Monday, February 1, 2010

Reprint of "Boxing, Wrestling, and the American Dream"

What follows is an unpublished essay written in March of 2006. It was written long before Barack Obama announced his candidacy for presidency of the United States of America. Reading this essay four years after it was written makes me summons an ironic adage: "The more things change, the more they stay the same." Indeed, it seems that in one regard the essay was quite prescient in its assertion that the American People were demanding fairness to return to the "ring." I do not think the author could have expected, however, just how in tune with the future his discussion about Jack Johnson's pardon at the end of the essay was in regards to the historic election of the first African American President. Unfortunately, the promise of change may end there. It seems even the calm and collected Barak Obama can only do so much to change the politics of this country. The middle class continue to get squeezed and pushed further down the ladder of consequence; the War in Iraq will soon replace Vietnam as the longest running war in American History; oil still rules our existence even as the promise for unlimited renewable energy lies at our finger tips; and the richest 2% still control 98% of the world's wealth.

Although the essay makes references to the politics and entertainment of the time in which it was written (i.e. former President Bush, Rocky VI, etc,) it is really intriguing to see how similar everything looks. The one minor difference seems to be a marginally better opinion of Americans amongst the rest of the global citizenry.
Boxing, Wrestling, and the American Dream - March, 2006
by: Michael Sandstrom

“George Bush is the president of the United States of America, but he is not America.” This is something I found myself telling nearly everyone I met for the first time when I lived in Spain between 2002 and 2003. Having to refute the unmerited judgments people would cast toward me was not nearly as strange or difficult to deal with as was the pressure to find just the right collection and order of words that would allow me to redeem my right to a fair and honest first impression. Few of them needed to hear my accent to know that I was American. Even on an island (Mallorca) in which one-third of the real estate is owned by Germans, there was something about this blonde-haired-blue-eyed boy that screamed American. It was the first time in my life that I had ever had reservations about that part of my identity.

A few years later I found myself in an American bar telling a story about my time in Spain. That cluster of words, which seemed to so magically preserve my humanity in Europe had the opposite effect that particular evening. Almost immediately I was exiled from conversation. The irony, for me, was that the reason I had been ostracized was the same reason I was telling the story to begin with. It did not matter; no one needed or wanted to hear about anything that revolved around politics.

That night I went home wondering what my so-called freedom of speech was worth. Even now, I am aware of the gut reaction political stories and anecdotes trigger in the year 2006. I am also aware that most of us who only five years ago considered themselves somewhere between Red and Blue, now find themselves compelled to choose one side or the other (or accept the notion that they are utterly voiceless). I am familiar with the mixed and overwhelming sentiments that dominate the American mindset and the desire to make it all go away by ignoring it. We have been so bombarded by the negative side of politics during the last five years that we have given up the idea that we have any control at all. In fact, the only thing most of us do feel we have any sort of control over is the right to refrain from getting involved. The general consensus is that it is not worth upsetting friends and loved ones; I agree. It is not. Yet, by not getting involved, we truly relinquish control.

Consequently, I am writing this essay in order to talk, not about George Dubbah-ya, but rather, to talk about us. This essay is not about oil, nor terrorism, nor our country’s debt. It is about the fundamental values that govern humanity and the way political and social constructs affect them. It is about the United States Constitution and the American Dream. In effect, if I mention the President, it is not to talk about him, but to talk about us. He is our representative. We made him champion. We are the judges of – not one, but – two split decision verdicts that have given him authoritative control over the “ring” we live in. We need to understand what that means, especially when the dimensions of that ring are altered without our consent.

A Little History

In the 19th century, boxing in England was called “the gentleman’s sport,” “the manly art of self -defense.” These words summon images of wealthy, Victorian-era white men with rolled up sleeves exchanging bare-knuckles in a field or town square, while a ring of likewise white-male spectators surrounding them bark approval at the sight of strategic blows. At stake was male pride and maybe a few teeth or a blackened eye. Generally, the point of the fight was twofold: for the two men fighting, it was to settle differences and prove a certain superiority over the other in a fair and open contest (perhaps to make a few bucks at the same time); secondly, for the spectators, it was live entertainment and a chance to likewise make a bit of money.

