‘Much widened, perhaps winged’
– Walter S. Adams
Stylish, dressed to the nines, Johnson starts up the slanted gangplank towards ship deck one June day followed by a retinue of journalists and well-wishers, his jacket and pants the best cut and cloth, his collar high and tie crossed and buttoned, his shirt bright and shining like a shield, the socks that sleeve his calves and ankles woven from rare African silk, and his feet shod in high-button shoes cobbled from Tuscany leather. He is careful to keep his hands close to his sides, for a man destined to be champion does not need railings to help him ascend to deck. Nor must that man display a serious face. So he smiles under his bowler hat, even if he chooses not to wave goodbye to the crowd assembled on the pier. He knows that the whole world is watching and waiting. For whom am I fighting if not the world? Burns said. Let’s put all money aside, I told him, and fight right here, man to man, chest to chest. And if you whip me I will give you the belt. Gents, do you think this Negro took up my offer? No he did not. For the nigger whether fighter or layman is a peculiar creature. I can’t tell you how fast Johnson made for the door. He almost broke his leg running. So it is that life has stuttered and made it necessary for him to travel to Australia for the second time in less than two years. Early bird after the worm, he plans to reach Sydney before Burns.
His joy does not cease to dominate the ship as it leaves port and reaches open sea, a black San Francisco shimmer on the horizon. Of and not of water, he stands there on deck under morning sun, light reflecting from every wave, dazzling sparkle. His fear sinks and settles at the bottom of the ocean. Alone in his cabin, he recalls the first time he took to sea almost twenty years ago, as a malnourished eleven-year-old stowaway suffering all one could suffer in the airless boiler room of a steamship. Many ships since then. Surely his body is all the better for it. Wrong. As he soon learns, intercontinental travel takes him apart. Three days immobile in bed, all that zealous water out there, all those expectant waves, words like drown and shark tucked close to his lungs. The world whittled down to what he can see from bed through the cabin window. What can he do with fifty birds moving in the clear sterile sky? (Assuming that there is still air out there. Assuming that the world beyond his cabin still exists.) The smell of ocean may never leave him. But a spell must be broken. He has himself, only himself, as a testimony of his own glory, his own fortitude and his own reason. Once his strength is restored – a hushed word of thanks to the Most High – he takes to the deck, and the correspondents take to him. Already counting waves before he can answer the first question put to him. His mouth closes around his teeth.
Why, Jack, you look practically white.
That should come as no surprise. He’s no different from the rest of his kind, dreaming white.
Dream on, nigger.
Johnson is silent in the face of their taunts and questions. He shouldn’t have come out of his cabin.
Ease up, boys. Can’t you see that he’s not himself?
Johnson goes back down under. The words continue to grind at him. He makes sure that no one catches another glimpse of him until weeks later when the ship docks in Sydney.
He experiences the hallucinatory impression that he is arriving on the continent for the first time, since so much is a mirror of before.
Tell us, Jack, how was your journey?
I believe I still have two feet, Johnson says. Ocean in his head, salt in his sentences. But I have not traveled alone, for the only true voyage is not for new landscapes and new horizons, but to get the eyes of another to see the world with your eyes, to get a hundred others to see what you see, a thousand.
Would you be meaning your fellow race of Negroes?
Indeed, sir. Indeed.
Mr Johnson, that is surprising since many of the Negro papers say you are an embarrassment to your people. That you are doing the colored race more harm than good with all of your blatant cavorting around with white women, with your pomp and dandyism, and your other extravagances.
Well, look who’s saying it. A little bit of education can mess up a nigger worse than bad alcohol.
The journalists pass laughter from mouth to mouth like a shared cigar.
Gentlemen, know that I am an unbroken chain of purpose stretching back a thousand years or more to the original source, and stretching that source into the future for all eternity to come. Did I answer your question?
But what if you lose?
Now why would I do that? What gives man the greatest pleasure is success.
