Video: Miles Davis, Tribute to Jack Johnson

In the sleeve notes for this album, Miles Davis says, when Jackson became the first black world heavyweight boxing champion, in 1908, ‘whitey didn’t like it.’ WEB du Bois, noting the flamboyant character of Johnson’s life nevertheless declared that the main reason he evoked white anger was his ‘unforgivable blackness.’

Miles Davis’s tribute to Jack Johnson has a history that links not only with assertions of African American pride in the United States, but also with the aspirations of black people in South Africa. From the 19th century many African leaders were impressed by the progress of African Americans, partly through the message conveyed by touring African American minstrel groups in Kimberley and other places. There was a widespread belief that African Americans had scored great successes after their emancipation from slavery. One of the first organisational manifestations of this link was in the various breakaways from the original mission churches, by dissatisfied African ministers.

The formation of the Ethiopian Church by Mangena Mokone in Marabastad, Pretoria, in 1892 was of momentous and national significance, soon spreading to become a mass movement with religious, educational and political significance. The use of the word Ethiopia derives from Psalm 68:31, ‘Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hand unto God.’ This was interpreted as a prophecy of African redemption, and was also inspired by the Ethiopian defeat of Italian invaders in 1896. (See Robert Trent Vinson, The Americans are coming. 2012: 20, James T Campbell,Songs of Zion: 1998: 103-138). As a result of a range of apparently fortuitous factors, the Ethiopian church formed a link and became the South African wing of the African American African Methodist Episcopalian Church (AMEC), at that time the largest black organisation in the world. In South Africa it grew in numbers and at the time of Union had some 40,000 members, urban and rural, and many more followers, spread throughout the country, notably attracting tenant farmers. (Campbell 1998:139).

The trend for black control of the church and black assertiveness, inspired by and looking to African Americans created more of a tension in the church and with the white authorities than it did with the stratum from which they came, (who aspired to be treated as British subjects with the same rights as whites) and the organisations that were predecessors of the future SANNC. (Andre Odendaal, The Founders. 2012:156, 200-218). Most of the AMEC leadership formed close ties with leaders of the various Congresses and ‘almost a dozen’ AMEC founders were present at the inauguration of the SANNC in 1912. (Campbell 1978:141).

In the post WW1 period mass activities of Africans emerged in organisations outside of but sometimes also involving individuals who were members or leaders in the ANC. The Ethiopian movement continued, often still aggressively Africanist, though its political role was to weaken. The infusion of ideas emanating from Marcus Garvey (born in Jamaica) was a powerful factor in the 1920s and 1930s. Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) was established in 1914 and became the largest black-led movement in world history with over a thousand divisions in forty-three countries and, about 300,000 paid up members and more than a million followers across the globe. (Vinson 2012: 1, 63). It advanced a broad Pan-African ideology, while arguing that Africa belonged to Africans, including those in the African diaspora. It had gradually grown in influence in South Africa, initially in the Western Cape and substantially on the Witwatersrand but then spreading to the rural areas.

The Garveyist movement went into decline in the United States, but the trajectory of Garveyism in South Africa was not dependent on the fortunes of the movement in the United States. Garveyism was indigenised in South Africa and adopted an idiom that resonated locally. The movement, as was also the case with the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU), resonated with existing millenarian notions of Americans coming to free black South Africans with aeroplanes. Thus amaMelika ayeza (the Americans are coming!) was a popular slogan. (Bradford, Helen. 1987. A taste of freedom. The ICU in rural South Africa, 1924:1930. : 213-245).

In this context the image of Jack Johnson, as the first black world heavyweight champion had subversive connotations. ‘Fight films showcasing Johnson’s powerful punches, his elusive defensive measures, and his amiable chatter with opponents and ringside spectators galvanized both black and white South Africans. In the fight where he won the title from Tommy Burns in Sydney, Australia, he had ‘encouraged the Canadian to flay away at his stomach, which many whites considered the weak spot of all “yellow-bellied nigras.” “Hit here Tah-my Tah-my”, Johnson tormented his opponent….As if determined to help Burns earn his record $30,000 purse (Johnson earned only $5,000), Johnson held up the sagging champion when Burns seemed on the verge of collapse. Australian police stopped the filming of the fight just as Burns was about to hit the canvas.’ (Vinson, 2012:24-5).

Africans in South Africa were not allowed to see the fight, though some managed to sneak into viewings and those who did not heard blow by blow accounts or felt pride over photographs and posters widely displayed.

White racists tried to remedy the situation. Johnson, known as the ‘Negro’s Deliverer’ and the ‘Ethiopian Colossus’ was pitted against Jim Jeffries, a former heavyweight champion who is said to have retired to avoid fighting Johnson. Jeffries was referred to as the ‘Hope of the White race” in what was billed as the battle of the century, in 1910. Jeffries had agreed to fight to prove ‘that a white man is better than a Negro.’ (Vinson, 2012: ibid

Racist threats and slurs greeted Johnson’s entry into the ring, in Reno, Nevada, as a band played the minstrel song ‘All Coons look alike to me’. Johnson won by a knockout. In the days that followed angry whites around the country sparked racial rioting leading to 18 deaths and hundreds injured.

Black South Africans saw Johnson’s victory as a reaffirmation of the special role of African Americans in refuting claims of black inferiority. Many white South Africans demanded that the Johnson-Jeffries film be banned from the country, which did in fact happen.

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