Of course, the history of boxing began the very first time two individuals put up their fists to one another in play—that is, without the intention of killing each other. Over time, rules governing the fairness of such play called for the “ring” (of spectators) to become a perfect square, ensuring not only fair and equal surface area, but that each competitor would have a side or corner designated for him before and after the fight. Eventually rounds of three-minute intervals with one minute periods of rest between would be incorporated into the structure of a fight—both to organize its progress but also to provide a temporary underdog a chance to collect himself so that the outcome reflected not a fleeting moment but an overall authority in the ring. Further regulations would be implemented, but these are the most significant constitutions that govern the legacy of boxing as we know the sport today. These essential rules and regulations, meant to ensure equality of opportunity for the two fighters during a fight, have at their core the same tenants that make the Constitution of the United States of America the bedrock of the American Dream. Ultimately, they make overt and clear that America’s official boundaries (its ring) will ensure fair and free treatment to all who reside within.

It is for this reason that we Pledge Allegiance to the Flag, a symbol of the Constitution in action: “…with liberty and justice for all.” What we are pledging, is that we believe in the promise of fairness and equality for all. This is precisely why so many Europeans and later South Americans voluntarily immigrated to the United States during its early formation, and then again during and after World War II. Even today, when it is clear to the world that we have yet to fully come to terms with the proper definition for “all,” the promise that we someday will has remained a platform of American pride. It is also why—up until recently—the US has been so respected internationally, and why our government has served as a model for a great number of nations. The boxing ring is a physical manifestation of a similar promise. A platform for Justice, it implies that no matter what goes on outside of the ring, no matter what happens before or after the fight starts, for the duration of the fight, Justice reigns supreme. Even though, over time, the rules and regulations of boxing have undergone a series of changes, visibility on the part of the spectator continues to ensure—just as it did outside the saloon during the Victorian era—the legitimacy of the fight. Even in the event of a split decision in which both fighters are still standing and the “winner” becomes a matter of judgment, anything far from the truth will be remembered and reported in infamy, in which case the outcome, if not changed, becomes nothing but an empty statistic shadowed by an asterisk.

Similarly, every time the United States Constitution and its Bill of Rights is not upheld, a foreboding asterisk hovers in the air haunting the very fallacy that gave it roots until Justice intervenes. It is not difficult then to view the United States Supreme Court as the ultimate boxing ring. If one were to comprehensively consider this analogy, we see the United States Constitution as a parallel to the coveted Heavyweight Championship Title in Boxing. Both refer to actual material items; however, it is what these items signify that really matters. Of course, the boxing title, represented by a single belt, signifies that the person in possession of it (theoretically, the person wearing it) is the only person authorized to call himself “champion.” It also implies that this claim to personal physical supremacy can and must be challenged by worthy opponents in order for it to signify more than just a belt. In this way, as the champion defends his title, he actually becomes a servant to the belt’s signification. Once it is proven that he is no longer worthy to represent the belt, it must be passed along to the individual who is. Similarly, The United States Constitution and all of its amendments require a political body to represent it. The “champion,” however, has a different title: “President.” Since his title represents an ideological supremacy (namely “liberty and justice for all”) as opposed to a personal physical supremacy, the Constitution becomes its own defender/challenger—itself being a manifestation of the People. As the President, he has the right to govern and control the people, but a worthy challenge to the way he executes such power must, according to the principles that give the Constitution its significance (and he, his power), always be accepted. To this extent, he too is a servant, a public servant.

The connection between the boxing ring and the Supreme Court, between the “Boxing Heavyweight Title of the World” and the “presidency of the United States of America,” is ideological Justice. Considering the depths of emotion connecting us to our Constitution, I expect that some will want to challenge the relationship that I am proposing. It is true that boxing is primarily a physical contest between individuals, not a test of one’s ability to lead a nation. How could they compare? The measure of masculinity inherent in boxing alone should make one hesitant to accept such a comparison. Speaking from a biological standpoint, no one would expect a man and a woman—assuming both were in prime physical condition—to be able to compete at the same level. It makes sense that women boxers fight women boxers, while men fight men. This sort of gender exclusion, however, does not make sense for the role of president of a nation. There is no scientific evidence to support that men have a better genetic ability to lead than women, and yet gender has clearly been a factor throughout our country’s history. Thus, even the most fundamental distinguishing aspects of these two "occupations" shed light on some of the inconsistencies that govern the fairness of politics versus the boxing ring.