At town center, he receives a welcome deserving of a man of his considerable fame and position beyond any concerns of race, voices ripping up the winter (July) sky. Johnson’s wit, good humor and all-around fun-loving demeanor inspire respect and affection among his hosts – Jack, what would you like to see? – any place public or private where he breaks meat and bread, Johnson blithe and happy for an entire week at one party after another enjoying the dense textures of the local foods, everything so intensely what it is without garnishment, pickling or spice. Jack drinking it all in, Sydney floating through him, even if he has seen it all before, done it all before.
Once he knows what he needs to know, he sets up camp at Botany Bay with his handlers, where he enjoys a mug of coffee (brewed strong the way he likes it) with condensed milk each morning before he starts training. He does his roadwork bare-chested, letting the Australian winter multiply on his body. Does what he must do day after day on the light and heavy bags, then stages stunts for the locals who come to watch him chase jackrabbits or wrestle razorback pigs and saltwater crocodiles into exhausted submission. Even goes kangaroo-hunting – proving that when in Rome he can do like the Romans – mounted high on snorting horseback, four hard hooves and four galloping hounds at his service to pursue and corner prey. Blood on blood, he hits one of the odd creatures with the knob of his riding crop and kills it dead. Just short of refusing, he declines the invitation to skin and cook his kill. (He has gutted many a hog in his time, wrung the heads of chickens.)
At last, he says, smiling, I have found my true métier.
Jack, you’re welcome to join us for a hunt anytime.
Truth be told, one kangaroo hunt was enough for me. It’s not a sport for an American.
Early one morning, Johnson takes long strides that carry him to a barber who has been recommended. Many customers have passed through already, tufts of hair sprawled across the floor like fish caught in a net. The barber trawls his broom along the floor until it is clean, then asks Johnson to settle into the chair. Carefully guides his razor along the top of Johnson’s head, hardened skin taking the scrape with a metal resonance that echoes out into the street, causing a slow curiosity, observers drawn to the door of the shop in responsive admiration, dozens of gawking eyes locked in one gaze, although the watchers appear to be afraid to enter the shop. Amused, Johnson flashes his gold tooth at them. But why not take it one step further?
Now that Johnson’s head is bald and clean, the barber brings his razor to Johnson’s face and sets to work, blade sliding along his long throat in measured increments, and up to his chin, where it ceases to move. The barber tugs once, twice, even a third time, but he can’t move the razor.
Good sir, Johnson says, please use all of your force. Do not be afraid of hurting me. I require it of you.
The barber tries to honor Johnson’s wish, but the razor will not move.
Behold, Johnson says. He rises up from the chair and stands looking at his admirers, the razor pinned to his chin. He watches their faces change, mouths wide with wonderment at what they are witnessing. Now they know: Johnson is at the magnetic center, where every occurrence of significance on the continent for the next six months will both radiate from him and be drawn in motion back to him – nothing random or accidental. Every action, every event, however small and seemingly unimportant, has its purpose and justification in Johnson.
That should be enough, Johnson says. He allows the razor to release from his skin and fall clanging to the floor. His audience emotes in one loud sound, part murmur, part moan.
Satisfied, Johnson sits back down in the chair and tilts his chin up. The barber thinks for a little while, then he picks the razor up off the floor, cleans the blade with disinfectant, and proceeds. Once done, he touches a hot towel to Johnson’s face and lights a small fire on Johnson’s skin – Johnson has no words for what hurts – steam rising, his jawline etched in smoke. In years to come, whenever he views his victory over Tommy Burns in his thoughts, he will also feel the steady pain of the hot towel and see Tommy before him in the ring, his spine giving out, his jaw unhinged, Johnson absorbing into his own body every blow and insult that makes Tommy ache in the ring as if the other man were forever an outpost of his own skin.
