Letâs begin with a story. John Arthur âJackâ Johnson was 6 Âœ feet tall and they called him the Galveston Giant. Johnson was the first African American to win the title of Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the World, during the most brutal years of the Jim Crow era. Ken Burns, whose documentary Unforgivable Blackness: the Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson I am indebted to for the name of this article, reminds us that "for more than thirteen years, Jack Johnson was the most famous and the most notorious African-American on Earth." Weâve forgotten him, many of us, but it seems that the tragedy that was his life hasnât been put to rest; the media scandal of Trayvon Martinâs murder haunts us with similarities.
When Johnson was fighting for the title, white society was in panic. Hometown defenders were falling to Johnson left and right in a time when John L. Sullivan, heavyweight champion of the world, was bringing renown to the title, using it as evidence of white supremacy.
No matter how good Johnson was, whether utilizing intelligent and wily style or demonstrating stamina and strength, newspapers would call him âcowardly and lazy, devious and deceivingâ or alternately âthick, dull, and bestialâ. The image of Johnson, a loud and boisterous man who was infamous for being a law-unto-himself, began to haunt white society, a dark menace on the horizon of civilization.
After Johnson won the African-American Heavyweight Champion title in 1903, James J. Jefferies, current Heavyweight champ, announced that he never would fight a Negro, a tribute to the sportâs purity. Johnson followed the man around the world, taunting him in newspapers and radio interviews, using the very same media that so often was used to slander him, indeed, the media that subsequently unleashed a storm of libel in response to his incessant challenge of Sullivan and thus white ascendancy.
The newspapers called him arrogant, aggressive, lustful, and greedy; they moved to restore what little logic that had once upheld racial supremacy with an incredible onslaught of vilification. They took his past mistakes and turned them into sins and took his accomplishments and made them into evils. The completeness of their attack on him belied their fear of him. Jack Johnson was about to ruin everything that maintained white privilege: the image.
And so Jefferies came out of retirement to defeat Johnson, once and for all, hailed as âThe Great White Hopeâ. The fight was set for July 4th, 1910, Reno, Nevada. Jefferies, who stayed from the spotlight in contrast to Johnson, said of the fight: âIt is my intention to go right after my opponent and knock him out as soon as possible. Johnson simply said, âMay the best man win.â
Johnson toyed with Jefferies for 14 rounds. When Jefferies corner threw in the towel, Johnson was rushed from the arena to avoid a riot. The crown cursed him, booed him, hissed at him, all of which he met with a smile. In Ken Burnâs documentary, writer Gerald Early speculates that if Johnson had defeated Jefferies as he very well could have in the first two rounds, a riot would have been certain.
The murder of Trayvon Martin has sppoked the lethargic beast that is âsocietyâ. Perhaps it isnât âwhite societyâ that is in panic, but it is certain that the âsocial media societyâ is exhibiting our historical inclination for not just spectacle and display, but downright libel and disgrace.
A meme, or an image displaying a simple and clear narrative shared through social media, captures the ignorance of the defense of George Zimmermanâs actions: it provides a clean and organized graphic, displaying school and prom photos of Zimmerman with a list of his daily service to his community and the great character he possesses, contrasted with images of Martin making faces and obscene gestures at the camera, listing his history of teen delinquency.
In Burnsâ documentary, James Earl Jones remarks that the story of Jack Johnson is not one of race, but of power. Today, Zimmermanâs choice to âstand his groundâ isnât a simple question of race, but of the same question of power that once enforced racial supremacy: who will defend âcivilizationâ?
The racist society of the early 20th century feared Johnson because he undermined the legitimacy of white supremacy by destroying the image of the white man as âthe emperor of masculinityâ. Martinâs death threatens our societyâs self-image in the exact same way. The tragedy is an event that threatens to destroy the veneer of âpost-racial Americaâ that has been paraded by the media for decades. Our cybernetic society is in panic. The event may not demonstrate âblack versus whiteâ conflict, but it reveals that the logic of racism has merely changed forms: âtown watchmenâ versus âthug delinquentsâ.
