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JACK JOHNSON: BLACK JACK, by             Poet Analysis     Poet's Biography

In Kevin Young's poem "Jack Johnson: Black Jack," the speaker inhabits the persona of Jack Johnson, a historical figure and the first African American world heavyweight boxing champion. Drawing upon a quote from Denzil Batchelor's "Jack Johnson & His Times" as an epigraph, the poem opens with Johnson's self-assured declaration of his identity, defying stereotypes and societal expectations. As with Young's other poem, "Jack Johnson: The Fix," this poem explores themes of race, identity, resistance, and the social paradox that comes with being a successful black man in a racially prejudiced society.

The poem begins with a litany of names and labels, "Some call me spade, / stud, buck, black," revealing how Johnson is reduced to stereotypes. He counters this by stating, "I take as a compliment- / 'I am black & they / won't let me forget it.'" Johnson embraces his blackness as a point of pride, even when society uses it as a mark against him. His personal and familial nicknames, "Jack" and "Lil' Arthur," signify that his identity is more than just the racial labels society imposes on him.

"Since I got crowned champ / most white folks would love / to see me whupped," Young writes. This line speaks to the duplicitous nature of Johnson's fame. He's celebrated for his skill, but his success also evokes envy and resentment among white people. Johnson defies society's expectations and the racist systems stacked against him, yet the very society that uplifts him also wishes for his downfall. This sentiment is captured perfectly in the lines, "They call me dog, cad / or card, then bet / on me to win."

The theme of gambling surfaces throughout the poem. Johnson presents his life and career as a high-stakes game, where every punch is a card dealt, every round is a roll of the dice. The metaphor of dealing "blows like cards" elevates his boxing skills to an art form, akin to the skill and chance involved in card games. He is the "dealer," daring his opponents to take a gamble by stepping into the ring with him.

But the poem doesn't just restrict this sense of gambling to the boxing ring; it extends it to life itself. Being a black man in a racist society means Johnson is always gambling, always taking risks just by existing. The concluding lines, "Stepping / to me, in or out / the ring, you gamble- / go head then dealer, / hit me again," serve as a bold challenge, not just to his opponents in the ring, but to society at large.

The poem is structured as a single, flowing stanza, which serves to mirror Johnson's unbroken spirit and the continuous struggles he faces. The absence of a formal structure can also be seen as a rejection of societal constraints, akin to how Johnson lived his life.

In "Jack Johnson: Black Jack," Kevin Young captures the complexities of Johnson's character and his historical context. This poem serves as both an ode to Johnson's defiant spirit and a critique of the society that simultaneously celebrates and condemns him. It's a potent meditation on the enduring complexities of race, identity, and resistance in America.

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