Professor Robert G. O’Meally shares what makes Black boxer, Jack Johnson, the ultimate Harlem Renaissance man by employing various mediums and contextualizing his influence through the lens of various prominent Black figures.

On Wednesday evening, I arrived at a virtual event put on by the Wallach Art Gallery in conjunction with its newest exhibition, The Uptown Triennial 2020. The name of the event was very blunt: HARLEM RENAISSANCE MAN: JACK JOHNSON. And while I had some sense as to what was in store for the evening, the title left me more intrigued as to what I was about to witness. Why such a direct title? As I would soon come to learn, the idea of a Harlem Renaissance man cannot be encapsulated into just a heading. It is important to note that Jack Johnson was multifaceted and listing him not just as a Renaissance man but a Harlem Renaissance man was the only fitting description. 

The speaker of the event was Robert G. O’Meally, the Zora Neale Hurston Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and Founder and Director of Columbia’s Center for Jazz Studies. At the beginning of the event, participants were asked to mute their microphones and turn off their cameras so that the focus could be placed on the media. After a brief introduction of the speaker, the event was kicked off. 

To give context, Jack Johnson was a prolific Black boxer of the early 1900s. He became the first African-American world heavyweight boxing champion by beating reigning champion and white boxer, Jim Jeffries, known as the “great white hope”.  A Renaissance man is a man who has extensive knowledge in various fields. But what made Jack Johnson a Renaissance man and a Harlem Renaissance man at that? In order to truly demonstrate that Jack Johnson was a Harlem Renaissance Man, Professor O’Meally contextualized Johnson’s fight through the lens of various prominent Black figures during and after the Harlem Renaissance. Professor O’Meally also employed different mediums to emphasize how Johnson had become this Renaissance man.

 For example, Professor O’Meally began the presentation with a sound clip from the album A Tribute to Jack Johnson by musician Miles Davis. Professor O’Meally explained that Davis set out to create an album that was as Black as Johnson and that captured the dance movements while Johnson was in the boxing ring. In a way, boxing is like dancing: every move is calculated and even rhythmic. Additionally, Johnson knew how to play bass, so this instrument is prominently featured in the album to pay homage to his talents outside the ring. 

Charles Daniel Dawson, an adjunct professor at Columbia University, emphasized the mental and intellectual aspects of boxing. In a clip played by Professor O’Meally, Professor Dawson talked about how many don’t realize that Black contributions such as boxing or dancing were not just physical but also philosophical. He insisted that instead of thinking about the Black body, we should think about the Black mind as well because every Black mind in this country represented a culture and that culture had different understandings of how we react with one another. 

Jack Johnson indeed had a mind but some saw him for just his body. He was known for his flashy dress, noticeable jewelry, fast cars, and the many (mostly white) women he liked to have around him. Professor O’Meally pointed out that this characterization is what many use to think about hip hop nowadays. Despite some finding this lifestyle embarrassing and disgraceful, many celebrated it. But he was also celebrated for what made him a Renaissance man in the boxing ring: his dancing ability, prowess, and his talent to give smack-talk, yet tell compelling stories. To men, he was quite influential. Professor O’Meally acknowledged, however, that this narrative of Jack Johnson was very male-centric and lacked female presence.

Professor O’Meally then showed various comments surrounding Jack Johnson by prominent writers during the Harlem Renaissance. One that struck me, in particular, was by Ralph Waldo Ellison (particularly known for his book Invisible Man). Ellison wrote in a letter that Johnson was a “credit to the human race” and “operated with skill and style he could rise above all”. I found this specific part of the event fascinating because we typically think of sports and literary pursuits as very distant and it doesn’t seem that one would be that influential to the other. However, Professor O’Meally really emphasized that Jack Johnson was this influential, and he even argued that once Jack Johnson beat Jim Jeffries in 1910, the Harlem Renaissance began. 

However, Professor O’Meally acknowledged that this narrative of Johnson starting the Harlem Renaissance isn’t completely accurate. For one, it provides a too male-centric view of the Harlem Renaissance. It also has a focus on individual heroism rather than a sense of mass movement and it is too limited in dates. Even so, there is absolutely no doubt that Johnson had a profound impact on many Black and non-Black figures in the 20th century and beyond. 

It would be an incomplete picture to not discuss all the hardships Johnson faced. His growing popularity, especially after defeating Jeffries, created widespread white envy. The night before his fight with Jeffries, he received a note that read “lie down or you will be hung.” And while that horrifying note did not stop Johnson, he still had to endure the government’s intense pursuit of him. Congress tried to prevent films showing Johnson beating white boxers from playing. Congress also wanted to charge him for the violation of the Mann Act, prohibiting the transferring of prostitutes across state lines. This led to his arrest and eventual exile to other parts of the globe before he had to serve a year in jail. 

Despite this oppression, Jack Johnson embraced who he was. I think about this influential clip Professor O’Meally played from the film Jack Johnson (featuring soundtrack created by Miles Davis) in which Johnson, played by an actor who used real quotes, said “I’m Jack Johnson. Heavyweight champion of the world. I’m Black. They never let me forget it. I’m Black all right! I’ll never let them forget it!” 

Boxing Gloves via Pikist