Jack Johnson (1878-1946) shocked white America by becoming the first black heavyweight boxing champion and by refusing to live by the racist social codes of American society. In this biography, Ward (previously the coauthor of The Civil War and Jazz with Ken Burns) narrates the champion's life, describing his defense of the title against the various "great white hopes" sent to challenge him, his relationships with white women that resulted in the federal government to prosecute him under the Mann act, and his exile in Europe. The biography won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Annotation ©2004 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR
Ward, a frequent collaborator of documentary filmmaker and author Ken Burns, has written an engaging and well-researched popular biography, long on expository footnotes and short on perspective. But if his Jack Johnson behaves like a cartoon character, it's because Johnson was a cartoon character. He'd stride from place to place in his dandified attire, drive rapidly and dangerously (an auto enthusiast, by 1909 he owned five of the nation's fewer than half a million cars, and he once explained to a traffic judge that his constant speeding was an advertisement for himself and his lifestyle), drop off one attractive woman at the apartment he kept for her, then race off to collect another. Throughout the book, Johnson's energy never flags, and neither does our interest.