Big Books: Part One

Gift guide

Big Books: Part One

Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson

by Geoffrey C. Ward

Knopf, 492 pp., $26.95

Weighing in at 492 pages, Unforgivable Blackness is a real contender for the best book of boxing lit since Nick Tosches' The Devil and Sonny Liston. Liston's story is of the Fifties and Sixties, however, while Johnson, born in 1878, came blazing onto the American scene in the first decades of the 20th century – Jim Crow America, that is, when a black man could get lynched for just looking at a white woman. And forget dreaming about actually competing in a white man's sport, even the brutal combat inside the squared circle. Johnson not only became the first black heavyweight champion of the world, but was a white-chick magnet. He flaunted it, openly cavorting with milk-skinned honeys in his hot cars and marrying a few, too. Johnson was an imperfect hero, of course, and the backlash that he flirted with did indeed erupt. But what the hell. A companion piece to Ken Burns' PBS documentary on Johnson, the book is not without its flaws, either, at times glossing over a few of the story's inconvenient nuances, but it's still a knockout. Great writing about American boxers is great American lit, about coming up from small means and accomplishing the impossible, and Ward deserves a TKO here. – Jesse Sublett

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