The image that I cannot shake, a full two days later, doesn’t include Tiger Woods. He wasn’t in the frame that’s going to stay with me forever.
He and his father, Earl, not long past bypass surgery, had just concluded a long and loving embrace, which given the state of fatherhood in black America was emotional enough.
Tiger had walked in one direction, toward Butler Cabin, to be awarded his green jacket for winning the Masters. But the camera for some reason stayed on Earl Woods, who walked off in another direction.
And in the picture, pretty much all you could see was Earl Woods being royally escorted off Augusta National by a legion of what appeared to be Georgia state troopers. At that point, nothing else mattered. A brown-skinned father of a brown-skinned golfer was being guarded by Southern state troopers at a country club where some members only 10 years ago would rather have died and gone to hell than see that man even walk the course, much less play it.
Words cannot adequately describe the emotions felt at that moment by millions of people in the country, most of them people of color. The Southern state trooper, second only to the Klan, is the real face of the violent white South, of club-swinging, water-spraying days of the 1960s. Part of me wanted to sit there dispassionately and watch life as it ought to be and should have been. Part of me wanted to go to church and shout.
I was fortunate enough to be watching the final moments of The Masters on television with a passionate golfer, my father-in-law-to-be, an accomplished professional black man in his sixties and a Southerner who undoubtedly felt emotions that someone 30 years younger can’t feel. After six people in the room had fallen totally silent, he said, “Can you believe all of this?”
It is a bit much to take in all at once. Tiger Woods winning The Masters on Sunday and, 48 hours later, the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color line being celebrated Tuesday night at Shea Stadium. Nothing like this just happens willy-nilly, this bridge from Robinson to Woods, from Brooklyn to Augusta, Ga., from one ballplayer who endured unspeakable hatred in the name of progress to this young golfer who now has to negotiate unimaginable adulation. It certainly seems the baton has been passed once again, from Jesse Owens to Joe Louis to Jack Robinson to Muhammad Ali to Arthur Ashe and now to Tiger Woods.
Those of us looking for a sign that young Tiger can handle this, that he indeed understands his burden and is willing to carry it, got a clear one even before he received his green jacket Sunday. Talking to CBS’s Jim Nantz, who asked him about being the first African American and Asian American to win golf’s most prestigious tournament, Woods demonstrated a sense of history, of indebtedness and common sense beyond his years when he said, “I may be the first, but I’m not a pioneer.” And then he went on to thank, by name, Charlie Sifford, Lee Elder and Ted Rhodes, black golfers - all pioneers - who had not a prayer until recently of walking through the front door at Augusta National.
Sifford, Elder and Rhodes are to Woods as Cool Papa Bell, Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson were to Jackie Robinson, the men who took all the earliest hits, who had doors slammed in their faces and roads blocked. It is only through Woods’ light that people now will begin to learn more of Sifford, Elder and Rhodes. It’s not difficult to find the similarities between them. Both became educated men, Robinson at UCLA and Woods at Stanford. I’m not talking about college degrees, I mean educated, learned, scholarly.
It was easy to see in both a great deal of dignity and humility. And it was easy to see in both a sincere sense of family, Woods with his parents and Robinson with his beautiful and tough-minded wife, Rachel, who was with him in the trenches and responsible for her husband’s endurance in ways most of us will never know. Just as Robinson once did, Woods speaks the King’s English, not some mush-mouth, excuse-making quasi-language that can’t do our people any good outside of our own environs, but clear and to the point without hemming and hawing and certainly without struggle. My mother and mother-in-law-to-be, former schoolteachers, were happier with the way Woods spoke and carried himself Sunday than they were with any drive he hit off the tee.
I should say at this point that I am not a golfer. I’ve had two lessons and have only recently started watching televised golf, but it seems clear that Woods and the golf explosion will in short time dramatically change the order of sports in America. This isn’t just about sports, however; the venue is sports, and, as is often the case, sports is the earliest setting for significant social change. Jesse Owens and Hitler had their silent confrontation in Berlin three years before the start of World War II. Robinson, remember, came along eight years before Rosa Parks, and before Brown v. Board of Education. Title IX preceded by years and years certain mainstream battles for gender equity.
This isn’t about more black youngsters playing golf, though that will happen automatically and happily. It’s about people, particularly people who have been stereotyped and pigeon-holed and systematically eliminated from some pursuit or another, to feel free to explore whatever passions are stirring within. It’s about letting people explore those passions without restrictions, without having to face bigotry and ignorance.
That, not his baseball exploits, is why I think we should honor Jackie Robinson now and forever. Those too young or too far removed to identify with Robinson’s struggle can now see the identifiable bridge that has been built across the past 50 years, one that has carried us to a time when a kid of African and Asian descent can be mobbed adoringly by a predominantly white audience in Georgia on land that used to be a slave plantation, and when the uniformed sons of the Confederacy are offering a handshake instead of a billy club. Shut your eyes real tight and imagine Jackie Robinson on one side of that bridge, young Tiger Woods on the other, and all the goodwill in between that can be so wonderful to explore.
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