Each night he tries to direct his energy toward sleeping, but he can hear his entire being working, heat building under his skin, more than flesh can hold, steam shooting from every pore. Here in the darkness of this room and in the darkness of many other rooms from both his past and in the future to come, he will be unable to make sense of the silence. For this reason he travels with a music box – any tune will do – to drown out the noise of his body. He can only fall asleep by degrees, in fixed increments, and by this method gets what little sleep he can. A long time half-seated and anxious on the edge of an armchair like someone playing a game of musical chairs, or sitting upright and naked in bed, with his feet resting on the floor. He studies the paintings mounted on the walls. A wide field of uninterrupted grass backed by the horizon. Looking closely, he sees at the very center of the canvas a small book lying open on the grass.
The moon fills the dark with something even darker. He watches it move in slow motion from one corner of his window to the other and back again. His breath blows his eyelids open whenever they try to close, so it is that he goes on seeing in the darkness, dreaming what he must.
The next morning, he sits down to breakfast at the best restaurant in town, the pride of the city. A group of reporters announce their presence, then take up posts at one table after another, watching but allowing him to eat unmolested.
He overhears them while he eats. The waiters serve him the best of what their chefs can offer, but the food stains his hands and gives him gas. And now they urge more food on him but he declines, tries peeling some outlandish fruit, his fingers useless against its rind. Gives up and settles back in his seat with a lit cigar, coffee and the morning paper. There in its pages, he confronts some parody of his name and character, Coonson, in a bold foretelling of his prizefight with Tommy Burns, christened as the Hanover Giant in the story.
The two pugilists break through the ink and rise up fully dimensioned on Johnson’s table. At the ring of the bell, Coonson and the Hanover Giant step out of their respective corners, Coonson led by the two belts of his lips, his teeth sticking out like fists, and his arms so lengthy that his knuckles drag against the tablecloth. They go at each other in the center of the table. The Hanover Giant finds the challenger easy to hit, landing blow after blow against Coonson’s face and head, but the blows have no effect, for his skull is too thick. Soon Coonson is all over the champ with backhands and rabbit punches and low blows and knees to the stomach and kidneys, gouges to the eyes, elbows to the neck and chin, until he brings the assault to a convincing conclusion by lifting the Giant off his feet then flinging him to the canvas. The Giant lies quite still as the referee starts the count. Will he be counted out? No, for he rouses himself to his feet with only a second to spare, revived by a simple truth, that the man with everything to lose minds it the most.
He stumbles falls rises back to his corner, the whole world plunging down into darkness as he plops into painful exhaustion on his stool. How do you beat a beast that doesn’t bleed? He has less than one minute to use his highly civilized brain to intellect a solution. But the rational man is also a spiritual man. He looks to heaven in prayer. Oh muses, oh high genius, help me now.
And so summoned, an angel haloed with stars descends from the chandelier. Making haste, the angel whispers instructions into his ear. So it is that, energized by his new knowledge, the bell for the second round finds him running hard out of his corner and connecting with one hard blow to Coonson’s stomach, all it takes to bring his ape-like opponent crumpling and unconscious to the tablecloth.
Johnson sits there, heavy and silent and sick, his entire body trembling with the force of everything rushing all around him. He takes one deep breath and sucks the entire room into the vacuum of his lungs, sits there blank and alone, the whole world gone white in sheets of silence for a minute or two until he releases the breath and restores the restaurant and patrons. He tries to speak a sentence that is too long for his tongue, so instead, removes the cigar from his mouth, then stubs the tip out on the newspaper lest his own body turn to ash. For years after he will have cause to remember these burned pages and forget where he is.
A waiter puts his check on the table and goes away, a kind of violence. Johnson orders another pot of coffee. He feels a certain surprise when the waiter returns a few minutes later to tell him that Mr Hugh McIntosh’s servant is outside waiting for him, that he should finish his pot of coffee and come right away. It’s all news to him, but Johnson says nothing and does nothing, simply sits and lets the coffee go cold. (The coffee and the hour after the coffee.)