Recognizing these differences and accepting that no analogy is perfect or it would not be an analogy, the general function of the ring remains: to ensure fairness and equality. At the heart of the rules that govern the sport of boxing, and the heart of the United States Constitution lies the very same Justice. This is why, according to Kevin Mitchell, of the “more than 500 movies [that] have been made about sport, by far the most popular and successful genre is boxing, about which there have been at least 150 films” (Mitchell). Sylvester Stalone’s classic American anthology, Rocky, is a case in point. Perhaps, however, the more recent proliferation of films of this genre conveys more aptly America’s continued relationship with the sport of boxing. The past four years have given birth to five major motion pictures and two critically acclaimed documentaries about boxing and its champions (Ali, Million Dollar Baby, Cinderella Man, More than Famous, Hardest Fight, Ali: the Whole Story, Unforgivable Blackness: the Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson). This synergy between the screen and the ring, during a time when the boxing industry is going through its leanest period in decades, is evidence that the American Dream is still present in the heart and soul of the People.

Perhaps the issue, then, is not to question if there is a relationship, but what the pattern created by its incessant resurgence means. Moreover, if boxing creates such a great parallel for understanding how this country works, then perhaps it is time we use it to consider why there has been such an especially overwhelming feeling of injustice in this country ever since George Bush became President in 2000. It is my hope, that with the help of semiotics and a close reading of an essay by Roland Barthes, that boxing will give us some grounding.

Hey Ref—Where Are Your Glasses?
In the preface to Mythologies, a compilation of essays focused on deconstructing the myths embedded in current cultural events, Roland Barthes explains why he felt the need to write the anthology:

I had a feeling of impatience at the sight of the ‘naturalness’ with which newspapers, art and common sense constantly dress up a reality which, even though it is the one we live in, is undoubtedly determined by history. In short, in the account given of our contemporary circumstances, I resented seeing Nature and History confused at every turn, and I wanted to track down, in the decorative display of what-goes-without-saying, [his emphasis] the ideological abuse which, in my view, is hidden there. (11)

Given the current political climate, not only in America, but throughout the world, it may pay to consider the “naturalness” with which our own newspapers, art, and—above all—common sense employ in order to “constantly dress up” the reality we live in. In light of such consideration, I find it more than mere coincidence that the very first essay in Mythologies focuses on a “sport” that is heir to, none other than, boxing: The World of Wrestling. Of course, I should state the obvious lest I come off as utterly ignorant to the history of Ancient Greek Wrestling. Barthes refers here, not to the modern day collegiate sport of wrestling, which appropriately maintains many of the same rules as its Greek origins (which in turn finds its own origins in the same humanistic goal of establishing a type of physical supremacy without resorting to a death match). No, he is referring to the much more lucrative version that most of us would recognize as WWE or World Wrestling Entertainment (formerly known as WWF before the World Wildlife Foundation successfully sued over naming rights). Therefore, as I proceed to discuss the acceptance of WWE as a “sport” I will be sure to maintain quotes in order to distinguish between reality and perception, which is what this essay is really about.

Of course, Barthes explains that “Wrestling is not a sport, it is a spectacle, and it is no more ignoble to attend a wrestled performance of Suffering than a performance of the sorrows of Arnolphe or Andromaque [emphasis mine]. (15) Wrestling’s relationship to theatre pervades the entire essay, but not, however, without suggesting its indebtedness to the sport of Boxing. In contrast to the spectators at a boxing-match, those who enjoy wrestling are “completely uninterested in knowing whether the contest is rigged or not, and rightly so; it abandons itself to the primary virtues of the spectacle.” The comparison/contrast continues:

This public knows very well the distinction between wrestling and boxing; it knows that boxing is a Jansenist sport, based on a demonstration of excellence. One can bet on the outcome of a boxing-match: with wrestling, it would make no sense. A boxing-match is a story which is constructed before the eyes of the spectator; in wrestling, on the contrary, it is each moment which is intelligible, not the passage of time. The spectator is not interested in the rise and fall of fortunes; he expects the transient image of certain passions. Wrestling therefore demands an immediate reading of the juxtaposed meanings, so that there is no need to connect them. The logical conclusion of the contest does not interest the wrestling-fan, while on the contrary, a boxing-match always implies a science of the future. (16)

He does not make a value judgment about either boxing or wrestling. He is simply broadcasting the fact that, like a Broadway show, a wrestling-match is about smoke and mirrors, whereas a boxing-match is about the precision of science. In fact, the draw for many boxing aficionados are those rare moments when science seems to be overturned by the “lion heart”—when a contestant, seemingly dominated by his competitor physically, somehow manages to endure the physical punishment long enough to weaken his oppressor merely by absorbing his energy. Ali was famous for this style of fighting late in his career when he came to terms with the fact that he had grown slow and heavy compared to the earlier part of his career. He would taunt his opponents, inviting them to hit him and actually allow them to do so in many instances. The idea was to get his opponents to use up as much energy as possible and then in the third or forth round unleash his own reserve of energy at the very moment that his seemingly superior opponent had grown weak. This was also a game of psychology, of course. It must have been somewhat debilitating mentally for Ali’s opponents to hit the man as hard as they possible could just to see him smile and say, “Come on, is that all you got? Are you serious?”

