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  • Published: 15 January 2015
  • ISBN: 9780224092340
  • Imprint: Yellow Jersey
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 544
  • RRP: $22.99

Unforgivable Blackness

The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson

The prize-winning biography of Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight world champion - and one of the most controversial black figures of the 20th century.



He was the first black heavyweight champion in history (1908-15) and the most celebrated - and most reviled - African American of his age. In Unforgivable Blackness, prize-winning biographer Geoffrey C. Ward brings to vivid life the real Jack Johnson, a figure far more complex than the newspaper headlines could ever convey.

Johnson battled his way from obscurity to the top of the heavyweight ranks and in 1908 won the greatest prize in American sports - one that had always been the preserve of white boxers. At a time when whites ran everything in America, he took orders from no one and resolved to live as if colour did not exist. Because of this, the federal government set out to destroy him and he was forced to endure a year of prison and seven years of exile. As Ward shows, Johnson was seen as a perpetual threat to white and African Americans alike - profligate, arrogant, amoral, a dark menace and a danger to the natural order of things.

Unforgivable Blackness is the first full-scale biography of Johnson in more than twenty years. Accompanied by more than fifty photographs and drawing on a wealth of new material - including Johnson's never-before-published prison memoir - it restores Jack Johnson to his rightful place in the pantheon of sporting and social warriors.

  • Published: 15 January 2015
  • ISBN: 9780224092340
  • Imprint: Yellow Jersey
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 544
  • RRP: $22.99

About the author

Geoffrey Ward

Geoffrey C. Ward won the national Book Critics Circle Award in 1989. He is the author of Unforgiveable Blackness and, with Ken Burns, he is co-author of The Civil War and Jazz.

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Praise for Unforgivable Blackness

A significant achievement... An utterly convincing and frequently heartrending portrait

Joyce Carol Oates, New York Review of Books

A formidable accomplishment...Ward has successfully brought this deep and colourful personality, this insufficiently understood and altogether amazing man, back to life

David Margolick, New York Times Book Review

A portrait of a fascinating figure, whose oversized personality fills every page.

Bruce Schoenfeld, Washington Post

Ward is a distinguished and diligent historian, and he has mined original sources to tremendous effect. The detail is dazzling... It deserves an audience far beyond fans of the ring game

Andrew Baker, Daily Telegraph

'a delicious detail on almost every page... Research this powerful gives Unforgivable Blackness a richness that rewards contemplative reading',

Jon Hotten, Scotland on Sunday

This remarkable book is at one and the same time a rousing story, a terrific biography, and first-rate history.With immense skill, Geoffrey Ward has not only brought Jack Johnson back to life but has provided a telling window onto what it was like to be a great black athlete in early-twentieth-century America.

Doris Kearns Goodwin

Geoffrey Ward's Unforgivable Blackness is a stunning exploration of the unbelievable bigotry of whites in early-twentieth-century America.

David Levering Lewis, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the two-volume biography of W. E. B. Du Bois

This compelling and exhaustively researched biography resurrects the story of a uniquely fascinating man...The authoritative biography of Johnson for sure, but also one of the best boxing books in recent memory.


'probably the finest book on the uniquely talented and horribly hounded black heavyweight champion from the early years of the 20th century...Johnson was a remarkable man... Little has changed, believe it or not'.


'Great subject, great book....Ward shows us how the great black heavyweight champion overcame a poor education to mix successfully with the glitterati of Europe and America'.

The Daily Ireland

'Geoffrey C Ward offers a detailed and telling portrait of Johnson's life and times'.

Alan Chadwick, Metro

'compelling biography...Johnson's life was a chaotic tableaux of women, fights and fast cars...Ward depicts all this in gripping prose...Hats off to Ward for getting as close to the ghost as anyone will'.

Alex Wade, Times

Ward has produced a meticulous, well-researched biography of a maverick, a fascinating figure who held on to sport’s most coveted world crown for seven years. Compulsive stuff

Peter Sharkey, Post

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