The Bellwether and the Great White Hope

Dr. Cynthia Alease Smith
3 min readMar 17, 2023

We usually think of sheep more as followers than leaders, but in a flock one sheep must lead the way. Long ago, it was common practice for shepherds to hang a bell around the neck of one sheep in their flock, thereby designating it the lead sheep. This animal was called the bellwether, a word formed by a combination of the Middle English words belle (meaning “bell”) and wether (a noun that refers to a male sheep that has been castrated). It eventually followed that bellwether would come to refer to someone who takes initiative or who actively establishes a trend that is taken up by others. This usage first appeared in English in the 15th century. — Did You Know: Merriam Webster Dictionary Online[1]

Hmm… Bellwether. The ringing in my ear portends the occurrence of someone who, according to Merriam Webster’s dictionary is, “one that takes the lead or initiative; a leader; an indicator of trends.”[1] I thought it appropriate to pull this term from its long standing English lexicon to assist in describing Ron DeSantis today. Another term taken from Howard Sackler’s loosely based novel turned movie on the life of Black boxer Jack Johnson titled, ”The Great White Hope,” was also appropriate in my view, given how it brought the anticipation of a white messiah back into the lexicon of American literature during the early 1900s and how it is especially comparative to events occurring today.

More often than not in this moment, it would appear that the Confederacy has continually attempted to place before themselves a leader, a bellwether, to be their Great White Hope, to save them from ever having to account for their atrocities concerning Black people. Bear in mind, however, when I speak of the Confederacy, I am not merely speaking of the South, since migrations of white people from the South to the north, the Midwest and other upper regions also took place. According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, during the period of World War I and the 1970s, “white southerners also left in droves”[2] for Chicago and other midwestern locales. I am also referencing white people with the shared vision of white supremacist ideology from as far northwest as Oregon and as far northeast as Maine.

Within the context of these two terms and what Ron DeSantis is doing in Florida, the question becomes, has he become the bellwether? Is he

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Dr. Cynthia Alease Smith

Anti-Racism Essayist & Educator offering discussions about Race, Racism, White Supremacy and the language used, from perspectives not ordinarily considered.