Sunday, November 27, 2011

Winner and still champion

I learned the story of the African American boxer Jack Johnson from the filmmaker Ken Burns. In between his epics, he makes shorter films and Unforgivable Blackness was one of them. So, I brought a little bit of knowledge to the picture book biography by the poet and photographer Charles R. Smith, Jr., Black Jack: The Ballad of Jack Johnson. In spare free verse, illustrated by Shane W. Evans (whose website seems to have been highjacked, so try this one), Smith tells the remarkable story of this black hero.

Jack Johnson's parents were freed slaves, and Jack considered himself an original American as his ancestors arrived before there was an America. Alas, born in 1878 in Texas, most people in the United States considered him inferior. He honed his boxing skills, though, and became a wealthy man. Wealth -- although he enjoyed it quite a lot -- was not enough for Jack, he wanted to be the heavyweight champion of the world. Only the white fighters -- the ones holding that title -- wouldn't fight him.

He finally convinced champion Tommy Burns to meet him in the ring at a match in Australia in 1908, defeating him soundly for the title. Since whites couldn't stomach the idea of a black champion, his title was quickly diminished by those who claimed that the real champion remained the undefeated retired boxer Jim Jeffries. Two years later, Jeffries agreed to come out of retirement to fight Johnson in "The Battle of the Century." Johnson was victorious, and truly became the champion.

Smith's biography covers Johnson's life up to his victory in 1910, concluding with a brief afterword (thoughtfully titled "And then what happened?") about the rest of his life. Evans' illustrations are full of action, with Johnson looming larger and larger. On the last spread, there's just a big bald head and shoulders, smiling slightly, haloed by a shining sun and the bold words: "THE WORLD'S FIRST BLACK HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION."

My man Dion Graham (here's the usual link, but here's a different one) narrates the book. His rich, expressive voice reads the poetry slowly but with vigor. He doesn't belabour the sometimes rhyming, sometimes free, verse making it sound (mostly) natural. Johnson's strength and pride are clear in Graham's sterling narration that builds in intensity and volume to the championship fight.

Live Oak Media always does a fine job with the extras in a picture book narration -- music and sound effects -- and Black Jack is no exception. There's lots of crowd noise and the thwack of boxing gloves nestled into the narration and the music (composed by Chris Kubie) alternates from a stirring riff on America the Beautiful (I think I'm remembering that right) to more jazzy and percussive stylings. I've always liked how Live Oak incorporates the non-text words into its audiobooks (usually the same volume as the sound effects) and it's done well here.

This is the first picture book audiobook I've reviewed in quite awhile, taking me back to my Odyssey days (along with all the frantic listening I was doing at this time of year). And that puts me in mind of this year's Odyssey Award. The committee is chaired by my Odyssey "teammate," Liz Hannegan, and although I'm almost completely out of the loop in current-year listening, I'm still eager to learn what they pick.

Live Oak provided a copy of the audiobook and the picture book to me as part of Audiobook Jukebox's Solid Gold Reviewing program. Thanks to both.

[The photograph of the Johnson-Jeffries fight is in the public domain and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Black Jack: The Ballad of Jack Johnson by Charles R. Smith, Jr., illustrated by Shane W. Evans
Narrated by Dion Graham
Live Oak Media, 2011. 0:14

No comments: