Tiger Woods and the complicated history of being the symbol of racial progress
Perhaps progress is that he shouldn’t have to shoulder the same weight as Joe Louis did for Black America during World War II
I always wanted to be a credit to my race. It’s an old-fashioned saying, but for much of the 20th century, it was both aspirational and a badge of honor for an African American to earn this distinction. If you were Black, you weren’t just representing yourself with your achievements, but the whole race. Jimmy Cannon, the esteemed white boxing writer, meant well when he famously called Joe Louis “a credit to his race, the human race,” but for Black people the phrase was a symbol of racial pride and uplift. “If I ever do anything to disgrace my race,” Louis said after beating Max Schmeling in their second fight in 1938, “I hope to die.” Maya Angelou, growing up in rural Arkansas, said that Louis “proved that “we were the strongest people in the world.” Langston Hughes wrote in a poem: “Joe has sense enough to know/He is a god/So many gods don’t know.”
Tiger Woods: America’s Son, The Undefeated’s new documentary on the 15-time major champion, is a sober reminder of the burden that Black athletes have carried to be credits to their race and symbols of racial progress. Since bursting on the scene with an epic 12-shot win at the 1997 Masters, Woods has been a reluctant hero for Black America, while looming as a god over the sport. His rejection of Louis’ social and political mantle for Black athletes has been painful for many in Black America, who saw him as a source of racial pride and a champion over decades of racism in the game of golf.
Raised to be a credit to my race and firmly rooted in the Black golf community, but also ensconced in the world of the PGA Tour as a reporter for most of Woods’ career with both Sports Illustrated and ESPN.com, I was guilty of projecting onto him a sense of duty to the race. I wanted to put him at a table with Tommie Smith, John Carlos, Jim Brown, Bill Russell, Arthur Ashe, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Muhammad Ali and all the other brothers who have used their prominence as athletes to shine a light on racial injustice. As happy as I was for his success in the game, I was equally angry when he didn’t aggressively defend the legacy of the lynching of Black bodies after a white TV announcer playfully suggested that he might be strung up by his competitors in a back alley to stop his dominance on the course.
I didn’t mind when he began referring to himself as Cablinasian. As the documentary shows, there were many in the Black community who considered this a rebuke of their embrace of him as their champion, but I took it as his ownership of his identity and not my right to draft him for the race, as a funny skit does from the Chappelle Show. Over the summer, Woods went to great pains in a statement to not offend the brutal police state that perpetuated the cold-blooded killing of George Floyd. I wish he could have focused more on the suffering of Black people and summoned that teenage self who showed solidarity with Black people when he said, “Since I’m Black, I might be bigger than Jack Nicklaus — to the Blacks.”
Woods has never failed to acknowledge the Black pioneers who paved the way for him to compete on the PGA Tour. Shortly after his epic win in the ’97 Masters, he appeared in a Nike commercial with Lee Elder and Charlie Sifford, who almost 40 years earlier had become the first Black member of the PGA Tour. In 1975, Elder had been the first African American to play in the Masters. In the commercial, Woods is walking down a fairway, flanked by Elder and Sifford.
“Thank you, Mr. Sifford,” Woods says.
“Thank you, Mr. Elder.
“I won’t forget.
“You were the first. I refuse to be the last.
“You are the man, Mr. Sifford,” Woods continues in the commercial.
“You are the man, Mr. Elder.
“I won’t forget.
“There’s a jacket in Augusta with my name on it.
“There’s a jacket in Augusta with your soul on it.”
Without a doubt, Woods understands race in America. “My biggest hope, though, was we could one day see one another as people and people alone,” he said in his 2017 memoir. “I wanted us to be color blind. Twenty years later, that has yet to happen.”
Perhaps progress is that he shouldn’t have to shoulder the same weight as Louis did for Black America during World War II. There are many more Black athletes now to share that burden for a society always yearning for heroes. Even with a plethora of choices for our people to look to for inspiration in the sports world, there are not many figures like Woods to emerge in any generation.
It’s unclear how Woods’ reluctance to be a hero for Black America took form or if he has felt the pressure to live up to the expectations of one group who may have seen him as the key to tearing down barriers for more Black athletes to reach the highest levels of professional golf. One can only speculate that his focus for almost the last quarter century has been primarily on winning major championships. What’s certain is that when he plays golf he is the pride of Black America. “If I win [the Masters] it will be really big for us,” he said as a teenager.
He’s won five green jackets and they’ve all been big for us, because he’s our champion and there is nothing he can do about it. He’s a credit to the race.