July 11th, 2010

Racism and Jack London

This 4th of July was the one hundredth anniversary of the fight between the first black world heavyweight boxing champion, Jack Johnson, and Jim Jeffries, who was described as the “Great White Hope,” who was expected to regain the world championship for the white race. Jack London is said to have coined the phrase “Great White Hope,” and if he didn’t, I’m sure he would have if he had thought of it. This phrase, and many others like it, turned the fight into a wildly dramatized spectacle.

Jeffries was touted by Jack London and the rest of the press as the answer to Johnson’s victory over the previous white world champion in Australia. Johnson was a black man who  fought fairly and well, but the press seized a ready audience, and held him up as a villain and a usurper, ready to fall to a white hero.

The Fight

A hero, “The Great White Hope,” was found in Jeffries, a former world champion fighter who had retired to his alfalfa farm in California. The battle between Jeffries and Johnson in Reno, Nevada, was to be a victory pageant for the white race. Millions of dollars in wagers were expected to change hands. Johnson was by far the superior fighter, in top condition, and a better tactician. Jeffries was over-confident, out of shape, and not the equal of Johnson. The fight was to have lasted forty-five rounds, but in the third round Johnson delivered a left hook to Jeffries eye that disrupted his vision and the “Great White Hope” was out in the fifteenth.

American Racism in 1910

The United States, and much of the rest of the world, was a racist place in 1910. As much as anyone may reject racism, I suspect that any white person today who thinks he or she would not have been a racist in 1910 is fooling themselves. Not that it was right to be racist in 1910; it was horribly wrong. The vast majority of whites in 1910 were horribly wrong about race.

I have no evidence, but I suspect that my great-grandparents would have cheered for the “Great White Hope” with complete sincerity. If I had been born in 1849 instead 1949, I probably would have cheered too. But I am very glad that I was born in 1949 and have lived to see a black president. The intervening hundred years was not a waste.

London’s Racism

What of Jack London? Of course he was a racist. Everyone was in those days. And he must be counted among the most despicable because he used racism to sell himself as a journalist. I count myself lucky that I am reasonably certain that my great grandparents never confronted a black person in their entire lives, so their beliefs may have been wrong, but the damage was small. But London built his career on appeal to popular beliefs, and the superiority of the white race was one of his foundation stones. He urged many people on to acts that shed much innocent blood. His descendants– and as an appreciative reader of London, I am one– get little comfort from that.

London’s Legacy

But let me ask a counter question: if Jack London had not written a line, would we be better off today? That is an unanswerable question, but today is my day to step into the ring and take a few punches. The fact that I like Jack London is a clue to my answer. London may not have been open to non-whites, but he was open to the poor and the underdog. Over and over again in his writings he addresses justice and opportunity. And unlike so many authors of his time, London’s heroes do not become rich by befriending the wealthy or discovering buried treasure. His heroes struggle and fight for their places, which they win or lose on their persistence, intelligence, courage, and integrity.

Whatever London’s intentions, the virtues that London espoused, applied by whites and non-whites alike, assaulted racism and eventually dealt it blows as mortal as Johnson’s left to Jeffries’ eye in the third round. Jack London was a despicable racist, like most whites in 1910, but he also brought us a step closer to the end to racism.

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