Some time ago, he had been told that promoter Huge Deal McIntosh had left Sydney to meet with investors abroad and would not return for another month or two, but that fact is contradicted when Johnson leaves the restaurant and finds a dark skinny man standing just outside the doors of metal and glass. The man stands beautifully correct in a tall black hat and a superior frock coat. He seems unbothered by pigeons pecking at bits of bread around his feet. Cuts a striking figure, almost better dressed than Johnson himself, except that nothing fits as it should. The trousers tattered and a bit too long. The shoes worn down on the outside at the heels. And other neglected particulars. Something exaggerated and base about him, put on, his hair far more candid than his costume, unfurling in soft black waves.
He looks at Johnson for a moment, both timid and bold. Puts out his hand in greeting, trembling when Johnson takes it into his own hand. He is nervous but becomes clear enough. Lately returned from the East Coast, Mr McIntosh has requested his presence at the office. They start to walk away, only to be accosted by correspondents, all talking at once.
Johnson listens and takes in their questions with interest. I can say a true thing or I can say nothing, he says.
The answer does not satisfy them. New questions. He opens his mouth to speak, but they want more than he can give. Lucky for Johnson that the servant takes his assignment to heart. He moves, and Johnson moves to follow behind him along the beautiful road that eventually widens into an immense lawn, the office, as Johnson discovers, a small white house placed at the very center, the single room inside much larger than Johnson expects it to be, as if by some trick of perspective, a conjurer’s stage set. The ceiling easily thirty feet above the paneled floor, all the more impressive for its fresco (some battle scene), the entire room blocked in flowered chintz wallpaper serving as the background for an extensive collection of quickly recognizable paintings after the old masters, all the furniture cheerfully upholstered in bright colors. Hatless, jacketless, his breast pocket stuffed with pencils, Big Deal McIntosh sits with a relaxed attitude behind a huge desk littered with papers. The servant clears his throat and draws McIntosh’s eyes to him. He stands up from the desk to shake Johnson’s hand, a thin upright man in his sixties, his dark brown hair sprinkled with gray at the temples, accentuating his youthful appearance, his eyes lively and keen. Jack, he says, I am greatly struck. You are everything I thought you would be.
Shaking hands with the promoter, Johnson has no words to say in response, so he simply takes a seat in the chair in front of the desk before Big Deal invites him to do so. Big Deal sits back down.
The servant wheels over a silver cart laden with bottles, decanters and tall tumblers. Johnson decides on a whisky that has been flavored with a bit of honey and spice, very much to his liking.
Big Deal waves the servant away. Waits for the man to quit the house before he starts speaking to Johnson. How has he been finding Australia, finding his people? The summation of the human race, to hear them tell it. Surely he is bored. Maybe not. You’re on all men’s lips, he says, and, what’s better, on all women’s. He winks at Johnson.
Johnson will not show Big Deal what he is thinking. A certain man like me, he says, has to find himself in the company of a crowd, bump shoulders with other people.
Indeed, Big Deal says. You are for the world. Speak what you like here. I will place no claims on any admission you make within these walls.
I have picked up a fashion or two, but only the amusing ones.
Big Deal breaks into a laugh. You see, that’s just what I mean, Jack. Something in me has to go out to you, for your generosity of heart. Few men of your rarity and stature would be willing to carve a portion of your day and suffer the insult of having to put up with the many silly demands of these inferior provincials.
Johnson listens to each hard melodramatic word. Understood, he says, but I’ve always been like that. I can go about with anyone.
Good that you do. Why, feel free to take up as many invitations as you can stomach. We both know that it’s good show. But, Jack, why be a complete prisoner?
Big Deal goes on to say that, in point of fact, Johnson would naturally have a need for action, would want to embark on deeds at variance with the modest local customs and enchantments. He gives Johnson a smile that Johnson returns without hesitation.
So that’s just what I will do, Johnson says. I’ll keep an eye out for opportunities to be surprisingly better.
Good. I won’t point the accusing finger. He pours Johnson another whiskey and one for himself. And please count on me for whatever you need.
Johnson holds the whiskey in his mouth so that he can feel his teeth, each and every one.
