EVEN BLIND people can have 20/20 vision with hindsight. If we can agree on that can we agree that there was something quintessentially and infuriatingly American about Jack Johnson?
Notice I didn't say "black American" or "African-American," which Johnson surely was. I said American: as in the kind of grass-roots, working-class, hell-raising rebel with a fierce and dogged determination we've come to cherish regardless of race and ethnicity, or gender for that matter.
When I interviewed Ken Burns, he didn't say Johnson was "quintessentially American." But the producer of the PBS documentary that airs Monday night did say that "African-American history is at the center of American history."
So we shouldn't be surprised that the man who brought us other PBS series about jazz, the Civil War and baseball is the brains behind Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson. Burns said the Johnson documentary was something he felt "compelled" to do and that the two-hour biography could easily have been 10 hours. While covering Johnson's life, Burns also dispelled many fallacies and rumors about the first black heavyweight champion of the world.
Not the least among those is one promoted by Johnson himself: that he "threw" his 1915 fight to challenger Jess Willard as part of a deal that would allow him back into the United States, which Johnson had fled after being convicted of violating the Mann Act.
"We say that Willard legitimately beat him," Burns said. "We disprove a lot of the later stuff. It was in the best interest of many people to say it - including Johnson."
Burns doesn't buy into another bone-headed idea that took root in the latter part of the 20th century and has bulldozed its way into the 21st: that there is, or should be, uniformity of opinion among black folks.
"There's this notion that all black people think alike," Burns said. "I've always hated that."
Viewers who tune in to Unforgivable Blackness will learn that opinions about Johnson among black leaders and newspapers of early 20th-century America ran the gamut from full support of the champion to condemnation of his lifestyle, which included affairs with and a couple of marriages to white women. More than one of those women were prostitutes.
"He's a loose cannon on the deck of African-American politics," Burns, probably understating the matter, said of Johnson. "You find Booker T. Washington simply exasperated with Johnson. W.E.B. DuBois was more understanding and more supportive. In the black newspapers, there's a whole range of commentary. Many rushed to [Johnson's] defense. Others were critical. Some were neutral."
None was as harsh as white newspapers and the government that eventually tried to railroad Johnson into prison. Though he was charged with violating the Mann Act, Johnson's real crime was his love affairs with white women.
"When they couldn't beat him in the ring, they went after him for his personal life," Burns said. "We live in a country that's both Puritan and prurient at the same time about sex. When that sex is between a black man and a white woman, we vibrate even more."
Federal prosecutors of Johnson's time "vibrated" themselves into trumping up charges against the black heavyweight champion, violating the letter and spirit of the Mann Act in the process.
"The Mann Act was a perfectly reasonable piece of Progressive Era legislation intended to stop a heinous thing that was going on," Burns said. "Syndicates were going into small towns and kidnapping girls and forcing them into prostitution." The Mann Act made it a criminal offense to take a woman across state lines for prostitution.
Burns said the chief prosecutor in Johnson's case admitted the government was making an "anti-miscegenation" example of the champion.
"In our nation," Burns said of an America at its most idealistic, "individuals don't get made examples of."
But Johnson was. After his conviction in 1913, he fled the country and lived in Europe. His loss to Willard in Havana, Cuba, two years later was a sad ending to the career of the man who chased Tommy Burns around the globe and cornered him in Sidney, Australia on Dec. 26, 1908, and took the heavyweight title from him. When Johnson lost to Willard, he wasn't the same fighter who, five years earlier, had pummeled "Great White Hope" Jim Jeffries into submission in the only "Fight of the Century" worthy of the name.
Johnson's story - a uniquely American one - is a fascinating tale that can't be told enough times. Here's a tip of the hat to Burns for telling it one more time.