The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Friday, November 26, 2004

Jack Johnson again

A 5,000 word review article in the NYROB revisits an icon of the history of American rambunctiousness (visited several times here).

Johnson gave thunderingly good copy still capable of causing the respectable to loose their water.

A brave K-12 teacher to invite his (or, more likely, her) charges' attention to the 1908 Tommy Burns fight (which took place in Sydney), in the aftermath of which
Summing up the collective anxiety of his race, the poet Henry Lawson [1] gloomily prophesied:
It was not Burns that was beaten —for a nigger has smacked your face.
Take heed—I am tired of writing—but O my people take heed.
For the time may be near for the mating of the Black and the White to Breed.

The response of the (then solidly Democrat) South to Johnson's success in the ring, and with white women, was apoplectic - and not just in the front of the bus:
Johnson had the distinction of being denounced by the righteous Negro educator Booker T. Washington for "misrepresenting the colored people of this country" even as he was denounced at a National Governors' Conference by, among vehement others, the North Carolina governor, who pleaded for the champion to be lynched: "There is but one punishment, and that must be speedy, when the negro lays his hand upon the person of a white woman."

The real Democratic wing of the Democratic Party!

It's all good stuff, quotable all the way through; and the book - Unforgivable Blackness by Geoffrey Ward - gets the thumbs-up from the reviewer (Joyce Carol Oates).

I note with interest that
Ward resists the "anachronistic term 'African American'" in favor of the one that whites of Johnson's generation used grudgingly and blacks most hoped to see in print: "Negro."

The rule of thumb I use here is to use Negro for events before 1970 and black for those thereafter...

  1. Lest you imagine a wild-eyed Mississippi fire-eater, let me point out that Lawson was an Australian: this site says it has all his poems, but the one quoted is not there; a longer quote is here. The poem is called The Great Fight, apparently.

    A compare and contrast between contemporary racial politics in the US and in a recently (1901) united Australia would be interesting. This timeline (PDF) mentions the 1909 New South Wales Aborigines Protection Act which provided, amongst other things, for

    expelling light-coloured people from reserves and preventing them mixing with their families on reserves
    The policy of assimilation under which light-skinned Aborigines were forcibly removed from their parents and placed with white families came a bit later, it seems.


Coincidental that the most Republican county in the United States was for a long time the moniker of - Johnson County, TN...

The review again makes the case against any notion of linearity or Whig theory in the condition of the Negro in America. It's ironic that it was in the Progressive era that things for the Negro in many ways regressed:
The modest advances [by Negro sportsmen] that had been made in the late 1800s were being taken back by the passage of Jim Crow laws...

The early 1900s were also the period in which determined efforts were made in the South once and for all to suppress the Negro vote; and a decade or two later, the (in practice) suprisingly fluid miscegenation laws (earlier Plawg pieces touching on the subject - especially that of January 20) were tightened up.

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