Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 439

In The Great White Hope , Howard Sackler presents the conflict between white power and black dissidence within the context of the struggle for the heavyweight championship in the years preceding World War I. Jack Jefferson antagonizes the boxing world by mocking and beating his white opponents and by having...

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In The Great White Hope, Howard Sackler presents the conflict between white power and black dissidence within the context of the struggle for the heavyweight championship in the years preceding World War I. Jack Jefferson antagonizes the boxing world by mocking and beating his white opponents and by having publicized affairs with white women. The play’s themes, meanings, and conflicts emerge from its many perspectives on Jack’s character. Jack appears to fulfill the stereotype of the black man lusting after white women, but he undercuts the public roles he adopts, with sarcasm and irony, to taunt his antagonists.

Although Jack himself reveals some aspects of his personality, he is more fully revealed by the views that others have of him. For Cap’n Dan, Jack is the “uppity” black who must be defeated by the Great White Hope. To Goldie, Jack is a fool to flaunt his relationship with Ellie. According to Clara and Scipio (but for different reasons), Jack betrays his race by loving a white woman. Finally, Ellie believes that Jack is a proud and loving man who is destroying himself by his futile attempts to defeat the establishment. As she says near the end of the play, when their resources have been exhausted, “How can you be your own man, they have you! They do and you know it, you’re theirs. . . .”

Through the many perspectives on Jack’s behavior, Sackler creates ambiguities about his motivations. Does he really love Ellie, or is he using her to taunt the white world? At the rural cabin in Wisconsin, Jack is very caring, but he grows increasingly bitter, particularly whenever she tries to influence his decisions. He may blame her for his exile, but he is the one who insists on flaunting their relationship. Jack drives the unstable Ellie to suicide by viciously rejecting her, but when he sees her broken body, he appears repentant and uses her death as the reason for his acceptance of the fixed fight.

In contrast to Jack’s ambiguous behavior, the white power structure remains single-minded in its devotion to dethroning him. White people have power, money, and control over the legal system and public opinion. Jack has his talent, pride, integrity, and energy, all of which he loses as he attempts to escape through exile the destiny represented by the Great White Hope.

Ahead of his time in his rebellion against the establishment, Jack is forced to play only stereotypical roles which he infuses with a satirical edge, but which his antagonists use against him. He is a lone black champion in a white-dominated profession whose hierarchy crushes him.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1152

Racism and Racial Conflict
The Great White Hope is a title reflective of the racism and racial conflict present throughout the work. There is an air of superiority, a notion among several white characters in the novel that they are better than their black neighbors. The rights and privileges of black members of such a society are defined by white interpretation. Cap’n Dan feels that Jack’s status as a boxer is wrong and should be corrected. He says at the outset of the play that Jack has no right to think he can be a champion. This notion is reflected in Cap’n Dan’s statement when he asks Smitty:

How’re you going to like it when the whole . . . country says Brady let us down, he wouldn’t stick a fist out to teach a loudmouth nigger, stayed home and let him be Champion of the World?

Blacks themselves also define their place in step with white perceptions. A black man, only identified as ‘‘Negro,’’ comments on the threat Jack poses to the community, stating, ‘‘For the Negro today, the opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory should appear to be worth infinitely more than the opportunity of spending that dollar in emulation of Mr. Jack Jefferson.’’

Racial conflict is an outgrowth of these prevailing white attitudes represented throughout the work. In one scene, Clara uses Mrs. Jefferson’s funeral as a forum for protest. She singles out Goldie to express her outrage at whites. When the preacher condones her behavior, one of the participants exclaims, ‘‘Shame on me, shame on alla us, for BEIN de oppressed, an bein it, an bein it!’’ This comment and others move the crowd to engage in a violent struggle, black against white.

Black Identity
The spirit of those behind Jack in his quest for victory is guided by their need to foster some sense of identity. Sackler captures this spirit in the voices of his black characters, using them to comment on the cultural oppression of black America for the sake of white ideals. Such ideals have meant involuntary conformity, assuming a position of inferiority, and a loss of cultural identity for black Americans.

