‘Jack Johnson Does The Eagle Rock’ is a poem about racial discrimination. Cornelius Eady alludes to an American folk song, “The Legend of the S.S. Titanic” in which Jamie Brockett describes how Jack Johnson, the Black American world heavyweight boxing champion, was denied a ticket in the Titanic. This post is based on this incident and taps on the mental state of Johnson after the denial. Whether the incident ever occurred with Johnson needs verification.
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‘Jack Johnson Does The Eagle Rock’ by Cornelius Eady describes how Jack Johnson was denied entry into the Titanic and his reaction after being rejected.
This poem begins with a description of Johnson reading a newspaper in his room. He left the newspaper after looking at the illustration of the Titanic leaving. It incited pain in his heart. The image reminded him of the rejection. However, he was not unhappy at all. He knew it happened with everyone like him and accepted it as reality. So, he did the Eagle Rock dance in his room by lifting the newspaper above his head to relieve his heart from shame and agony.
You can read the full poem here.
Perhaps he left the newspaper stand that morning
But not the skin to buy
‘Jack Johnson Does The Eagle Rock’ centers on the subject matter of the folk song “The Legend of the S.S. Titanic” by Jamie Brockett. This song references Lead Belly’s song about Jack Johnson. In this poem, Eady talks about how Jack Johnson denied entry into the S.S. Titanic. There was no historical record of such an event.
Hence, the first line begins with the term “Perhaps” which adds a question mark to the event believed to have happened with Johnson. Eady imagines how he might have left the newspaper with a dazed look. He spent a few pennies on the paper. It did lighten his pocket but not his heart.
The illustration of the Titanic published in the newspaper appeared to him as a “crippled ocean liner”. It was crippled from the inside due to racism and discrimination. Though Johnson had the money to buy a passage, he could not due to his black skin. It is important to note that Johnson belonged to the Jim Crow era. At that time, the blacks were barred from the things meant especially for the whites.
Goes down again all over New York,
The illustration was engraved in his mind. It was depicted in his mind with the colors of shame, anger, and frustration. He put such thoughts away for other moments. Besides, he did not want to burden his mind with thoughts that would make him more frustrated.
In the following lines, the poet talks about the newsboy who brought the paper and stayed there for a while. According to him, he might have heard Johnson laughing. Besides, he uses irony in the line “a figure too small to/ bring back”. It means the character of the boy was so insignificant that it could not be brought back. This line can also be taken as a satirical comment on racist mindset.
In the next lines, the poet depicts the illustration of the Titanic. It showed how the ship went down to New York without the “prize fighter”, a reference to Johnson.
Watched his body dance
As though it was meant to happen.
In the last few lines of ‘Jack Johnson Does The Eagle Rock,’ Eady describes what the newsboy might have seen if he was present. After leaving the newspaper, Johnson started the Eagle Rock dance to unburden his mind. He lifted his arms up in the air by holding the illustration and danced.
The poet ironically says the ship was turned into a “simple millimeter thick” plaything. When he danced, the air was filled with his joy. He lifted the image as if the thing was destined to happen with him in a racially divided society. Even though he was achieved a lot in his life, being black, he had to face discrimination.
‘Jack Johnson Does The Eagle Rock’ is a free-verse lyric poem. There is not any set rhyme scheme or meter. It is written from the third-person point of view to capture the reaction of Johnson when he looked at the image of the Titanic. There are a total of 18 lines in this piece that are grouped into a single stanza. The poet uses end-stopped lines in order to conclude each section. Besides, the length of lines is irregular. Some are comparably shorter than the adjacent lines.
Eady uses the following literary devices in this poem.
- Enjambment: It occurs throughout the poem. The poet uses the device in order to connect the lines internally and create an unbreakable flow in the text.
- Repetition: There is a repetition of the term “Perhaps” at the beginning of the first line and in the ninth line. It makes the lines sound ironic.
- Alliteration: It occurs in “he had”, “too small to”, “bring back”, “heard his”, “his head”, etc.
- Allusion: There is an allusion to the American boxer Jack Johnson and the 1920s black dance, Eagle Rock.
- Irony: Eady uses this device in the lines “But not the skin to buy” and “As though it was meant to happen”.
The poem ‘Jack Johnson Does The Eagle Rock’ was first published in Cornelius Eady’s poetry collection Victims of the Latest Dance in 1986. It won the Lamont Poetry Prize of the Academy of American Poets in 1985. This poem centers on the great American boxer John Arthus Johnson, also known as the “Galveston Giant”. He belonged to the Jim Crow era. Throughout his life, he had to face racial discrimination due to his personal affairs. However, there is no evidence concerning the fact that he was refused passage on the Titanic. In this poem, Eady also alludes to the popular black dance of the 1920s, “Eagle Rock”. It was performed with arms outstretched and the body moving sideways.
Explore more Cornelius Eady poems.
Cornelius Eady’s poem ‘Jack Johnson Does The Eagle Rock’ is about the American boxer Jack Johnson and how he was denied passage to the Titanic due to his race.
The poem was first published in Cornelius Eady’s poetry collection Victims of the Latest Dance. It was published in 1986.
The Eagle Rock was a popular black dance of the 1920s. It was performed by outstretching the arms in the air and moving the body from side to side.
Jack Johnson, popularly known as the “Galveston Giant”, was an American boxer of the Jim Crow era. He became the first African-American to win the world heavyweight boxing championship. Johnson was one of the influential boxers of all time.
The following poems are similar to the themes present in Cornelius Eady’s ‘Jack Johnson Does The Eagle Rock’.
- ‘Miz Rosa Rides the Bus’ by Angela Jackson — This poem details an incident concerning racial discrimination in the Jim Crow era. Read more Angela Jackson poems.
- ‘The Black Man’s Burden’ by H. T. Johnson — This poem is a response to Rudyard Kipling‘s ‘The White Man’s Burden’. Explore more H.T. Johnson poems.
- ‘Daybreak in Alabama’ by Langston Hughes — This piece is about inequality, injustice, and racial discrimination that the poet wants to erase from this world through music. Read Langston Hughes’ best-known poems or explore more Langston Hughes poems.
- ‘White Lies’ by Natasha Trethewey — In this poem, Trethewey explores racial identity in the American South through three lies a girl tells about being white. Read more Natasha Trethewey poems.
You can also read about Black History poems.