Returning to the analogy of Broadway and the WWE, a key difference between the two is that wrestling presumes a basic understanding of the rules of boxing: “Each sign in wrestling is therefore endowed with an absolute clarity, since one must always understand everything on the spot. As soon as the adversaries are in the ring, the public is overwhelmed with the obviousness of the roles.” In opposition to the actuality of what goes on in the boxing-ring, wrestling is about image and projection. Nonetheless, they both profess to be about the same thing: “…what wrestling is above all meant to portray is a purely moral concept: that of justice. The idea of ‘paying’ is essential to wrestling….”

Wrestlers know very well how to play up to the capacity for indignation of the public by presenting the very limit of the concept of Justice, this outermost zone of confrontation where it is enough to infringe the rules a little more to open the gates of a world without restraints.

Put a wrestling-match with all of its fanfare up against a boxing-match and all if its fanfare and one sees, at first glance, a similar sight. Even the tone and content of spectators’ excitement are similar: “get ‘em!” “hit ‘em hard!” It is, however, the cause of this pattern of chants that differs from one spectacle to the other.

For a wrestling-fan, nothing is finer than the revengeful fury of a betrayed fighter who throws himself vehemently not on a successful opponent but on the smarting image of foul play. Naturally, it is the pattern of Justice, which matters here, much more than its content. (23)

In the boxing-ring it is both the pattern and the content of Justice that matters. This fact alone is why the parameters that shape the sport of boxing can serve as an analogy to the Constitution, whereas the less rigid rules that make wrestling mere entertainment cannot. In fact, Barthes explicitly notes that “fair wrestling could lead only to boxing or judo, whereas true wrestling derives its originality from all the excesses which make it a spectacle and not a sport” (23).
To bring all of this back to the current state of affairs in the US and the greater world, I will say plainly that the war in Iraq is nothing more than a wrestling-match and that the President is not playing politics, he is presenting spectacle. George Bush is a wrestler, and perhaps better than any president in history, he knows, “how to play up to the capacity for indignation of the public by presenting the very limit of the concept of Justice,” as though it were the very concept itself.

When I read Mythologies for the first time, I was overwhelmed by the obvious connection between the way Bush is running this country and the way a successful wrestler carries the audience from inside the ring. One paragraph in particular makes this overlap so crystal clear that by replacing the word “wrestling” with “the war in Iraq” the paragraph reads as a perfect explanation of what is going on today. Despite the fact that the essay was originally written in 1952, the paragraph reads:

The rhythm of [the war in Iraq] is quite different, for its natural meaning is that of rhetorical amplification: the emotional magniloquence, the repeated paroxysms, the exasperation of the retorts can only find their natural outcome in the most baroque confusion. Some fights, among the most successful kind, are crowned by a final charivari, a sort of unrestrained fantasia where the rules, the laws of the genre, the referee’s censuring and the limits of the ring are abolished, swept away by a triumphant disorder which overflows into the hall and carries off pell-mell [soldiers], seconds, referee, and spectators.

We, the American People, have been swept away by a triumphant disorder, and we need to bring an end to it by reinstating the rules and regulations of the ring. Somehow, Bush and his hobgoblin administration have convinced us that a war against terrorism can actually exist. Well, that is what World Wrestling Entertainment Incorporated is for: “America[n] wrestling represents a sort of mythological fight between Good and Evil” (23). And that is all it represents. Unlike Boxing, “in wrestling ... Defeat is not a conventional sign, abandoned as soon as it is understood; it is not an outcome, but quite the contrary, it is a duration, a display…” (21). Boxing, on the other hand makes clear and visible who the fight is between and what is at stake for both sides. War should be the same way.

As much as the Bush administration would like the War in Iraq to be just another form of entertainment that we voluntarily buy tickets to go see, most of us find it hard to watch innocent people die. In wrestling, no one gets hurt—other than instances in which true unintended accidents occur.

