided with a chauffeur-driven $18,000 royal blue limousine with $2,500 worth of interior fittings, which seemed only to increase the unhappy woman’s wish to kill herself.)…
…Like Muhammad Ali, who compulsively boasted of being “the Greatest”— “the prettiest”—Johnson would seem to have been the very essence of male narcissism; like Ali, who would refuse to be drafted into the US Army in the mid-1960s to fight in Vietnam—”Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcongs” was Ali’s improvised, brilliant rejoinder —Jack Johnson incurred the wrath of the majority of his fellow citizens by declaring in an interview given in London in 1911, “Fight for America? Well, I should say not. What has America ever done for me or my race? [In England] I am treated like a human being.” Both men would be hounded by righteous white prosecutors, fined, and sentenced to federal prison. (While Ali’s conviction for refusing the draft was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1971, Johnson served his full prison sentence on trumped-up charges of violating the Mann Act by crossing state lines with a call girl.)…


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