Academic journal article MELUS

"Ghost[s] in the House!": Black Subjectivity and Cultural Memory in Howard Sackler's the Great White Hope

Academic journal article MELUS

"Ghost[s] in the House!": Black Subjectivity and Cultural Memory in Howard Sackler's the Great White Hope

Article excerpt

After The Great White Hope (1967) won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1969, its author, Howard Sackler, told the New York Times that the play was not "about blacks and whites" and was instead "a metaphor of struggle between man and the outside world." Figuring racial identity as a dramatic device, he argued that what made the play compelling was "not [its] topicality, but the combination of circumstances, the destiny of a man pitted against society" (Shepard). Though Sackler drew the play's protagonist Jack Jefferson from events in the life of the first African American heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, whose reign from 1908 to 1915 sparked racially motivated violence throughout the US, he consistently argued for the universality of the play's characters and themes. Despite his claim, Jefferson's racial identity and the nation's racial turmoil framed theater critics' discussion of the play in both the mainstream and African American press at its 1967 debut at the Arena Stage in Washington, DC, and its subsequent 1968 Broadway opening at the Alvin Theatre. In turning to the African American Freedom Struggle of the 1960s with its social and political unrest, as well as the spectral presences of both Johnson and Muhammad Ali in their evaluations of the play, theater critics resist Sackler's positioning of universality and topicality as mutually exclusive and reject racial identity as simply a dramatic device.

This critical impasse between Sackler's stated authorial intent and theater critics, who do not deny the play's universality, but instead emphasize its topical comment on 1960s racial politics, creates space to consider The Great White Hope from three vantages: first, as an exploration of the tensions between the play's representation of Jefferson and the post-soul aesthetic that challenges Sackler's claim of race-neutral universality; second, as a critique of Progressive Era racial hierarchies and racial uplift ideology-the "racial common sense" of the Progressive Era and its implications for African American subjectivity; and third, as a means of recovering how the play is situated in cultural memory by examining theater critics' reviews. Reading The Great White Hope through these overlapping trajectories frames it as a play that counters totalizing representations of blackness often linked to the cultural production of the 1960s and that stands as more than a literary anachronism of a bygone era. Instead, Sackler's Jack Jefferson explores black subjectivity by questioning racial uplift's representational strategies. Offering a mode of black subjectivity that emphasizes interiority rather than racial representations intended to counter stereotypical images of African Americans, Jefferson critiques and subverts such Progressive Era representational tactics. Finally, in its reconsideration of uplift ideology's representational strategies and their efficacy in assimilating African Americans into the US body politic, The Great White Hope's reading of Progressive Era racial common sense resonates in the post-soul aesthetic.

Uplift Ideology and the Post-Soul Aesthetic

Though there is no consensus among critics, post-soul generally signals work produced by African American artists "who were ... born or came of age after the Civil Rights movement" (Ashe, "Theorizing" 611). (1) Beginning in the late 1980s, Greg Tate, Trey Ellis, and other critics discussed post-soul artists and their texts as part of a black aesthetic that emphasized a shift from representational modes prevalent in the Civil Rights era. (2) Expanding this work, critic Bertram D. Ashe's theorizing of the post-soul aesthetic establishes a critical framework for the study of post-soul artists and texts and outlines the "post-soul matrix" as a hallmark of both ("Theorizing" 613). The matrix includes three features: the "cultural mulatto archetype"--artists or characters who cross traditional racial lines in the development of identity; the use of "blaxporation," which "troubles blackness"; and the "allusion-disruption strategy," which summons and signifies on previous eras of African American history and the ideologies and representations linked to those historical moments ("Theorizing" 614-15). …

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