In the sixties, when a war similar to that in Iraq was going on in Vietnam, Muhammad Ali got caught up in the middle of it. Citing his Islamic faith as the official reason for refusing the draft he engaged in a legal dispute with the government. The Heavyweight Champion of the World, he had grown accustomed to the rigidity of the rules of the ring, as opposed to the flimsy politics that inexplicably caused his Selective Service status to go from 1Y to 1A, at the apex of his career. In fact, he was so faithful to the Justice of the ring, that even when the boxing Commissioner revoked his title—no less, for things that had nothing to do with boxing—he persisted to call himself Champion. Visibility on the part of the spectators made his claim mean something.

Three long years later, he “officially” regained his title. Yet, the record books suggest that he never really lost it since a big fat asterisk hangs to the left of Ali’s name for the year 1967 as a reminder to everyone that an injustice has been recognized and recorded. Defeat is a conventional sign in boxing—the moment it is understood, an outcome is recorded and the bout is over. This is how respect is earned in Boxing. Fair and just conventions allow the spectator to believe that what is going on in front of him is real. The entire social and political structure that breathes life into the title of “champion” or “President” does so because of the communally held belief on the part of every spectator/citizen that “this person represents the best of us; he is President [champion] because nobody else could run the ring the way he does.” In 1967 people still believed Muhammad Ali was the champion. In 2006 I do not think that most Americans believe that George Bush should be the President—a split decision draw does not constitute a champion.

Jack Johnson

There are many other events in the history of boxing that our political representatives could learn from. Many of these events overlap changes to the US Constitution. None, however, is as important and inspiring as the life-long saga of the first African-American to take home the Heavyweight Title of the World, Jack Johnson.

In fact, he said it best himself when, after being exiled for several years, he crossed back into United States territory knowing full well that he would have to serve the very prison sentence for which he originally escaped the country: “America,” he said, “for whatever of its problems, still has a certain kind of elasticity, a certain latitude, that allows the person to dream a big enough dream, [achievable] if the person is as big as the dream” (Burns). Jack Johnson embodied the American idea that one can go anywhere one’s ability allows. Of course, his ability, as a boxer and as a man had nothing to do with him being black. This would be proven incontestable later in his life, but as a young man and boxer he would be punished on multiple occasions for his blackness.

For years the white boxers who held the championship title refused to fight any black boxer, claiming that blacks were physically inferior and therefore not even worthy of the opportunity. “The color line,” reported the New York Morning Telegraph in 1908, [was] used in the most select pugilistic [boxing] circles as a subterfuge behind which a white man could hide to keep some husky colored gentleman from knocking his block off. It is a handy little invention which costs nothing and probably has saved many a white man’s life. Many men who are well known in public life today owe their well-preserved appearance and success to this lifesaving compound.

Jack Johnson’s response to this at first was to do nothing since black fighters could still make decent money fighting non-champion whites, though they made far less than whites themselves. After several years, however, he had made more money than one could care for at the time (even for a white man) and became far more interested in the ostensible truth that no one could touch him in the ring. He was far better than all four of the white fighters that held the title during this time period and not one of them would even give him an opportunity to prove it. During the time that undefeated title holder Jim Jeffries was champion, Johnson chased him across much of the US, Canada, and Europe, fighting and beating each of the white competitors that Jeffries conquered, mainly to prove that he was the most worthy contender (Burns).

Jeffries retired undefeated, never giving Johnson a chance. The new title would go to two more whites before Johnson would finally receive a shot at it. King Edward VII, well known to be a boxing aficionado, made a public statement supporting a match between Jack Johnson and Canadian fighter Tommy Burns who held the title at the time. With support for a match up coming all the way down from the King of England himself, it was difficult to say no. So Burns slyly countered his predicament by putting an exorbitant price on the fight, announcing he would not even think about it for less than thirty-five thousand dollars. Apparently Johnson was not the only one waiting for Johnson to get a shot at the title. Less than a month went by before a fight was scheduled to be held in Rush Cutters Bay, Australia. Hugh “Huge Deal” Macintosh, the promoter for the fight set it for December 26th 1908. Regardless of the outcome, Burns would receive $35,000, while Johnson would receive only $5,000. Johnson did not care, he was happy to get a shot at the title (Ibid).

Revealing the impending fear of a colored man authoritatively assuming dominance over a white man in any segment of human existence became palpable in the press immediately after the fight was announced. The Australian Star reported: “This battle may, in the future, be looked upon as the first great battle of an inevitable race war. There is more in this fight to be considered than the pugilistic title of Champion of the World” (Ibid). These fears quickly turned into slurs: one Australian sports writer declared that the fight “would pick white beauty over black ugliness” (Ibid). Even the novelist, Jack London, who was celebrated for his solidarity with the working class man, found himself compelled to announce his allegiance to the white race. One of the newspaper men chosen to cover the story, in part because he was known to be a committed socialist, London wrote: “Personally, I am with Burns all the way. He is a white man and so am I. Naturally I want to see the white man win. Put the case to Johnson and ask him if he were the spectator at a fight between a white man and a black man, which he would like to see win…” (Ibid). Of course, there is no record of anyone actually asking Johnson the question.

