Jack Johnson’s lost memoirs

Students of the great white hope fight, including many in Reno, have long been aware of boxer Jack Johnson’s autobiography, In the Ring and Out. Published in 1927, it has been reprinted in 1992, 1997 and 2008.

Less known is his first autobiography, Mes Combats, published in French in 1914 while he was in exile in Paris (see “The great black hope”).

Christopher Rivers, French professor at Mount Holyoke College, translated the book, then did the same with articles Johnson wrote for a French sports magazine and blended the two sets of source material into a book published in the United States under the title My Life and Battles (Praeger 2007). This unusual book also contains prefatory material by Geoffrey Ward, Gerald Early and Arthur Ashe.

For those who have difficulty understanding the importance of the great white hope fight, Ashe—author of the multi-volume A Hard Road to Glory: A History of the African-American Athlete—gives an indication in his front matter in the book: “Nothing that Fredrick Douglass did, nothing that Booker T. Washington did, nothing that any African-American had done up until that time had the same impact as Jack Johnson’s fight against Jim Jeffries on July 4, 1910. … And when Johnson won … it completely destroyed one of the crucial pillars of white supremacy—the idea that the white man was superior in mind and body to all the darker peoples of the earth.”

One very revealing part of the book that shows the burdens borne by blacks is an advertisement by the original French publisher, which “praises” Johnson as “a remarkable man the nigger,” an indication of how routinely the term was then used.