Ken Burns Classroom

Reading and Writing About Boxing

Ken Burns Film: Unforgivable Blackness

Collections: Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930)

Subject: English Literature

Grade Level: 7-12

Run Time: 1 class period


Students will:

  • Analyze examples of Muhammad Ali’s rhyming taunts and boasts.
  • Compose their own rhymes in the style of Ali about one of Jack Johnson opponents.


The African-American prizefighter Muhammad Ali (born Cassius Clay in 1942), who dominated boxing in the 1960s and 70s, is often credited with being the first rap artist. Ali expanded Jack Johnson’s habit of boasting and ridiculing his opponent by transforming taunts into poetry. Like Johnson, he also caused controversy—but for different reasons. In 1967, Ali refused to serve in Vietnam, which earned him a five year prison sentence (reversed by the Supreme Court in 1971) and which prompted the World Boxing Association to revoke his title and license. He also caused controversy by converting to the Nation of Islam.

Lesson Procedure

  1. Pass out copies of the student handout to the class. Instruct students to read Ali’s poetry aloud in their own personal styles. When they are familiar with his words, ask students to analyze the verses.
  2. Discuss the following questions with the class:

    • Which quotations qualify as poetry? Why or why not?
    • Would these statements be as effective written out as sentences?
    • Which are meant to taunt an opponent? What would be their effect?
    • Which quotation is the most effective in terms of making us feel that Ali is above any opponent’s reach and is unconquerable?
    • Which of these is a political statement? A statement about race?
    • Which of these most elevates the role of African-American boxer in American life?
    • Which of these makes the claim that Ali is simply a great American?
  3. Have students research the names of Jack Johnson’s opponents and choose one. Ask students to jot down some specific information about the opponent. Have them consider the following:
    • Can his opponent’s name be used to create a pun or rhyme?
    • What poetic exaggerations can students dream up for their boasts?
  4. Instruct students to use this information to compose three or four taunting or boasting poems that capture Johnson’s personality and bravura in Ali’s writing style.

National Standards

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 Authors

Joan Brodsky Schur

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.

Handout: The Spoken Word of Muhammad Ali

When you’re as great as I am, it’s hard to be humble.

Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.

When you look at him it will make you sick, because on his face you’ll see nick after nick.

Archie’s* been living off the fat of the land.
I’m here to give him his pension plan.
When you come to fight don’t block the door,
‘Cause you’ll all go home after round four.
*His opponent, Archie Moore

Hell no,
I ain’t going to go.
Clean out my cell
And take my tail To jail
Without bail
Because it’s better there eating
Watching television fed
Than in Vietnam with your white folks dead.

Keep asking me, no matter how long
On the war in Vietnam, I sing this song
I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.

This is a story about a man with iron fists and a beautiful tan.
He talks a lot and boasts indeed,
Of a power punch and blinding speed.
And he went around claiming: ‘I’m beautiful.’
How could anyone not see ‘American’ in the following? I’m the greatest.
I’m the double greatest.
I am clean and sparkling.
I’ll be a clean and sparkling champion.