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Unforgivable Blackness

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By LELAND STEIN III

As Black History month comes into focus, periodically a special documentary comes along that depicts the undeniable, horrific atrocities perpetrated upon the African American.



Fielding phone calls from friends all over, they were collective in their interjections, “Watch filmmaker Ken Burn’s Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson airing o­n PBS.”

One of the dangers I see in the Black community is that too many of us who have so-called made it, tend to distance ourselves from our foundations and those with less opportunity and exposure.
I’m not trying to say people should put themselves in harms way or live down to an environment that does not meet o­ne’s personal comfort zone.

However, material and earthly possessions can consume many and that’s when too many of us get bought out. 

That’s why a provocative documentary like Burns’ Unforgivable Blackness is so very important. It forces us to reexamine our past and ask ourselves, have things really changed? 

I thought I knew about Johnson’s life. However, through the magic of Burns thorough research and painstaking detail, he recreates the setting, the characters, the mood and tone of a time in American history when too much of its indiscretions and dirty laundry were swept under the carpet and excluded from White history books.

The thing, for me, that clearly comes out in Unforgivable Blackness is that Johnson’s life frames him as more than just an athlete or pugilist.

The crusty details of Johnson's life come forward loud and clear through archival footage, still photographs, and the commentary of boxing experts such as Stanley Crouch, Bert Sugar, the late George Plimpton, Jack Newfield, Randy Roberts, Gerald Early and James Earl Jones, who portrayed Johnson in the Broadway play and film, “The Great White Hope.”

I thought Muhammad Ali touched the world community like no other, but Johnson did likewise. It is lore that Ali saw the play twenty times and claimed it was his story, except Johnson’s problem was White women and his was religion.

“Johnson in many ways is an embodiment of the African-American struggle to be truly free in this country  economically, socially and politically”, said Burns in a press release, previewing the documentary.  “He absolutely refused to play by the rules set by the white establishment, or even those of the black community.

In that sense, he fought for freedom not just as a black man, but as an individual”. Continued Burns: “Johnson's story is more than the story of a tremendous athlete, or even o­ne who broke a color line. It is the story of a man who forced America to confront its definition of freedom, and that is an issue with which we continue to struggle”.

When Johnson defeated Tommy Burns in 1908 in Australia, he became the first African-American Heavyweight Champion of the World. 

Johnson’s greatest moment came o­n July 4, 1910 in Reno, Nevada. He whipped James J. Jefferies, the "great white hope,” in the 15th round. At the time Jeffries was considered the greatest heavyweight in history. Before their historic Battle of the Century,  Jefferies had refused to fight a Black man and retired undefeated.

When Johnson beat Jefferies and other Whites, race riots promptly ensued, and, of course, Blacks were victimized. Congress even passed an act banning the interstate transport of fight films for fear that the images of Johnson beating white men was too much for White Americans to ingest.

Beating White men wasn’t Johnson’s o­nly problem, his steadfast liaisons with White women  “two of which he married" inflamed the ire of White America.

The paranoia of some Whites in their relationship with the African-American male, has led to troubling perversions of the law through out our history in America. Determined to get that “nigga”, the United States government, using weak as water trumped-up charges, convicted Johnson in 1913 of violating the Mann Act.

While the Mann Act. was intended to be used against commercialized vice, they used it to make Johnson pay for his success and his lifestyle.

Johnson fled to Europe and later Mexico. He did not return to the U.S. until 1920 and he surrendered to authorities and served his year in prison. He died in a car accident in 1946.

The Jim Crow-era Whites never forgave Johnson for his unwavering spirit, his strong persona and his “I’m a free man and should be able to choose my own companions”, attitude and lifestyle.

The Unforgivable Blackness is still smothering America today, as it did Johnson, and it is dense and thick enough to cut with a knife.

Leland Stein can be reached at lelstein3@aol.com

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