Time-Traveling with Jack Johnson

Brian Michael Murphy
December 31, 2013
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I’m looking forward to a bit of time travel–I just ordered The Big Smoke by Adrian Matejka, a finalist for the National Book Award in poetry this year. Matejka manages to take on the epic boxer, icon, and iconoclast Jack Johnson, a subject as rich as he is daunting to portray. The poet strikes the proper balance between recognizing the play of surface projections of a man who engineered his own image from under a deluge of stereotypes that assaulted him, and locating the real energetic intensity that coursed underneath all the images and words that produce the historical figure we call Jack Johnson. Matejka doesn’t give us the real Jack Johnson, which would be impossible. What he does supply is a poetry worthy of the icon, a man haunted by what he had done and seen–the sight of “a halo of blood getting bigger/ by the minute” and “the sound of the crowd in Reno/ when Jeffries couldn’t go on” (“Verdi’s Il Trovatore”).

Jack Johnson was not an exceptionally complex human being, but only appeared so in a culture that routinely, and necessarily, denied the human complexity of millions of racialized humans. Johnson was especially courageous, since the open performance of his complexity meant risking his life in an America whose cultural imaginary, social relations, and psychic life was thoroughly structured by white supremacy, and the racial violence that underwrites it, in more open ways than it structures our lives today. Though not exceptionally complex, he was especially creative, artistic, inventive, charismatic, strong, intelligent, and I’ll stop the list here, though it could go on. In a word, Jack Johnson was downright futuristic. In fact, he remains so.

Perhaps one day we will catch up to the outer space where Johnson lived 100 years ago, where he walked onto a vaudeville stage with “Red wine sipped/ through a straw” and survived Battle Royales by swinging “so hard/ my shoulder hasn’t been right since.” Or perhaps the way of Jack Johnson is located so far outside what racial ideology and its pseudo-science of human limitation offers us, that catching up with Johnson means always living outside such limits. Though a century divides them in chronological time, there is a resonance between Johnson’s way of being and the utopian, poetic visions of the late queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz, who wrote in his Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity: “Queerness is not yet here. The here and now is a prison house. We must strive, in the face of the here and now’s totalizing rendering of reality, to think and feel a then and there. Some will say that all we have are the pleasures of this moment, but we must never settle for that minimal transport; we must dream and enact new and better pleasures, other ways of being in the world, and ultimately new worlds.”

No one can really say how it is that Johnson survived as long as he did, for in his words and actions he, on a near daily basis, committed any number of offenses punishable by death at that time, from openly dating white women to critiquing the prevailing racial regime in writings and interviews, then obliterating it, at least symbolically, in the ring, along with the next great white hope. In any case, he did seem to be in another world so thoroughly, so completely, that as you study him, you realize something: he was living not in some utopian fantasy, but in the world as it should be, while lesser men remained mired in the nightmare of the present, where his defeat of a white contender sparked murderous race riots across the country.

In my “American Icons” course, we watched the Ken Burns documentary Unforgivable Blackness, and read excellent writing on boxing, from Theresa Rundstedtler’s Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner: Boxing in the Shadow of the Global Color Line to David Remnick’s King of the World: Muhammed Ali and the Rise of an American Hero. Boxing has nowhere near the geopolitical import it once did, which isn’t a bad thing, though I admit, in another life I’d love to be a sportswriter who followed the fights. In my vicarious explorations of the by-gone worlds of what Gerald Early famously called “the culture of bruising,” I’ve learned that boxers leave a paper trail of distorted and exaggerated documents, as the hype and hypermasculine posturing endemic to the boxing world seeks to create gods from mere men and cosmic battles out of the clash of two gloved gladiators. Matejka’s Johnson is a welcome addition to the multitude of Jack Johnsons that we already have: those versions that he himself created, and all those American culture constructed during and after the time he lived. The simplest way to encapsulate Matejka’s achievement is to say that I believe his Jack Johnson, as the writing reflects a subject of immeasurable physical and mental intelligence, whimsy, and resilience, a man who heard the “pinball machines/ ringing like a telephone full of congratulations,” who decided, years after a horse-kick split his leg open to the bone, to “rub the scar for good luck.”

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