Saturday, December 31, 2011

Greatest Hits

As 2011 ends, many lists of greatest hits and memorials to famous men and women circulate; Joe Frazier was and could deliver one of the greatest “hits” of all time. As a tribute to his passing in November, this post highlights the long legacy of African American achievement in the sport of boxing through two jewels in the holdings of the Auburn Avenue archives. The first African American world heavyweight champ, Jack Johnson became a lightning rod for the racial politics of the Jim Crow era and, as Mark Scott observes, also “contributed to the world of music by opening a nightclub, in Harlem, the Club Deluxe, that was later bought by gangsters and turned into the Cotton Club” (216). According to Scott, Mohammed Ali’s coaches would evoke Jack Johnson for ringside support: “Ghost in the house, the ghost of Jack Johnson is watching” (216). In a 1909 poster declaring Johnson the “Champion of the World” in the archival holdings, the newly-crowned heavyweight champion is portrayed in his fighting stance, flanked by two ovals, the one on the lower-left depicting his humble origins in Galveston, Texas and the other on the lower-right showing him in the driver's seat of the latest automobile. 
Brandt and Scheible Poster Commemorating Jack Johnson's World Heavyweight Title
As the writer Ralph Ellison would later note, Jack Johnson “was rejected by most whites and by many respectable Negroes, but he was nevertheless a hero among veterans of the Spanish-American War who rejoiced in the skill and √©lan with which Johnson set off the now-outrageous search for a ‘White Hope’” (215). While the 1909 Brandt and Scheible poster chronicles Johnson’s rise to power, a gorgeous oversized, collectible book from Taschen (made available to the public in 2004) documents the life of the “Greatest of All Time.” Of a limited edition run of nine thousand, the archives of AARL boast copy number 5,362 of this one-of-a-kind monograph, GOAT: A Tribute to Mohammed Ali. This heavyweight (literally) homage to the most famous heavyweight ever can only be described as an experience: a textual, photographic, and artistic montage of Ali’s life and times. A fitting testament to Ali’s larger-than-life status, this biography also collects his many quotable dictums, both comic and prophetic: “I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize, but get used to me. Black, confident, cocky—my name not yours. My religion, not yours. My goals, my own. Get used to me” (588).


Ellison, Ralph. Going to the Territory. New York: Random House, 1986.

Scott, Mark. "Jack Johnson: World Heavyweight Champion." In The First Black Boxing Champions: Essays on Fighters of the 1800s to the 1920s, Colleen Aycock and Mark Scott, 200-217. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 2010.

Posted by Joy Bracewell, AARL Intern

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