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By Mark Anthony Neal, PhD.


Monday, January 18, 2009.

Amidst a media panic about Tiger Woods’ domestic failings and regular announcements that another corporate entity has severed ties with the legendary golfer, one might expect that quite a few people cringed at the sight of Woods’ Annie Leibovitz lensed cover photo for the February issue of Vanity Fair magazine.

 The last two months of Woods’s life have been perhaps the most visible “gotcha” moment in recent American history and the Vanity Fair cover story, authored by Buzz Bissinger, is a continuance of that trend. Yet we are still left with that stunning portrait of Tiger Woods: black wool skull cap, bare-chested, barbells in each hand and a look of utter resignation about the reality of his life as one of the most well known living icons in the world.

It goes without saying that prior to Thanksgiving evening, Leibovitz’s photos, taken in early 2006, would have made no sense—even absurd—and that perhaps explains why they stayed in the photographer’s archive as simply further evidence of her brilliance. Leibovitz’s work has often courted controversy; some of the most famous photographs in her oeuvre include her nude cover shot of a pregnant Demi Moore for Vanity Fair in 1991, Chris Rock in whiteface also for Vanity Fair (1997) and a recent shoot with a semi-nude Miley Cyrus.

Once the story about Woods broke, it was Leibovitz who contacted Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter about the photos. To read Leibovitz’s efforts as exploitive is natural, but the photo itself—and Leibovitz’s own body of work—demands that we accept that there are others kinds of labor at work. Great art provokes, in part, because it contains a surplus of meanings—and some of the most perverse and disturbing of those meanings are accessible to us in the public square.

 Leibovitz’s photo of Woods, recalls the very controversial cover photo she did of NBA Star Lebron James and model Giselle Bundchen that was featured on the cover of the April 2008 issue of American Vogue. James appears on the cover of the magazine in practice gear, with a basketball in right hand, Bundchen in his left arm and his mouth wide open easily evoking the image of King Kong swinging across the metropolis with Fay Wray (1933) or Cybil Shepherd (1976) in his arms. James looks like he might literally consume Bundchen.

Indeed Leibovitz regularly captures in some of her black subjects a latent liberal racism directed at them, that she can be said to also embody. Yet the blatant racist sentiment that some perceived in the James and Bundchen photograph is not the only interpretation that Leibovitz encourages in the photo; is the photo a projection of the racism that is still directed at black men or a projection of white sexual desire onto black (male) bodies?

Perhaps the photo was a sign of changing societal beliefs regarding interracial relations, at a moment when a biracial man was running for the highest national office in the country? Maybe, Leibovitz simply enjoys capturing hot young bodies on film. Perhaps it is all of the above, thus it might be apropos to ask what is the “all of the above” that Leibovitz is asking us to consider in her photograph of Tiger Woods?

Why Jack Johnson Might Be Smiling?

One of the striking features of Leibovitz’s work is her ability to bring an historical gaze to her subjects. Given the now known knowledge that we have of Woods’s particular taste in women—and this would have been relevant even in 2006 given the ethnicity of his wife Elin Nordegren—it is impossible not to read Woods against the public persona of Jack Johnson, the “first” black heavyweight boxing champion. Johnson became heavyweight champion in a sport, that like golf was exclusively white among its professional ranks.

The racist animus directed at Johnson after his victory was so pronounced, that when film footage of his 1910 title defense against the “great white hope” James J. Jeffries was circulated, it instigated race riots.

 In the early years of the 20th Century, Johnson was White America’s biggest nightmare—the big black buck that pummeled white men in the boxing ring. In the parlance of the day, Johnson was an “uppity nigger” who flaunted his new found wealth, his superior athleticism and his insatiable desire for white women. Johnson then became victim of a media panic, associated with the concept of “white slavery.”

As Thomas Shevory writes in The Notorious H.I.V., his book about Nushawn Williams (who inspired his own media panic in 1997), the “white slavery scare…stemmed from the belief that young girls from farms, hamlets and small towns were being lured by unscrupulous conspirators into large cities, where they were ultimately forced into prostitution”(4).

 Shevory notes that it was two of the major newspaper chains—newspapers being the dominant media of the time—that were the primary instigators of the panic, in large part because it generated sales. This media panic eventually led to the passing of the Mann Act in 1910, which made it a federal crime to transport women across state lines for the purposes of prostitution.

This brings us back to Jack Johnson, who will forever be known as the first person prosecuted under the Mann Act. Johnson was arrested for traveling interstate with a former prostitute, Lucile Cameron, even though he was in a relationship with her. The two married shortly after his arrest, so that Cameron couldn’t testify against Johnson. When that case fell apart, Johnson was again arrested on the same charges for a relationship with another white woman named, Belle Schreiber, despite the fact that her travels with Johnson occurred before the passage on the Mann Act. Convicted in 1913, Johnson skipped bail and left the country until 1920, when he returned and served his year-and-one-day sentence at Leavenworth, where political prisoner Leonard Peltier and Michael Vick would later serve.

Though the Mann Act was deployed by federal prosecutors to “legally” punish and discourage miscegenation and interracial desire (as opposed to lynching), it is important to remember that there were other implications associated with Johnson’s prosecution. Though Johnson continued to defend his title abroad until he was defeated by Jess Willard in Havana, Cuba in1915, it would be another twenty-years before another black man, Joe Louis, would hold title. Johnson’s transgressions were used as a convenient excuse to deny other black boxers, access to the upper echelons of the sport, at a time when Johnson was among the handful of black athletes who competed against whites in professional sports.

 Indeed, Louis’s handlers carefully crafted his public image to be the antithesis of Johnson, perhaps culminating in his historic victory over German fighter Max Schmeling at the height of Nazi military aggression, which made Louis a national hero in ways that were unfathomable in Johnson’s case.

