Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

The joy of reading the footnotes

It’s pretty rare that I finish reading a dense, academic book four hundred pages long and find myself wishing it were just a bit longer. Paul Starr’s “Creation of the Media” ends with a sort of cliffhanger – he offers an in-depth history of the emergence of newspapers, the telegraph, the telephone, movies and radio in America, then stops abruptly with World War II, the emergence of FM radio and television. His analysis of three centures gives the reader a pretty good sense for how he’d analyze these new technologies – he doesn’t believe in technological inevitability, but believes that policy decisions made around technologies soon after their introduction determines how they’ll be used in different contexts. So I can guess at what Starr might think about current debates over network neutrality, but I found myself re-reading the last few pages of his tome, hoping he’d hint at a sequel that analyzes the recent history of American media and the emergence of broadcast and cable television and citizen media on the internet.

Reading the book, I found myself periodically stepping away from the text to investigate an example Starr covers in just a single phrase. The book is filled with there, casual allusions to intriguing historical events that make it clear that Starr could write roughly three times as long a volume if he explored these examples in detail.

Reading one of these examples, I found myself thinking, “I hope someone’s researching this and making a documentary or something.” Here was the sentence that prompted that line of thought:

In 1909, Congress authorized the Treasury Department to censor imported films, and a few years later it banned prize-fight films from interstate commerce after a widely distributed fight film showed an African American boxer defeating a white man.

A very quick bit of Googling reveals that the prize fight in question was the “The Fight of the Century”, where world heavyweight champion boxer Jack Johnson was challenged by a series of “great white hopes”, seeking to defeat a proud, outspoken and extremely talented African American athlete. Johnson was challenged by James Jeffries, a former heavyweight champion who had retired undefeated six years previously. Jeffries announced that he would undertake the fight for reasons of racial pride: “I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro.”

Jeffries lost. Badly. The fight had been scheduled for 45 rounds, but ended in the 15th when Johnson knocked Jeffries down twice in rapid succession. His promoters ended the fight, rather than seeing the former champion knocked out by a black man. Johnsons’s victory was widely celebrated in the African American community – poet William Waring Cuney captured some of the excitement in his poem, “O Lord, What a Morning”:

O my Lord
What a morning,
O my Lord,
What a feeling,
When Jack Johnson
Turned Jim Jeffries’
Snow-white face
to the ceiling.

Johnson’s life reads as a primer on racial tensions through the first half of the twentieth century. Marrying a succession of white women, he experienced sustained harrassment in the US and finally fled to France to avoid prosecution under the Mann Act. His death in 1946 was from a car crash – Johnson was speeding away angrily from a diner in Raleigh, NC which had refused to serve him.

Johnson served as an inspiration to Muhammed Ali, and continues to inspire hiphop pioneers like Mos Def, who named his rock side project “Black Jack Johnson”, featured on the album “The New Danger”. (Geffen wasn’t interested in releasing a Black Jack Johnson album, despite a band that featured members of Living Color and Bad Brains. Mos Def released the tracks on an album hiphop fans hoped would follow in the vein of his brilliant “Black on Both Sides” – the rock tracks were badly received, raising the question of whether naing a project after a man who had such a rough life is really such a great idea.)

As for that documentary – well, Ken Burns already did that, in an ambitious project called Unforgiveable Blackness.

Makes you want to explore a few more of those throwaway sentences, huh?

(The title of this post is a bit deceptive. Starr didn’t even footnote the sentence on Johnson. But I expect to lose a good chunk of the next month following the footnotes he did offer.)

3 Responses to “The joy of reading the footnotes”

  1. As I read The Creation of the Media I found myself wishing for some sort of social reading. The same feeling that drove you to Google, drove me to pages of notes that I took on which to follow up. Books like Starr’s really make me want some sort of easy social annotation service where I can see that you linked to the YouTube video and another linked to a net neutrality article and another to X,Y,Z. Maybe Amazon will do so with the Kindle

  2. Steve says:

    Re: Jack Johnson and music

    In addition to Ali, Mos Def and Ken Burns, don’t forget Bill Cayton’s earlier documentary. It also led to a blinding ‘soundtrack’ album from Miles Davis. More details here.

  3. Great blog Ethan! I also blog randomly at http://www.africanaspects.com – would you mind exchanging blogroll links?

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