Academic journal article Journalism History

Usually White, but Not Always Great A Journalistic Archaeology of White Hopes, 1908-2013

Academic journal article Journalism History

Usually White, but Not Always Great A Journalistic Archaeology of White Hopes, 1908-2013

Article excerpt

On December 26, 1908, African American challenger Jack Johnson thrashed white1 Canadian champion Tommy Burns to win the revered boxing title of World's Heavyweight Champion. In the process, Johnson initiated a chain of repercussions that would resonate across the western world for more than six years. White interests found the brash Johnson so distasteful that they immediately launched a massive-and occasionally convolutedpromotional campaign to find a white boxer to vanquish Johnson in the ring. The campaign, which spanned North America and Europe until 1915, is widely noted for its blatant racism and for being one of the largest continuing news stories of the early twentieth century.

During the past five decades, this historical episode has become an epic American narrative. It has been the subject of many books, research articles, a Broadway play, a major motion picture, and several documentaries. Its far-reaching legacies continue to shape contemporary understanding of popular culture, race, and the news media. Of these many Johnson-related legacies, one of the most persistent and ubiquitous involves usage of the terms "white hope" and "great white hope." As of this writing, a Google search of the phrase "great white hope" returns more than 600,000 responses. These citations cover the full spectrum of popular culture interests ranging from sports, to politics, to many fields of entertainment. Similarly, historical media databases indicate that since 1910, tens of thousands of discrete news articles have used variants of these idioms to denote racial issues. On the hundreth anniversary of Johnsons epic 1910 fight with James J. Jeffries, novelist John Ridley opined on National Public Radio: "There's probably no more charged phrase in all of the American lexicon than 'the great white hope,' signifying the pride of one race over another."2

Most historians would agree that the cultural impact of whitehope idioms over the past century has been profound. Research on Johnson has produced many insights about White Hopes, but existent histories have produced few insights about white-hope phraseology. The present study demonstrates how the latter factor reflects a significant gap in the historical record. Over time, these historically significant idioms have become clouded with misunderstanding, and contemporary usage often is inaccurate, incomplete, and misleading. This observation holds true for both scholarly and popular histories, including some of the most complete and influential biographies of Johnson.3 To help mitigate this situation, the ensuing research explores the genesis and usage of white-hope idioms from 1908 through today. The attendant insights will offer historians a more complex understanding of how, for more than a century, news and commercial interests have exploited these phrases to advance troublesome agendas.

This study is broken into three sections: The first explains the study's methodology and its theoretical orientation; the second section addresses the genesis of white-hope phrases that related to Johnson; and the third section traces the further evolution of these idioms from 1915 through today. This approach will help historians differentiate historical literary idioms from the racialized media taglines associated with Johnson. These insights also help better account for the evolving usage and impact of these idioms over time, and they provide a revealing window into the interrelated legacies of news, sports, and popular culture promotions.

Given that white-hope phrases represent quintessential journalistic taglines, these issues are most relevant to journalism historians. Many of the previously cited shortcomings trace to inadequate etymologies of white-hope idioms, a factor that has caused some historians to conflate issues and misinterpret historical artifacts. The latter issue has resulted in de facto conventional wisdom that, although figuratively correct in some respects, lacks levels of completeness and precision appropriate for professional historians. …

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