Early on in the plotting of Hearts Set Free, I knew that one of the story lines would feature a Bible-school dropout turned boxer, who fights as the Pummelin’ Preacher during the 1910s and 20s. Not long after that, I thought of bringing in Jack Johnson, who in 1908 became the first black man to be crowned heavyweight champion of the world. I had first learned of Johnson as a teenager when I watched the 1970 movie, The Great White Hope, starring James Earl Jones, and it stuck in my mind that he was no ordinary pugilist, but a larger-than-life figure, a black man who refused to play by the rules of a racist society, a man of outsize appetites and captivating personality.
I immersed myself in Johnson’s autobiographical writings in order to capture his voice and studied biographies, most notably Geoffrey Ward’s superb Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson. He was a complicated man, whom Ward sums up well in his biography:
“The real Jack Johnson was both more and less than those who loved or those who hated him ever knew. He embodied American individualism in its purest form; nothing—no law or custom, no person white or black, male or female—could keep him for long from whatever he wanted. He was in the great American tradition of self-invented men, too, and no one admired his handiwork more than he did. All his life, whites and blacks alike would ask him, ‘Just who do you think you are?’ The answer, of course, was always ‘Jack Johnson’—and that would prove to be more than enough for turn-of-the-twentieth -century America to handle.”
As my novel’s characters were fleshed out and became utterly real to me, they not infrequently made suggestions about the plot and their role. While I had originally thought of giving Johnson only a brief cameo appearance in Hearts Set Free, he soon made it clear that would never do, and Johnson ended up playing one of the biggest roles of all the historical characters featured in the novel.
Jack Johnson makes his appearance in the novel’s second chapter, which also introduces David Gold, the Bible-school dropout who is one of the story’s leading characters:
David: Paris, 1914
“Do you think a loving father could ever be persuaded to slit his own son’s throat?” asked David Gold, a tall, broad-shouldered young man with a boxer’s chiseled physique. It was a beautiful fall morning, and he and his two companions were lingering over coffee and croissants at Les Deux Magots. “Even if God Himself commanded him?”
“What a horrid thing to bring up at breakfast, Davey!” Lucille Johnson exclaimed. She was twenty-one, plump and plain, and dressed in the latest Paris fashion. “What is he talking about, Jack?” she asked, turning to her husband.
“Abraham and Isaac. It’s in the Good Book,” Jack Johnson explained, patting one of Lucille’s jewel-bedecked hands. He had recently defended his title as heavyweight champion of the world, prevailing, at the age of thirty-six, in a fight staged not far from the Eiffel Tower.
Everyone in the café was angling to get a look at the famous pugilist, a black man resplendent in a white linen suit, derby hat, and a silk tie that shone like sunlit daffodils. Although not as large as David, who’d been his sparring partner for the past two years, Johnson had an aura of happy confidence which overshadowed the younger man. No one cared that he was black and Lucille was white; those backwater Americans might get worked up about such things, but to the Parisians, he was a hero, the first of his race to take the title. One great white hope after another had been pitted against him, and he’d battered each into oblivion without breaking a sweat. His allure was further enhanced by reports that he was an outlaw, a fugitive from justice in the United States. He’d been sentenced to a year and a day in prison for violating the Mann Act, which, the French discovered, prohibited transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes.
“In America, that is a crime?” asked the Parisians, nonplussed. “How completely absurd!”
Of course, they would forget him the moment he lost.
It was Johnson’s conviction under the Mann Act which led to President Trump pardoning the former champ late in 2018. How would Jack Johnson have reacted? Well, while he might have appreciated the President’s talent for self-promotion, I have little doubt that he’d be repelled by the racism evident in his language and actions. Thanks, I can imagine him saying, it’s a pardon I well deserve, but coming from you, I’ll pass on it, all the same.