But you know, first you must come down and spend a few days in my house. Big Deal goes on to describe it as a getting-away-place. And believe me, he says. That is no small matter in a barbaric land like this one. You are in the wrong republic if the wallaby recognizes you.
Johnson studies Big Deal’s smile. The white man seems to relish in challenging Johnson with questions he knows Johnson doesn’t wasn’t to answer. How kind that would be, he says. But I ask that we put off my visit until after the fight. As you know, I follow a daily hygiene.
Of course you must. I am wrong to invite you. What was I thinking? Hope is good for business. They think Tommy can win, so let them go thinking that. Jack, Big Deal smiles, I ask only one thing of you. Once you get little Tommy in the ring, please make a good show of it for those motion picture cameras.
You can count on me for that, Johnson says.
Once outside, the correspondents stare at him for a moment before starting in with their questions.
Of course I’m happy to see you all, Johnson says. You newspapermen shed a rosy glow over life.
To a man, they hold their hands over their eyes to better see Johnson in the bright field.
I have no opinion about that. It’s better not to understand too much sometimes.
But Jack, Tommy has quite a punch. How do you plan to stay out of its way?
That, gentlemen, is the whole tragedy.
Jack, will you give a concert while you are here in Australia?
Johnson makes out the servant moving in the gaps of the crowd, now here, now there. Gentlemen, he says, I’m here to fight. I’m here to fight. Music accords us beauty, but sports make life.
The following week, the well-dressed servant shows up at Johnson’s camp with a missive from Big Deal. He has started a campaign encouraging officials to decorate Johnson with an honor. As well, he is seeking the good offices of influential friends for the same purpose. Any excuse for a celebration.
Hungry for contact with his own kind, Johnson starts to frequent saloons, pool halls, bordellos and clubs when he is not training, Johnson relaxing for a few hours in the wonderment of good company, playing cards and dominoes in rooms lit with smoke and booze and dirty words, men and women alike putting on dog and pulling to pieces, smiling right into his eyes and speaking all at once on a wide range of subjects, issuing challenges – Smell my finger – with exaggerated ease when Johnson slips down at a piano in song, leaning so low over the instrument that his face seems about to drop onto the keyboard. He has found people such as these every single place he has traveled.
He leaves the establishment of choice with a light head, that upward swing of emotion, which indicates that he is feeling his life fully, the smell of tobacco, whiskey, suckling pig, fatback and jerky, perfume, and picked-up phrases on the breath.
One night, Johnson steps out of a bar and finds the fashionable servant waiting for him. No word passes between them. The servant turns and starts to walk, and Johnson follows him, a bit dim and unsteady, going on for some time, thirty minutes or an hour, not that he is counting, the servant starting now up a steep path overgrown with weeds, the darkness thick with the smell of putrefaction, the servant moving quick and agile up that difficult incline with the ground dropping away beneath them.
Soon they arrive at the top of a hill, the night high and clear with an endless sprawl of stars stretching above a great crowd that has gathered in wait for Johnson, men and only men, dozens of them, all completely naked, no boundary in that red light between him and them. One by one, they introduce themselves to him, old names that they have somehow held on to, that they refuse to bury. He is touched.
Then he feels motion under his feet, a slight tug, dark pressing in and rooting him down, a blank obscuring where objects in the distance lose their edges, one shape merging into another. White jacket, white shirt, white bow tie, white pants, white patent leather shoes, straw hat, he’s looking down for any hint of ground beneath them. He floats above the world, afraid but unwilling to suffer the damaging consequences of his failure to regain himself and speak to this needy audience of natives who demand words from him:
My brethren, I am no more than a simple and conventional spokesman, who has but a few sentences to say to you. The Promised Land might be here. The man who cannot set himself down on the crest of the moment, forgetting everything from the past and about the past, that man will never know what happiness is. Even worse, he will never do anything to make other men happy. The first quality of a man is the elevation of his style, the purity of his speech and his selective discipline. I stand here before you now. Let my example be vivid to you. Now, gentlemen, shall have at a few rounds?
