The legendary Jack Johnson (1878–1946) was a true American creation. The child of emancipated slaves, he overcame the violent segregationism of Jim Crow, challenging white boxers—and white America—to become the first African-American heavyweight world champion. The Big Smoke, Adrian Matejka’s third work of poetry, follows the fighter’s journey from poverty to the most coveted title in sports through the multi-layered voices of Johnson and the white women he brazenly loved. Matejka’s book is part historic reclamation and part interrogation of Johnson’s complicated legacy, one that often misremembers the magnetic man behind the myth.
With the lean, long jab and agile step of a boxer, Adrian Matejka delivers this knockout dramatization of the larger-than-life life of heavyweight champion Jack Johnson. In dexterous interpolating voices, and in forms ranging from enveloping sonnets to prose letters and interviews, Johnson emerges as a scrappy, hard-edged hero—troubled by his own demons but determined to win the “fight of the century,” a fight that underscored the bitter realities of racism in America. These poems don’t pull no punches.