Almost a month later, I am still sorting through notes I took during the MVICW conference (see fellowship post). One of the instructors, Adrian Matejka, taught on persona poems and discussed the years of research that he did (and is still doing) on Jack Johnson, the first Black world heavyweight boxing champion. Even though I had known about this (The Big Smoke), I was still not sure how someone could successfully marry boxing and poetry for an entire book. I couldn’t get past the mental block of the two working together for that long even though I had heard some of his interviews and readings online prior to the workshop.
I set aside how impossible I imagined it would be to do and listened to Matejka explain the effort he put into learning about Jack Johnson, the person, and how complex Johnson’s character was. There was a challenge of giving us insight into a Black man’s life in the early 1900s, involved in interracial relationships, having certain privileges of money and fame yet still denied other perks and basic rights due to racism in the Jim Crow era (Johnson was the son of former slaves). I hadn’t considered how challenging that might be until I tried to write a poem from the perspective of a person who lived centuries before me. (What did I really know about this person except for the few sentences recorded in a book?)
As I continued to listen, I found myself getting more and more excited about how this could play out. I enjoy researching/learning about history, boxing, and poetry, so this would be an interesting mix. At first glance, you might look at these three to be as random as the ingredients given for the show “Chopped,” but skilled artists know how to make them come together. Then, I heard “Battle Royal” (again).
“Adrian Matejka reading “Battle Royal” & “Prize Fighter” at the 2015 Mass Poetry Festival”
I read this poem to two of my friends after I bought the book. Although I appreciated hearing it, looking at the words to read it the way I imagined Johnson’s voice to sound made this piece much more powerful. I had heard about this fight before in Invisible Man (Ralph Ellison). I was now reading about the motivation to win. Johnson was fighting to earn a meal. This was a 20th century gladiator-like “sport” where you fought because you were being hit. To avoid being hurt and to have the opportunity to eat, you had to win. Those aren’t situations we (at least the majority of us) have/had to face. How often was there a positive outcome? Not fighting could cause problems, and fighting could cause problems. This wasn’t a one-on-one battle where fighters agreed to square off. Many times, Black young men were rounded up to beat on each other for white spectator amusement. At the end of the fight, one person might have enough to buy a meal, but what about the others? I haven’t read that side yet. (Yes, I asked all sorts of questions and thought through each poem like this. That’s why I didn’t finish in one sitting.)
I read this book from cover-to-cover (in order) over two days. I didn’t quite understand the usage of ampersands and spacing, but I was very much into the poetic biography. I felt as if I could understand more of his struggles with poverty (such as the description of how thin his shoes were in the cold), with racist society, with the law (Mann Act) and also nod my head as I read of the victories and more peaceful times.
The shadow boxing selections stood out to me because of the actual conditioning exercise and the conversation between Johnson and his shadow (mental thoughts). Each is set up differently. These made me question myself, my own goals, and my desire to achieve whatever was in front of me. Did I really want what I said I wanted, or was I just talking with no intention of following through to hit that target? Something sets champions apart from those who like the “idea” of becoming champions. They want the perks without the work. It made me ask myself, “In what area of my life do I have that hunger that’s so intense that I won’t rest until I see it come to fruition?”
So, overall, I liked The Big Smoke. It gave a fresh look at a complicated person who was more than just a fighter. He was a thinker, loved Shakespeare, taught himself another language, a musician, someone who loved to laugh, a go-getter, and someone who lived in his own terms. Not only did it share more information about Johnson’s life as his voice, it encouraged me to think of how I’m living my own. For those who have absolutely no idea who Jack Johnson is or much about his life, it may help to watch a documentary as you read. It will help with the names, locations, events, and such mentioned in poems. (You don’t have to do that, but it weighed heavier for me when I was reminded of what the poem referenced.) You can purchase a copy from most major retailers.
Today is the 111th anniversary of the “Fight of the Century” between Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries.
“The Boxing Film That Was Banned around the World”
Things I considered and links that may answer some questions and help you understand some of the references:
- Black men had been denied the opportunity to fight for the world heavyweight championship title (the “color line”). There was a belief in white culture that they were inherently superior. A loss to a Black man at this level wasn’t just a blow to the fighter’s ego. It was a knockdown of racist ideology.
- Johnson dated and married white women. It would be more than 50 years before the Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court case struck down the ban on interracial marriages across the nation (see anti-miscegenation laws).
Loving v. Virginia – https://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-supreme-court/388/1.html
“Interracial Marriage Laws History and Timeline” – https://www.thoughtco.com/interracial-marriage-laws-721611
- White people were exceedingly and openly hostile to Black people. “In 1910, when blacks made up 10.7% of the population, 76 people were lynched in the United States, 67 of them blacks. Between 1885 and 1910, there were 3,287 U.S. victims of lynchings, 2,276 of them blacks.”
It can be difficult enough to be the minority in a group. Imagine standing in the center of almost 20,000 people who want to see your downfall and would be willing to kill you because they took your win as an offense.
– Tens of thousands of people gathered in locations across the nation to listen to the updates about the fight. When it was discovered that Jeffries lost, the news set off an anger that became the first nationwide race riot.
– Gustkey, Earl. “80 Years Ago, the Truth Hurt: Johnson’s Victory Over Jeffries Taught Lesson to White America.” Los Angeles Times. July 8, 1990. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1990-07-08-sp-462-story.html.
- Segregation laws were firmly in place. Demeaning caricatures, movies with men in black face mocking us, and beliefs about Black people lacking intelligence, among other respected qualities, were believed, taught, and reinforced in newspapers, books, movies, advertisements, etc.
- Johnson was born in Galveston, TX, the last place to find out slaves had been emancipated two years earlier (Juneteenth 1865). The Civil War had ended in April, but Black people were still enslaved until Union troops entered areas to enforce the freedom granted to them. Johnson’s parents were slaves, making him a first-generation free born man. We often see freedom portrayed as someone walking away from a situation without obstacles, entering the wide, open plain with a world of opportunities awaiting him. That was hardly the case for newly freed slaves. Imagine the stories that were shared, the difficulty of trying to build and being denied work opportunities, trying to survive in an area that was so resistant to the idea of allowing Blacks freedom that they refused to tell anyone they could go. – Reconstruction Era, constitutional amendments for Black citizens, Jim Crow Laws, etc.
– “Ex Slaves talk about Slavery in the USA” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fZfcc21c6Uo
- Information about “Battle Royal,” including locations, years they occurred, and organizations that held them.
“Battle Royals were primarily a part of boxing bouts and wrestling matches as undercards and in some cases, fighters used the opportunity to establish a boxing career. However, most often the negro battle royal was a comedic mockery and provided the participants with little more than the opportunity to be laughed at and ridiculed.”
Hughes, Franklin. “Negro Battle Royal – May 2014.” Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia. Accessed July 4, 2021. https://www.ferris.edu/HTMLS/news/jimcrow/question/2014/may.htm.
- “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson” – documentary – https://www.pbs.org/kenburns/unforgivable-blackness/