In November, the Burns camp convenes a press conference in Big Deal’s splendid office, with all the pomp one might expect, Burns himself noticeably absent almost six months after the signing of contracts, Johnson, covered in sweat from a day of training, marinating in doubt, moody, curt, irascible, his discontent larger than the distance between this continent and Burns. The fight will never happen, he tells himself. Tommy will never show. Damn you, Tommy. Damn your bitch heart.
Then Big Deal starts to talk to all of the men assembled there. By means of a special carrier, the champion has sent a magnetic recording for them all to listen to. Big Deal places the mahogany cabinet on his desk, turns a crank, and soon Tommy’s voice comes rising up out of the black box.
Many of you have asked why I would sink so low as to engage in a contest with a representative of one of the inferior races.
In first consideration, it is important to remember that I have already defeated each and every white man who was deserving of a challenge to my title.
So who is there left to fight?
Give me a white man and I will fight him.
Johnson listens to Tommy’s big talk, listens for what happens in the silence between one word and the next.
With good reason the white man imposes restrictions on the lowly black, brown and yellow races. Even so, I do not draw the color line, although I would be the first to confess that the sight of a black man displeases me. However, fate conspires that I fight this animation of African stock, Jack Johnson. What choice do I have? That said, it seems to me that the larger public concern has been one of fairness. In short, some of my accusers feel that I only seek to inflict cruelty on this Negroid beast, like a man kicking a lowly dog. Of course, nigger boxers are indeed of a limited caliber and lack science and skill, so there is no escaping the laws of probability. This nigger Johnson will be defeated, but hopefully without serious injury. In addition, I promise not to punish him simply because his motives are purely financial. A nigger has to eat too.
Johnson hearing it all, tucked into his chair. Sentences circling him, he continues to sit before Big Deal’s desk and listen courteously to the magnetic recording as the afternoon goes on and the light grows long, thankful for this light that straps him in place in this chair restraining his violence until the recording comes to end.
Did you hear that, Jack? The champion says that you’re only doing it for money. He’s right. I want money and plenty of it. How much can a penny buy?
Why, Jack, you should be happy. The champion is granting you a fight. Only a real stand-up guy would do that.
That’s right, Jack. Cheer up. Why, you never know. Your chances are good. In fact, I’m putting my money on you. The correspondent winks at him.
So we’ve all heard plenty from Tommy Burns, Big Deal says from behind his desk, his speech a little thick, his hands locked behind his head. What Tommy thinks is what he thinks. It’s none of my business, but – write this down – I for one stand against many of his assumptions, for I am my own man, and as such, I am no racialist.
I’ll write that down, Big Deal.
Please hear me out. Thank you. And so it is that I am certain that Mr Johnson welcomes this opportunity to get Tommy into the ring and test these racial claims and show them to be the untruths that they undoubtedly are. Big Deal talking, comfortable and cool. Then he looks at Johnson. What do you say, Jack?
Johnson is careful to look Big Deal in the face before he starts to speak to the reporters. I say that I’m nothing yet. Indeed, I’m the lesser man of many of you here. He gestures with his hand. Coming to Australia has taught me that. I’m fortunate beyond measure for the lesson, because when I visit your museums and see the numerous specimens of prehistoric man’s art, your boomerangs of many varieties, your stone axes from various states, the many implementations of musical instruments and cookware and utensils, and the many other examples of Paleolithic and Neolithic man’s skill in art and craft and construction, why when I see all of that I simply envy you all. Your natives must have been men of genius to turn out such fine products.
My Dearest Hattie,
I want you to receive on Christmas Day, you and all the family, my warmest and most affectionate wishes, together with all my love. Remember me to all our friends. I bless each and every one of you and send my fond wishes. For my part, I am fairly well, adequately and solicitously looked after. Nothing is urgent, although of course, I will make you all proud. So raise a glass and say a toast. The thought of you doing so fills me with longing. I see you in every window, I hear you in every song. Be that as it may, I guess I must make do and suffer your absence since the very thought of you fills me more than another’s presence ever could. I should stop there lest the yearning kill me.
