Unforgivable Blackness: A Film Directed by Ken Burns

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Lesson Plans

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Students will analyze the media's responses to Jack Johnson and role-play reporters to compose headline poems.


View Unforgivable Blackness until the beginning of the segment "A Hard Man to Handle" (approximately 54 minutes into Episode One), then discuss the following quotations taken from the script of the program.

"Mistah Johnsing" is one of those Africans who look too black to have the heart of a fighter, but he had not yet shown the white feather. [Still] if there is a favorite, the white man is it. He certainly has a host of well-wishers here and his would be a popular victory.
Los Angeles Times, May 16, 1902
Jack Johnson is now the logical opponent of Champion Jeffries… The color line gag does not go now. Johnson has met all comers in his class; has defeated each and every one. Now he stands ready to box for the world's championship.… When they meet the world will see a battle before which the gladiatorial combats of ancient Rome pale into childish insignificance. And meet they some day will. It is up to Jeffries to say when.
Los Angeles Times, November 29, 1903
Good clothes and plenty of them; enough diamonds to illuminate his shirt front and hands to make him a conspicuous figure when he promenades the streets… Seldom does a day pass but what he will appear on the streets three to four times in a changed attire from head to foot.
The Boston Globe
This battle [between Johnson and Burns] may in the future be looked back upon as the first great battle of an inevitable race war… There is more in this fight to be considered than the pugilistic [boxing] title of champion of the world.
The Australian Star, 1908

Discuss these quotations by posing the following questions:

  • In her essay On Boxing the novelist Joyce Carol Oates says "Life is like boxing in many unsettling respects. But boxing is only like boxing." Do you agree with this statement? Do the news reporters see only boxing in the game of boxing, or does boxing take on other symbolism for them?

  • Does the tone of the Los Angeles Times change over the course of a year? In what way? Why do you think this happened?

  • The Boston Globe comments on Johnson's wardrobe, which has nothing to do with his fighting. How are these comments related to Johnson's rising celebrity? In what ways are we obsessed with what sports figures wear today?

  • The Los Angeles Times says that the gladiator fights of Rome pale in comparison to a Johnson versus Jeffries fight. Do you think this statement is meant to be an exaggeration? Why or why not? Is hyperbole, or extravagant exaggeration, a common device used by sports writers? How often is it used by athletes themselves when describing their prowess?

  • In what ways are the words from these newspapers themselves "fighting words" that are meant to goad the players into action?

Ask students to role-play newspaper reporters for an African-American newspaper reporting on Johnson's rise. Instruct them to come up with headlines and subheadings that capture what they have seen from an African-American perspective.

Use a current newspaper to discuss with students the essence of headline writing.

  • Headlines are phrases, not sentences. They must contain a maximum amount of accurate information in few words.

  • Headlines must grab our attention.

  • Headlines sell newspapers.

  • Headlines use language effectively.

Challenge students to use alliterative phrases, catchy phrases and puns.

Challenge students to capture something about the excitement and symbolism of a Jack Johnson fight through the composition of a poem written exclusively with headlines. Alternatively, ask each student to contribute a "poetic headline" about Johnson to a group poem.


The teaching activities in this guide were designed to meet curriculum standards outlined below where applicable. However, we recommend that you closely examine the resource content for your individual classroom needs.

American History from the National Center for History in the Schools

  • Era 6. Standard 2: Massive immigration after 1870 and how new social patterns, conflicts, and ideas of national unity developed amid growing cultural diversity.

  • Era 9. Standard 4: The struggle for racial and gender equality and for the extension of civil liberties.

Civics and Government from the National Standards for Civics and Government

Standard III. D.
  • The place of law in American society; judicial protection of the rights of individuals.

Standard V. B.
  • What are the rights of citizens; explain the importance to the individual and to society of such personal rights as due process of law and equal protection; freedom of expression and association; how personal rights are secured…by such means as the rule of law.

Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McRel)

  • Social Sciences (Behavioral Studies) Standard 4: Understands conflict, cooperation, and interdependence among individuals, groups and institutions.

  • Historical Understanding Standards 1 and 2: Understands how to analyze chronological relationships and patterns; Understands the historical perspective.

  • United States History Standards: Understands issues and perspectives of different groups during the Progressive era; Understands the social and cultural influence of former slaves in cities of the North.

  • Language Arts Standards: Writes persuasive compositions; Understands the philosophical assumptions and basic beliefs underlying an author's work; Uses a variety of criteria; Understands how the type of media affects coverage of events or issues; Understands the ways in which image-makers carefully construct meaning; Understands the role of the media in addressing social and cultural issues.

About the Author:

Joan Brodsky Schur is Social Studies Curriculum Consultant for the Village Community School in New York City where she has taught Social Studies and English for over 20 years. She is co-author of In A New Land: An Anthology of Immigrant Literature and creator of the American Letters series published by Interact. Joan’s articles have appeared regularly in Social Education, and her work can be found at the Web sites of the National Archives, PBS TeacherSource, and the National Council for Teachers of English. Joan is currently serving on the PBS TeacherSource Advisory Group and on the International Activities Committee of the National Council for the Social Studies.