Alenka Zupancic, in her book, The Odd One In describes todayâs society in the context of our notion of âsuccessâ:
Success is becoming almost a biological notion, and thus the formation of a genuine racism of successfulness. The poorest and the most miserable are no longer perceived as a socioeconomic class, but almost as a race of their ownâŠ If traditional racism tended to socialize biological featuresâŠ contemporary racism works in the opposite direction. It tends to ânaturalizeâ the differences and features produced by [societyâs]...order.
That is to say, if racism used to be a drawing of lines between races, todayâs racism is a coloring of racism across lines: poor people are âblackâ because their suffering and poverty is expressive of their criminality and laziness. Wealthy people are âwhiteâ in that they do not exhibit these characteristics. Many blacks and browns have achieved âwhitenessâ by adhering to our societyâs definition of success.
There is no âblack raceâ to marginalize, merely âblack behaviorâ, the âinner-city traitsâ of âthugsâ and âgangstersâ who serve as the ever imminent threat to the perfect symmetry of the gated community, of the white picket fence. Even White House advisers like Susan B. Neuman, who served as Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education during the 1st term of George W. Bush and was behind the push for No Child Left Behind, publishes books propagating the view that poverty is a series of behaviors among underprivileged youth in public schools: rebelliousness, a lack of focus on work, attention to their unrealistic personal desires, and discourtesyâŠ
One is reminded of personal accounts of Jack Johnson, the man: boisterous, proud, and forceful. He lived in a world where to be âwhiteâ was to be successful. We live in a society where to be be âsuccessfulâ is to be âwhiteâ. What is it that really frightens us about Trayvon Martin? His death could undo all the work we have done, not to fix racism but to forget it. So, the newly empowered masses use the social media microphone to articulate the underlying insecurity of our society: that there are those who may threaten our definition of success, which may destabilize everything we have come to value in this country: fame, wealth, class, âcultureâ. Just as Jack Johnson undermined 20th century racism, Trayvonâs many supporters at Occupy the Hood, Black Agenda Report, and his legal defense, face a society in panic and there is nothing more dangerous.
If support is to be given to the cause of true equality and justice, we must not only defend Zimmermanâs conviction, but DEFEND TRAYVON MARTINâS NAME. The racism we face today is a war between the âneighborhood watchmenâ of our successful and transcendent gated communities, vigilantes of white wealth, versus the âbarbarous and criminalâ tendencies of the poor, who are trapped in a cycle of blame for their circumstances.
Martinâs death cannot be justified by his âdelinquencyâ which is in addition a product of libel. Should we represent him as âdelinquentâ, we will be participate in legitimizing the new form of categorization, the oppositions between âwatchmen/ citizen policeâ who exemplify our steadfastness against âthugsâ, who supposedly walk our streets at night with nothing but crime on their minds. This is the racism we have to face, one that will also make us face what we consider to be ânatural and goodâ about our society, make us address our definitions of success, question who we are as individuals in relation to our national image.
The new ânetwork societyâ of today faces the forces of libel and slander like never before; we have enabled everyone to participate in whatever ignorance or violence that underlies our societyâs function. Today, we have all become journalists, individuals with access to a large audience, access to the telling of historyâs tale. The journalists that worked to destroy Johnson also whipped up racial resentment in the wake of his champion victory, leading to a tumult of lynching in both the North and the South of 1910 America.
Jack Johnson, on his deathbed, once more spoke to a journalist. Upon discussing his victory against Jefferies and the turmoil this caused he simply asked the reporter, âwhatever you write about meâŠjust remember that I was a man.â
We must remember that, through all this, Trayvon Martin was a man. Men like Johnson fought hard so that one he could be called this. Letâs not shame their triumphs by calling him a âthug.â Otherwise, we inaugurate a new racism, one that will naturalize a future of division and violence.
I am indebted to the work of Steve Martinot, The Dual-State Character of U.S. Coloniality: Notes Toward Decolonization for the insight to the significance of Jack Johnson's story in the context behavior and race. His work, and that of his colleagues, is habitually excluded from mainstream academic discussion, at loss to the historical clarity and insight of these discussions concerning race, identity, globalization, and justice.