The motion picture camera captures Johnson’s entry into the ring, his flesh (under the natural light) a single unbroken tone that resonates darkly against the pure white dominance of the ropes and the flat blank surface of the canvas. Six feet of man, muscled up perfect, game to the heart. Then on the other side of the frame, Burns ducks under the top rope. The two men face off in the center of the ring, Burns’ trunks noticeably lighter in color than Johnson’s.
Wow, Burns says. Just look at you. Aren’t you a sight?
Yeah, Johnson says. A nigger through and through.
They strike a series of aggressive poses while the camera operator cranks the handle in timed circles, the camera shaking and groaning, the entire machine lit with noise. Big Deal has each man stand on a farm scale to record his weight, then with the greatest aplomb and care uses seamstress tape to take other bodily measurements – height, muscle size, the length of the arms.
Johnson’s gaze becomes lost in the intricate tangle of bodies puzzled into patterns as far as he can see. The sight sends him into a state of growing excitement. He hurries to his dressing room and slips out of his clothes and into his trunks. Limbers up, snapping punches into silent space until his arms and legs and chest and back are warm with his own sweat, his thoughts racing ahead to the blow that will put Burns on the canvas for the count, a moment that blooms in a bright flash inside his skull.
Johnson’s voice crackles up in black circling motion: I hit him at will, whenever I wished, but I never exerted my whole power on him. At no time did Burns have a show with me. His corner did all they could to resurrect him after each round, pouring cold champagne over his head and massaging his muscles with boiled cognac, doing their best to force the air out of his bones, and calm his wheezing. What are you scared of, little boy? I asked him. Don’t forget we’re playing a man’s game. Find that yellow streak that you talk so much about. Tommy, look at these arms, these feet, they do not wear out. One time I told him, Let me see what I can do to make your face look better. Then for the rest of the round I socked him in both eyes and on the chin.
See Burns in the shocked light. He refuses to look into the glass face of the motion picture camera. Johnson a camera himself between rounds, scanning the crowd to pick out unusual faces. During one visual survey, he spots a colored man sitting on a fence and from there watching the fight with set eyes and open mouth. His glance returns to the man again and again. The man becomes a sort of landmark for Johnson. Mentally, he fights harder than Johnson does. Whenever Johnson unlimbers a blow, he also shoots one into the air against an invisible antagonist. When Johnson sways to avert a blow, the fighter also sways on the fence in the same direction and at a similar angle. When Johnson ducks, he ducks. But his simulated battle comes to an inglorious end when he tries to mimic one of Johnson’s movements and falls off the fence.
Burns loses all sense of this way or that, fast or slow, up and down, and for what will be the final time, goes clattering to the canvas. The footage stops just as the police enter the ring.
Johnson stands looking at the Jim Crow diner that has refused him service. Longs to set fire to it. Maybe he should. Now he goes moving away from the establishment unwanted and wild through the dark and the light, bends and stoops himself inside his Aston Martin. The road winds through a succession of curves, all around him a sad countryside of black trees. Then he catches an angle of far-off glitter, something red in the distance that impresses itself on his sight and attention. The road starts to ripple under him before erupting into the sky.
Johnson leaves behind a storm of mourners swaying and rocking and moaning in a minor key inside a church where heat pours in through the open windows in rolling carpets of steam, and where light itself congeals into heat, cleaving to the benches and floors, and to the clothes and skin of all of those assembled, who sing as is their wont, song forming white shapes that hover and hold in the air. With paper fans the mourners wave the shapes into motion.
Later at the cemetery, the pallbearers lower the waterproof casket modeled in the form of a boxing glove down into the earth on lengths of silken rope. The pastor clears his throat, looks directly into the motion picture camera, and begins the eulogy. Listening to the body, the mourners know the pattern, the responses and the breaks, seed sense and memory into an image that flowers into a full cinematic frame, the wide golden grin through which all time wants to escape.
Image © Wikipedia Commons