Some characters see championing the white culture as a means of earning their respect. To Jack’s black supporters, his victory represents not only a triumph for the entire black race but also a chance for them to redeem themselves as individuals.

Jack has a different response to the question of black identity. He sees a characteristically undesirable mentality, a ‘‘cullud’’ mentality, among his supporters. Jack demonstrates this idea when he expresses to the group that he doesn’t have to earn or prove his need for self-respect because he already has it. When a young man states, ‘‘Ah be proud to be a cullud man tomorrow,’’ Jack replies, ‘‘Well, country boy, if you ain’t there already, all the boxin and nigger-prayin in the world ain’t gonna get you there.’’ He refutes the belief that his victory represents one for his race, further maintaining that such beliefs constitute ‘‘cullud’’ thinking, beliefs that ultimately limit, rather than foster, achievement. If one thinks ‘‘cullud,’’ then all one will ever do is live inside the box, that is, be ‘‘cullud.’’

Scipio sympathizes with Jack’s views on identity, perhaps more profoundly, stating in his monologue that it’s ‘‘time again to make us a big new wise proud dark man’s world.’’ He sees freedom from oppression in regaining self-respect, as well as self-love, by celebrating his own heritage. ‘‘Learn brothers, learn! Ee-gyp!! Tambuctoo!! Ethiopya!! Red’n goldin cities older den Jeruslem.’’

Interracial Relationships
The issue of interracial relations is a prominent theme within the context of the play. Time and time again, blacks and whites alike challenge Jack and Ellie’s relationship. The controversy begins immediately when Jack is asked to hide his white girlfriend from the unsympathetic eyes of the press. Ignoring Goldie’s requests, Jack asks:

Whut Ah s’pose to do! Stash her in a iddy biddy hole someplace in niggertown an go sneakin over there twelve o’clock at night, carry her roun with me inside a box like a pet bunny rabbit or somethin?

Ellie has to endure the intense scrutiny of others concerning her relationship with Jack. In the Chicago district attorney’s office, her feelings for Jack are repeatedly questioned during an increasingly probing, intensely personal interview. Cameron insists at several points with Ellie that she is lonely, unhappy somehow, in an attempt to explain what he infers is an ‘‘unnatural’’ relationship. He has an agenda. Like other characters, he cannot accept Ellie’s affection for Jack—to him, her feelings aren’t just impossible; they aren’t right. Cameron’s ideas only mirror the sentiments of other characters in the play whose belief systems are challenged by Jack and Ellie’s relationship.

When Jack goes to jail for taking Ellie across the Wisconsin state line, Clara is quick to offer her opinion. She blames the situation on Ellie and is ready to ‘‘smoke her out.’’ What Clara recognizes is Jack’s liability in the affair. When Ellie and Jack are caught together, it is Jack who suffers the arrest rather than his white girlfriend. She questions Ellie’s claim to love Jack when her presence repeatedly compromises his life.

Free Will and Determinism
The catalyst for Jack’s troubles is his demand for autonomy and self-respect as a black man in a racially unjust environment. His insistence on crossing the boundaries of what is socially acceptable to realize personal achievement is a futile endeavor in the context of the racist society of which he is a part. While Jack is struggling to achieve his own personal goals as an athlete, the white power structure is trying to tear him down. Specifically, there are whites that would like to see him lose his title less for an appreciation of boxing than for their own supremacist satisfactions. Goldie is the first to warn Jack he’s in over his head in dating a white woman, stating, ‘‘a white girl, Jack, what, do I have to spell it on the wall for you, you wanna drive them crazy, you don’t wanna hear what happens.’’

Instead of earning the respect of his contemporaries for being a great athlete, he is pursued by them as if his talents are criminal. About to be arrested, Jack questions the credibility of being apprehended outside of his own country. The agent is quick to answer, offering, ‘‘It is perfectly legal once we’ve ascertained where a wanted man is, to request cooperation of the parties in charge there.’’ The reality of Jack’s life is that no matter where he travels to escape the limitations imposed on him by white society, whether Canada or Europe, he can never truly realize freedom and autonomy as a black man.

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