Recently I quoted porn star Holly Sampson’s observation that Tiger Woods is “…the whitest Black boy you’ll ever meet…”.
Um, maybe, in the experience of the Prescott, Arizona-born Sampson, but despite the sentiments Annie Leibovitz’ Vanity Fair cover may engender among some racially sensitive people of color, what with an especially virile Tiger adorned in a knit cap that evokes memories of O.J. Simpson skulking alongside the wall of his second ex-wife, take a deep breath, as I have breaking news…
Tiger Woods is a Black dude.
Sunk in yet?. Despite the racially paradoxical view Holly Sampson developed of Tiger (likely shared by millions, until a few weeks ago), and the manhood Liebowitz saw from behind her Canon EOS 1Ds, golf’s greatest is, by both choice, and beyond his control, as Black as they come.
Tiger Woods was raised by a Black American father and a Thai mother in a country whose threshold for phenotypical “Blackness” is as low as exists in the world. He sports the closely cropped hairstyle favored by a majority Black American men since the late 1970’s (and historically, long before). He has his golf shirts and slacks tailored in a manner markedly different than most of his PGA colleagues- distinct even than the trendy skinny pants and bright hues of the Adam Scott’s and Sergio Garcia’s who are his junior. Like generations of Black sportsmen before him, Tiger has his own style. His tour gear is form fitting in a manner that recalls the custom baseball paints of Willie Mays and Frank Robinson. His shirts lean toward the solid in color, as opposed to the prints one commonly sees on The Tour. His kicks are conservative, especially compared to what the young lions are wearing. Such attention to detail continues a legacy that dates to Sugar Ray Robinson having his “process” combed back into place between rounds of his brutal brawls, Mays’ buffed fingernails, Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali’s splendid robes, white boxing shoes (sometimes accented with red tassels) and proclamation that he was “pretty”, and the long standing fashion statement of NFL and AFL backs and receivers “spatting” the toes of their cleats with light-colore athletic tape. The latter practice, popularized by Lenny “Spats” Moore, and prevalent in the 1960’s, inspired flamboyant quarterback “Broadway” Joe Namath, who was close friends with Black youth in his hometown of Beaver Falls, Pa., to tape his cleats entirely white (Lenny Moore was his boyhood hero), and later wear cleats that were manufactured in that color. Today, footwear and sporting goods manufacturers produce cleats that bear a spatted look http://teamspats.com/. The overwhelming majority of the major college and pro football players who play the so-called skill positions where spats took root, are Black.
Since none of the aforementioned accoutrements augment performance, it is safe to say Woods follows a tradition largely particular, in athletic circles, to Blacks. Cat’s a metrosexual, although in my community, where fastidiousness is more rule than exception, is by definition a misnomer. Brothers have been known to “rag” whether en route to a college class or to participate in a sport- appearance was everything to Jack Johnson, “Duke” Ellington (thus the nickname, as in (“all duked out“), Joe Louis, Michael Jordan, and “Neon” Deion Sanders.
A year before Woods was born, basketball style leader Walt “Clyde” Frazier devoted a book to being and looking chill:
In autobiographies, Frazier detailed how, as a high school basketball player, he applied baby powder to his Converse Chuck Taylor’s to help preserve their pure white look. If Tiger was as Valley Boy as Holly Sampson found him to be, his singleminded focus on golf would not incorporate aesthetics- he would be a one dimensional geek. He stalks the world’s fanciest fairways as not only the predator his monicker implies, but with the Obama-cool of a Member of the Tribe. The figure is imposing- by contrast, PGA players Phil Mickelson, Davis Love III and Rich Beem look like bags of Wonder Bread.
Even the sports journalists who have insisted for nearly 15 years that Woods is a bland individual who lacks a profound thought beyond the greens, must allow that he is careful about what he wears, and mindful of the Black men who preceded him in his chosen (or his Black father’s chosen) endeavor.
Tiger knows who he is (hey Holly Sampson, there are a lot of ways of being “Black” in this country, about 40 million of ’em)- when he was still a PGA pup he was quoted about tour sites where he would not be admitted as a club member were it not for his skills. If he ever forgot who he was, he need not look into a mirror, as he has received racially-based hate mail and death threats since the onset of his fame. It didn’t take a Vanity Fair cover, or even a sex scandal to draw some Black folks’ attention to his ethnic self-defintion as cablinasian. Had the same critics, private and public, been unaware of his appearance and his role in sports history, why would they have even known or cared about his DNA stew?
An EBONY magazine article entitled “Here comes ‘Tiger’ Woods” was published in November 1991, when Woods was all of 15 years old. His participation, and subsequent superstardom, brought many Black Americans to their first tee (and to their t.v.’s- to watch his tournaments). He established a foundation for those less privileged. At every appropriate opporunity, he has propped Black golf trailblazers such as Charlie Sifford and Ted Rhodes, who for most of their careers were barred from the mainstream pro tour by their color. How many Black NBA or NFL players cite those who broke similar barriers in their sports?
Tiger’s signature gesture is the fist pump with which he punctuates important shots and putts. He displays as much emotion, positive and negative, as any recent tour player.
The Golden Child has been known to pal around with non-PGA’ers Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley, both of whom are a decade older than he (but when he entered the limelight in 1997, were arguably most recognizable Black athletes in America). He has not only enjoyed their company, but in matters relevant to athletes, their counsel.
Again, it doesn’t take much in America for a Black male to strike us by his identity. Ask the clean cut former Senate candidate Harold Ford, or the Tiger Woods of the 1970’s, O.J. Simpson. It would be either impossible, or delusional, for a Black pro golfer to be unaware of color, as much so as it would be for a person who appears Black by U.S. definition in any realm dominated by whites. In golf circles, Vijay Singh is Black.
Ms. Leibovitz is no Columbus here, except in the sense that when the explorer “discovered” the Americas, the indigenous people had already done so. As singularly gifted as she is, her edgy cover shot speaks less of marketing prescience or race bias than it does the accident of timing. What would have seemed merely novel, and only worth passing conversation had it appeared before Thanksgiving, is now fraught with scandal, and American racial baggage. Leivobitz’s hallmark is portraying her subjects in an unconventional light. Her shoot reveals nothing new about Woods’ complexion or persona, it dictates how our worldview of him has changed.