In fourteen rounds, Johnson pummeled the champion. The racial slurs and name calling from both Burns and his corner never got to Johnson. He simply smiled and methodically beat all the fallacious notions of white supremacy out of Burns and out of the all-white crowd one round at a time. In fact, it was so imperative that Johnson not knock Burns out because of what it might signify that the police stopped the fight and ordered the camera men to stop taking footage. The world would be denied access to this historical moment because the master narrative we call history could not—at least in 1908—handle it if a black man not only acquired the Boxing Heavyweight Title of the World, but did so by way of knockout. The closest thing we have to the truth is a report by a white newspaperman who sat ringside. On returning to the United States, Jack London writes:

‘Stop the fight?’ The word is a misnomer. There was no fight. The ‘fight’ if it could be called ‘fight’ was like that between a colossus and a toy automaton, of a grown man cuffing a naughty child. So far as damage was concerned, Burns never landed a blow. A dew drop had more chance in hell than he with the giant Ethiopian. It was not a case of too much Johnson, but all Johnson. (Ibid)

It became so obvious to the world that had Johnson had the chance several years earlier, he more than likely would have been the champ then. To combat this awareness, people began to play down Tommy Burns saying that Jim Jeffries who had retired four years prior was the rightful owner of the title since he had retired undefeated. Well, Jack Johnson had been around then, and had challenged the champ numerous occasions, if he wanted to prove that he was truly the champ, he should have defended the title. Eventually promoters bought into this theory and brought Jim Jeffries out of retirement in 1910, paying him a whopping $101,000 in the expectation that he would whip Johnson (Ibid). (According to the calculator on Jeffries pay would be equivalent to 2.27 million in 2006 dollars).

Johnson beat the challenger to a pulp over 15 rounds—and this time—in front of the cameras. The film-makers had come to Reno, Nevada to record what they had thought would be a triumph for the Great White Hope. Then, as riots and lynchings erupted across the United States (on both sides of the color line) as news of Johnson's win spread, Congress passed an act banning the interstate transportation of fight films. It would last as long as was convenient—until Jack moved on, in fact. Two years later, he fled the country after becoming the first person to be convicted under the Mann Act of 1910, a measure designed to combat prostitution by forbidding the transportation of women between states for immoral purposes—Johnson had sent his girlfriend a train ticket. The prosecution’s closing argument to an all white male jury was clear and simple: “If you should find the defendant not guilty I don’t know how you could ever squarely look the faces of your mothers, wives, and daughters” (Ibid). Less than two hours later, Johnson was guilty as charged for miscegenation. A white, male-dominated America could not accept a black man marrying a white woman; Johnson had been married and divorced four times to white women by the time he died at the age of 68.

Currently, with Republican senator John McCain and the Reverend Jesse Jackson leading a campaign to pardon Johnson posthumously, the recent release of a documentary, Unforgivable Blackness: the Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, by film-maker Ken Burns, could not be timelier for American politics. Of course, the reason for the pardon would be to vindicate Jack Johnson and the legacy he left behind, but it would also restore hope to the American Dream (Mitchell, 2005).

With the death toll of American soldiers and Iraqi civilians escalating daily in the Middle East, and the Federal deficit soaring to fantastic levels, a huge asterisk hovers over the politics of this country. Feeding on the overwhelming air of injustice created by George W. Bush’s political campaign, this blow to the heart and soul of the US is going to be felt for years to come. The longer we wait to act, the worse it will be. A pardon for Johnson might be the very spark of hope this country needs to see through the fog this war has created, but there is much more work to be done.

A much bigger political lesson can be learned from the life of former Heavyweight Champion Jack Johnson, and that lesson is that the “color line” and the “gender line” behind which the white man has been hiding must be redrawn. Too many years of unchecked privilege have kept the title of President in the possession of only white men. George Bush is not America.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. 1957. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972.

Mitchell, Kevin. “Fights, Camera, Action.” The Observer (July 3, 2005). Retrieved on
April 10, 2005 from,,1517327,00.html

Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson. Dir. Ken Burns. WETA,