With Johnson unable to fight in the United States and thus unable to demand the kinds of purses that he would otherwise, the use of Mann Act also siphoned his finances and in the process dampened one of the symbols—however problematic—of black achievement in the early 20th century. Additionally in an era—less than twenty year after the Supreme Court’s Plessey Vs. Ferguson decreed “Separate but equal”—when blacks endured miserable travel conditions, Johnson’s wealth allowed him to travel more freely and in greater comfort than the vast majority of blacks. The Mann Act was also a direct attempt to curtail his mobility and the inspiration that such mobility instilled in many blacks.

Jack Johnson’s career and public profile are instructive when considering the case of Tiger Woods. The golfer may not be facing any serious criminal charges but he is subject to a media panic—one that has led his various corporate entities to, in effect, censure him via economic sanctions. Of course companies like Accenture and Gatorade are within their rights to sever ties with Woods, though their motivation for such is largely tied to public opinion about Woods, which the folks at Gallup tell us has dropped from an 87% approval rating in 2005 to 33% in recent polling, including a 57% unfavorable rating. To what extent, though, has public opinion been framed by the media panic that ensued after news of Wood’s domestic drama began to unfold?

 According to Shevory, “media panics dredge up feelings of fear and shame as they reveal real or potential social disorder.” He adds that “the stimulation of a media panic allows conservative politicians (who are often joined by their ‘liberal’ brethren) to lament societal decline and call for a return to traditional moral prescriptions and practices”(5). In a society that is partially defined by our pronounced addictions—to everything from prescriptions drugs, to food, to electronic media—Tiger Woods’s supposed sex addiction strikes as firmly American. Woods, instead, has become the target of our collective anxieties about our addictions and failings, much the way our adoration of him for his symbolic perfection—“high performance”—helped mask those same anxieties.

But what does it mean when such investments are made in the body and psyche of a “black” man and what does it mean when that “black” man is knocked off his perch?

Criminal Minded

Michael Jackson. Orenthal James Simpson. We are all too familiar, particularly during the past two decades, of what is looks like when the perfect Negro is knocked off his perch. That the two figures who preceded Tiger Woods, are also men, who for the most part socially transcended their blackness, only makes sense. Both Simpson and Jackson were products of a different era in race relations, and as such, both were hyper-vigilant about making their idiosyncratic blackness palatable to whites, to the extent that it was hard to believe there was a public/private split in their personas.

 What happened after their falls from grace is historic and akin to what might be described as being “niggerized”—the bizarre mug shot of Jackson from November of 2003 and Time Magazine’s darkened photo of Simpson that adorned the cover of the June 27, 1994 issue of the magazine are legendary examples of this. There are some who believe that Leibovitz’s Vanity Fair cover, represents Woods’s “nigger” moment. For all of the concerns about Woods’s relationship to blackness (or lack of), he has clearly been “raced” throughout his public career, even if we’ve never quite had the language to describe it—and Wood’s own offering of Calibasian, an attempt to distance himself from the very racial world his father prepared him to navigate—offers little relief.

 The lack of language to adequately read Woods beyond a black/white dichotomy befits a national race discourse that discounts the complexity of how race is lived—it’s the reason why Barack Obama could have never been elected president in this country running as the “mixed” race candidate.

With the wool skull cap, bare chest and dumbbells, Woods looks less a “nigger” and more like a run-of-the-mill criminal, not unlike what you might see in a prison film from the 1970s. If the Woods that appears on the cover of Vanity Fair looks resigned, it a resignation about the elaborately staged prison that was his public reality. Vanity Fair author Bissinger admits as much in one of the more perceptive moments of his cover story, “Tiger in the Rough.”

As Bissinger writes, “It now seems that when he returned home after a tournament and vanished back inside his gated community, the persona he left behind, the one he so obsessively presented to the public, was…empty.” Bissinger notes that there were cracks in Woods’ public persona, like the infamous GQ interview from 1997 where he trafficked in “big dick” jokes, and of course the legendary anger—written off as competiveness among the sports writers who desired to be in a non-existent inner circle—when the perfect Negro was simply a regular PGA golfer trying to save par.

The reality is that Woods is not a common criminal, but one of the few figures in the contemporary world that we could describe as peerless. To her credit, Leibovitz starkly captures the isolation the engulfed the world’s greatest golfer and pitchman. Woods’s excesses—his voracious appetite for practice, fitness and apparently the naked flesh of “skanky” white women—is not unusual as the media would have us believe.

 Even Martin Luther King, a particularly notable peerless Negro from a generation of black overachievers that preceded Woods, had his sexual foibles. With no one else available to fully understand the uniqueness of his charge—perhaps only Malcolm X—King found comfort in recreational sex and chain-smoking. That so few people knew about his activities during his lifetime, even as FBI head J. Edgar Hoover engaged in blatant dis-information, only suggest that Hoover might have benefited from some of the talent currently working for TMZ (just another form of surveillance, right?).

 As Michael Eric Dyson details in his book I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr. the Civil Rights leader convinced himself that his sexual exploits were just rewards for his service to the race and to the Lord—and such a sentiment was real for a man who fully understood the dangers that literally awaited him every-time he walked out of a hotel room.

Tiger Woods is no Martin Luther King, Jr., but you can’t help but wonder, if every time he bedded one of those women, he hadn’t convinced himself that he was doing it for Nike, the PGA and perhaps, even for Jack Johnson.


Mark Anthony Neal is the author of several books and a Professor of Black Popular Culture in the Department of African and African American Studies at Duke University. A frequent commentator for America’s National Public Radio’s News and Notes with Farai Chideya, Neal also contributes to several on-line media outlets, including NewsOne.com.


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