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The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson

A-UnforgiveableBlacknessJack Johnson (1878-1946) became the first black heavyweight boxing champion in 1908. Unforgivable Blackness chronicles his rise to the top and his polarizing effect on Jim Crow America. Johnson’s boxing triumphs made him a hero to some, but his flamboyant lifestyle disgusted others. His dalliances with white women landed him in jail; in 1913 he was convicted of taking a white woman across state lines for immoral purposes—a distorted reading, to say the least, of the Mann Act. Though his career and his life are long over, the controversy he generated continues—there is a pending request for his posthumous pardon brought by a committee including Senators Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch.
Knopf. 492 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 0375415327

Baltimore Sun 4 of 5 Stars
"Ward, an accomplished biographer, does justice to his life and career. The story unfolds in clear, simple prose, backed by exhaustive research." John Eisenberg

Hartford Courant 4 of 5 Stars
"Engrossing and definitive, Unforgivable Blackness is a great biography of a great and utterly fascinating subject." Allen Barra

San Francisco Chronicle 3 of 5 Stars
"The historical accounts are quite numerous and can get dry at times. They are most entertaining, though, when it comes to the retelling of Johnson’s fights." Darren Everson

Washington Post 3 of 5 Stars
"Was Johnson the best prizefighter of the last century, as some experts maintain, or an undersized, overrated heavyweight who beat few rivals in their primes? … If Ward has an opinion on these matters, he doesn’t let on, but he has drawn a portrait of a fascinating figure, whose oversized personality fills every page." Bruce Shoenfeld

NY Times Book Review 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Ward does a good job of sorting things out, of keeping up with Johnson’s frenetic and peripatetic life. … But occasionally he is overprotective of his subject." David Margolick

San Diego Union-Tribune 2 of 5 Stars
"Ward paints a vivid portrait of this complex and flawed, perhaps even tragic, figure, but doesn’t sum up his life. … What is most lacking in Unforgivable Blackness is a sense of history." Theodore Kornweibel Jr.

Critical Summary

Jack Johnson’s colorful personality and his impact on American racial politics make him a fascinating topic for a biography. Critics were interested in this account of his extraordinary life, but many had complaints. Foremost among these was Ward’s failure to provide historical analysis and context. Unforgivable Blackness doesn’t ask any probing questions about Johnson’s influence or his legacy; even though Ward did his research, those seeking an in-depth examination of his life will be disappointed. Ward may lack a historian’s detachment and sense of the larger picture. However, his work succeeds as a compelling portrait of a man determined to transcend his limits.

Supplemental Reading

The Gloves A Boxing Chronicle | Robert Anasi (2002): 4 of 5 Stars Summer 2002. At age 33, writer Anasi has only one year of eligibility left and decides to train for the New York City Golden Gloves amateur boxing tournament.

Cut Time An Education at the Fights | Carlo Rotella (2003): 4 of 5 Stars Nov/Dec 2003. Essays on boxing by an English professor and fight fan.