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The Reader: The Big Smoke

This year’s Big Read introduces a chapter of black history relevant today for its social commentary

      Jack Johnson shocked the world by rising from the culture of Jim Crow to become boxing’s first African American world heavyweight cham­pion. A century later, Adrian Matejka chronicled his life and rise to fame in The Big Smoke. In 2013 it was considered for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award — for poetry.
        This year, The Big Smoke is circulating around Anne Arundel County as part of The Big Read, which began February 1.
       “We hope The Big Smoke will bring pride to the African American community and help others appreciate and enjoy a culture and history different to their own,” said Big Read sponsor Deborah Wood of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum.
      In The Big Smoke’s five long poems, the 47-year-old African American poet paints a layered portrait of Jack Johnson, capturing his human complexity.
       Don’t be scared away by its poetry. It is very easy to get absorbed in these lyrical and rhythmic poems. Typically free verse and loosely structured, the poems mimic the cadence of speech. Poems describing Johnson’s matches follow the movement of a boxer circling around the ring, bringing us into the action of the story.
      The fighter’s perspective waivers between confident bravado and crippling self-doubt. He proclaims his superior athleticism, often blasting the white boxers who won’t face him as cowards using the segregation of their sport as their excuse. His success in the ring has made him rich; he can afford fine cars and expensive jewelry to woo beautiful women, flaunting his success outside of the ring. But in his thoughts, he sometimes questions his exceptionalism. The voice given him by the poet toggles between these two extremes.
       Other voices speak as well. Scattered throughout Johnson’s narrative are the stories of three of the women he loved: Hattie McClay, Belle Schreiber and Etta Duryea, all white women.
      Hattie’s story is told in letters addressed to Belle. Belle’s voice is captured in police reports and testimonies. Etta’s poems, with their Italian phrases, are more ethereal. In distinct voice, each woman describes the tumultuousness of being with Johnson and the domestic violence that plagued their relationships. Their perspectives add depth to Johnson’s reflections on glory and doubt.
       Beautiful writing and characterization aside, The Big Smoke is relevant today for its social commentary. Johnson’s story highlights the racist origins of boxing, the stereotypes, slurs and slanders against black people and the racist regime of Jim Crow. Matejka uses historic events, newspaper headlines, song lyrics and quotes to help us all feel what it was like to be an African American in the early 1900s.
       Diverse reading is a way to improve our world. Books about the experiences of others make acceptance and empathy more widespread, creating hope that history will no longer repeat itself. For all these reasons, The Big Smoke is worth a read.
        Through grants from the National Endowment of the Arts, The Big Smoke is free at Chesapeake Children’s Museum in Annapolis.
Veronica Lathroum is a librarian at Anne Arundel ­County’s Mountain Road branch library.