Unforgivable Blackness: A Film Directed by Ken Burns

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For Teachers

Lesson Plans

Download the Educator's Guide (PDF)

For additional classroom content, please visit PBS TeacherSource.

Why Jack Johnson?

Any serious study of American history inevitably engages the question of race and the monumental hypocrisy born at our founding; the existence of slavery in a country that had just proclaimed to the world that "all men are created equal..." In the story of Jack Johnson, these questions come to a profound crux. This is not just a story of supreme athletic achievement, nor even just a story of sex — black and white relationships — which got Johnson into so much trouble. It's not even wholly about race, though Johnson's "unforgivable blackness" propels this extraordinary story. In the end this is a story about freedom, and one black man's insistence that he be able to live a life nothing short of that of a free man.
— Ken Burns

Using This Guide

This study guide is written and designed to serve a target audience of students in grades 9-12. It is centered on a series of multidisciplinary learning activities and extension ideas, each correlating to national teaching standards.

Students use critical analysis, investigative techniques and creative writing skills to explore various historical influences on American life, including race, racism and the role of the press. The guide contains resources to aid students in researching how social and political realities create practical challenges in people's lives.

In one lesson, educators and students explore the "color line" and the effects of race and racism on daily living and discuss miscegenation and the history of American law relating to interracial marraige. In two lessons, students analyze primary documents to write about Jack Johnson in poetic and journalistic styles. Students will also role-play as journalists and create sports pages reflecting various historical media.

This guide may be used in conjunction with the film or as a stand-alone educational piece. Throughout the course of study, students should be encouraged to refer to additional sources to supplement their knowledge of Johnson's life, American social and cultural history in the 1900s, and the intersections of race, sports and laws.

For a printed copy of this guide, contact:
WETA Educational Services
2775 S. Quincy Street
Arlington, VA 22206

Please send comments to eod@weta.com.

A Note to Teachers:

As with any resource, we encourage you to preview this program before using it in your classroom. This film discusses the many controversies surrounding Jack Johnson and places them within the context of the pervasive racism of the period. The program contains language and situations that may not be appropriate for all students.

Taping Rights: One Year

PBS provides one year of off-air taping rights for preK-12 grade teachers. If teachers use the programming in their classroom, they can tape a program one time (per teacher request) and retain it for instructional use for one year from the time they taped it off the air, regardless of the national, original broadcast date and regardless of how many subsequent times the program airs. After one year, the proram should be erased.

To purchase and videocassette, DVD or the companion book Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, visit www.shoppbs.org/teachers/.