White hopes : heavyweight boxing and the repercussions of race

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Date

2001-08

Authors

Rutter, John David

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Abstract

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the phrase “white hope” originated as a reference to a white boxer capable of beating Jack Johnson, who in 1908, defeated Tommy Burns to became the first black heavyweight champion of the world. Since its conception, the phrase has transcended both the era of Jack Johnson and the arena of boxing. This study sought to answer three questions: (1) What exactly is the white hope? (2) How has its meaning evolved? (3) What are the consequences of its recurring invocation? As a way to answer these three questions, this study hypothesized that an investigation of the “white hope” need not be associated with the assorted cast of white heavyweight challengers, but rather with the white discourse about black heavyweight champions. Consequently, this study was structured around the primarily white (and primarily male) discursive activity accompanying the four most significant black heavyweight champions of the twentieth-century: Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, and Mike Tyson. Chapter One launches the study of “white hope” by linking it to the theoretical category of “whiteness” and the sport of boxing. Chapter Two examines the origin vii of “white hope” through an analysis of discursive reactions to Jack Johnson’s tenure as heavyweight champion. Chapter Three interrogates the subsequent disavowal of “white hope” during Joe Louis’ reign as champion. Chapter Four explores how the “white hope” was resurrected during Muhammad Ali’s championship years. Chapter Five uncovers the contemporary ambivalence associated with the term as Mike Tyson ruled the ring. Finally, Chapter Six argues that these four case studies demonstrate how white journalists, writers, and filmmakers, in their attempt to make sense of these black champion boxers, and more generally of black masculinity, have revealed as much about their own racial belief systems and psychology — i.e., their own whiteness — as they have about their subject.

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