Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Ghost of Jack Johnson

So, it's all Titanic hoopla this week, a commercial memorial to the sinking of the liner in 1912, and if you don't know the story by now, you don't have much of a connection to history. Big boat, full of rich and poor, hit an iceberg and went right on down. Cold water, not enough lifeboats, lot of folks died. 

There have been movies, books, songs, TV shows, myriad versions, some as true as they could be made, some fictionalized, and people have gone to the bottom in deepwater vessels to have a look. They've even hauled up some of what's down there. A while back, they were selling lumps of coal recovered from the ship as conversation pieces. 

It was a terrible tragedy, people died, more poor than rich, and because man's hubris about being in control of the world was, once again, found to be in error, it has lived on in popular culture. 

Every time a tornado rips through a city, that whole "We control the world" biz goes right up into the clouds with the twister. 

We don't really control much of anything when it comes to the weather.

There are all kinds of stories swirling around the sinking, some of which are probably so, some of of which are completely fabricated. Did the band play "Nearer My God to Thee" as the ship sank? Experts say so. Were people extraordinarily brave? Undoubtedly.

Was Jack Johnson, the black American boxer who was the world heavyweight champion at the time, refused passage because of his color?

No evidence says so.

This one comes from a Huddie Ledbetter, aka "Leadbelly," song that he allegedly sang on the streets with Blind Lemon Somebody and got around to recording in the late 1940's. And in the Jamie Brockett smoked-up, manic version of it in the sixties, which is completely full of errors, by the by, he gets the year wrong, the Wright Brothers, but hey, it was a dope song.
I first heard it on KAAY in Little Rock as I recall. It was midnight on the sea, the band was playing 'Nearer My God to Thee,' fare thee well Titanic, fare thee well ...

Brockett's version allows as how the Captain was stoned and he hit the iceberg on purpose.

Um. Anyway, the story was that Jack Johnson, being black, and traveling with a white woman, was refused passage, and that when the ship sank, ole Jack did an exuberant dance, the Eagle Rock. They wouldn't let Jack Johnson onboard, they said this ship don't haul no coal ...

And here's to you, white folks!

And of course the ship hauled coal–that's what powered all steamships. Duh.

It's a great story. Jack Johnson was in Europe in 1911. However, by the time the Titanic sailed, he was already back in America, and unless he was as good a swimmer as he was a boxer, got there the same way he had gotten to London–on a steamship. And not in steerage, either.

Plus there is the matter of Joseph Laroche and his family:

Laroche, a Haitian, was traveling on the Titanic in Second Class with his family. He perished, though his wife and daughters survived. A black man traveling with a white woman, and mixed-race children. Given that precedence, why would they stop Jack Johnson?

Being black was a bad gig in those days. Being rich and famous and black was slightly less bad, but still no picnic in the park. 

The British were certainly as classist and racist as anybody, and a Negro with a white woman would have offended all kinds of sensibilities, although they did let the Laroches onboard. 

(Eventually, the feds in the U.S. used the Mann Act to go after Johnson, he was the first person prosecuted under it and it didn't really apply to his situation. He had a fondness for white prostitutes and they found one willing to testify against him. He wound up, as I understand it, being convicted ex post facto, that is, for an event that took place before the act was passed. Which you aren't supposed to be able to do in this country, make something illegal after it happens and then arrest people for it. Got a year and a day. He skipped bail, stayed gone for seven years, and eventually turned himself in and did his time at Leavenworth, 1920-1921. Invented a wrench while he was in stir, and later got a patent on it. Died in a car accident in 1946, driving angry because he was refused service at a restaurant, so the story goes.)

Yeah, well, we were, and still are, more tribal and racist than a lot of folks want to believe, our President notwithstanding. 

But in the matter of the ill-fated steamship and the heavyweight boxer? Other than folk songs, no reason to believe it happened. 

Not that one should let the truth stand in the way of a good story, as long as one knows the difference ...

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