Thursday, June 12, 2008

A fight to remember

Back in the early '80s [before the existence of the Internet], I succeeded in finding this photo of the steamship Marathon, which took my future grandfather from his native London to Australia, when he was 17 years old.

My grandfather once told me that his ship reached Sydney on the same day—December 26, 1908—that a big boxing match would be taking place, between the white Canadian Tommy Burns and the black American Jack Johnson. This detail intrigued me, because I don't recall my grandfather being attracted to boxing [the only sport he liked was tennis], and I've often wondered why the Burns/Johnson fight [which he didn't even see, because he couldn't afford a ticket] would have stayed in his memory. It was only last night that I finally found an explanation, when I watched a French TV version of the splendid film by Ken Burns entitled Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson.

Up until last night's TV show, I had ignored the fact that, prior to the match in Sydney in 1908, no white-skinned boxer had ever deigned to defend his world heavyweight title against a black man. In America, at the start of the 20th century, it would have been unthinkable for such a match to take place. This explains why, although the boxers were from Northern America, their encounter of fourteen rounds could only be organized in a faraway land such as Australia. The match had a shameful ending. When it was clear that Burns was about to be knocked out by the giant son of former slaves, Sydney police officers stepped in and stopped, not only the fight, but the filming of the event... because the White Establishment considered it politically incorrect that the image of a white boxer being thrashed by a black man should be handed down to posterity.

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