TDR: The Drama Review 44.1 (2000) 157-182
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Up against the Ropes: Peter Jackson As "Uncle Tom" in America
Susan F. Clark
When Peter Jackson, Australia's heavyweight champion, arrived in America in 1888, he was known as "The Black Prince"; by the time he left for home, 12 years later, he was more often thought of as "Uncle Tom." How this perfect fighting machine came to be identified with America's well-known symbol of acquiescence is a story that illuminates the cultural, social, and racial environment of late 19th-century America. It is a narrative that features the highly commercial, image-conscious worlds of boxing and theatre against a background of extreme racial prejudice. Most importantly, it is a cautionary tale that reflects the dangerous and mutable ability of popular entertainments to endow damaging stereotypes with a semblance of truth.
Peter Jackson came to the United States looking for a fight. He was a determined, disciplined, and talented boxer who was optimistic that he could defeat America's finest boxers. The battle that Jackson fought in America was one he was ill-equipped to fight, for it had little to do with his technical skill or physical prowess. It was a struggle against America's long-standing racial schism, which divided Americans by the color of their skin. When Jackson, a novice to American culture, allowed his manager to convince him to be "whipped to death" nightly before packed houses as Uncle Tom in a touring production of Uncle Tom's Cabin, his battle in America was all but over. Never again would he be taken seriously as a heavyweight contender. Literally and figuratively, Jackson had become America's most famous Uncle Tom.
Other historians who have chronicled Jackson's career in America have focused on his success in the boxing ring, his personal romances or, to a limited extent, his compromised position as a black boxer in America. 1 Consequently, his career as an actor has been dismissed, if not altogether ignored, as an unrelated blip in the boxer's life. Yet Jackson's boxing experience in America was poignantly mirrored by the reception and treatment he received while playing Uncle Tom. The fact that his greatest moments of shame as a boxer came while he was also engaged in a role that many Americans viewed as humiliating cannot be dismissed as mere coincidence. The slow process of Jackson's disillusionment--in the boxing ring, on the stage, and in American society--is intricately entangled in the complex web of race, ideology, and popular culture that weave the cloth of American society. By viewing Jackson's boxing [End Page 157] and acting careers as a single continuum, the pieces of the story work together to illuminate the dilemma faced by a man who many believed should have been the World Heavyweight Champion.
Round 1: Jackson Comes to America, 1888
Born in the West Indies, Jackson immigrated to Australia with his parents as a young boy. Though his parents returned to their native St. Croix, Peter remained in Australia under the guidance of Clay Callahan, an American ship owner, who recognized the young boy's physical talent. It was Callahan who introduced the teenage Peter Jackson to Larry Foley, a former championship prizefighter and the most renowned boxing instructor in Australia. Under Foley's tutelage, Jackson gained the technical skills he needed to compliment his extraordinary athletic ability.
Jackson began his first professional bouts in 1882, at age 21, when he defeated Jack Hayes in a seven-round knockout after a previous match with [End Page 158] [Begin Page 160] Hayes that had ended in a draw. To become the reigning Heavyweight Champion of Australia, Jackson demolished some of the sport's most highly regarded boxers, including Sam Britten, Mick Dooley, and finally, Tom Lees, the title holder until his defeat by Jackson in 1886. It was during his rise to the top in Australia that Jackson first encountered discrimination, in the form of Jack Burke, the "Irish Lad," who asserted he...