"Jack Johnson — if you’re not up on your boxing facts or your knowledge of the world’s great badasses — held the heavyweight title from 1908-1915, when boxing was an enormously popular sport. Johnson, the son of former slaves living at the height (or rather, the nadir) of Jim Crow, first fought in battles royal — where groups of black men fought for white entertainment. He moved into the pros, beating the top black boxers and then destroying the white competition.
Instead of trying to pander to those who despised him, Johnson flipped the world a middle finger. Matejka, who spent years researching Johnson’s life before writing poems in his voice, says Johnson kept his head shaved and sported gold teeth to augment white America’s fear of him. He dated and married white women, and flaunted his money. In one of Matejka’s poems, Johnson courts a girlfriend by saying “We can bathe // in champagne, dry / ourselves with hundred- / dollar bills like those // Rockefellers do.”
In the ring, Johnson was a master of defense, with a powerful knockout punch and an unprecedented talent for talking trash.
Matejka imagines Johnson’s logic: “You’re not going to let me eat in your restaurant? That’s OK, I’m going to marry someone white. You’re not going to let me stay in your hotel? That’s OK, I have a white chauffeur.”
But there were limits to how much Johnson could push back. He’d dropped out of school when he was young, and he made up for it once his career took off. He read Shakespeare; he loved opera; he played classical viol. But while some newspapers , others would state as fact that he was “.” In Big Smoke, Matejka puts it like this:
You can change clothes
five times a day while
speaking Italian & playing
the viol in that fancy
classical way, but you
can’t change your skin.”
— From NPR’s coverage of Adrian Matejka’s third poetry collection “The Big Smoke,” which was shortlisted for the 2013 National Book Award, won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, was a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in poetry and led to Matejka recently being named a 2014 Guggenheim Fellow.
Matejka also teaches one of the 10 coolest music-related college classes you can take right now — otherwise known as the “Poetics of Rap,” offered in IU’s English Department.
Need anymore of a reason to read Matejka’s book? I don’t.