Friday, December 26, 2008

Jack Johnson

To some people, today is "Jack Johnson Day," the celebration of the anniversary of the first black man winning the heavyweight boxing title, which happened one hundred years ago, today. Alas, boxing isn't what it was in those days, when it was the sport of men, not just kings, and the thought of a black man being better than whites at anything was enough to send the entire nation into a decade-long tizzy, and a desperate search for some white boy who would put things right. They finally found him in Jess Willard, who would beat the 37 year old Johnson, recaiming the heavyweight championship for the white folk, and their racial pride along with it.

Some odd points:

1)Johnson, a smart, defensive fighter known for his counterpunching and defensive handspeed, was derided as a cunning coward by the press of his era; Jim Corbett, who'd held the title several years before Johnson and had a similar fighting style, had been lauded for being smart. Heads we win, tails you lose.

2) Why was Johnson allowed to fight for the heavyweight championship, while baseball remained segregated for another 39 years (Jackie Robinson), football, with some fits and starts, 38 (Bill Willis and the great Marion Motley)? Superficially it would seem to make no sense.

3) Back then racism took a reasonable form: blacks were inferior to whites in all ways, athletically, morally, intellectually. Nowadays, black people are assumed to be athletically superior to whites, and this is a sign of inferiority, as superior physicality is is the natural result of black people being one step closer to the animals. Heads we win, tails you lose.

Anyway, one of the encouraging signs about Obama's win, besides the thing itself, is that the nation hasn't been thrown into a tizzy. So here's to you, Jack Johnson. And Jackie Robinson. And Marion Motley. And Tiger Woods. And Jesse Jackson. And all the other firsts who combined to make this first possible. It took a century of fighting worse than anything Johnson went through in the ring, but because of all those fights, the world is a much better place, at least in some ways, than it's ever been before.

And above all, here's to a world that doesn't need any more firsts. I don't know if we're there yet, but we're damn close.