Farrell Evans recalls the work of the late artist Charles McGill, who realized better than anyone the power of golf to understand race in America
For the past several weeks, I have been collecting photographs, maps, scorecards, magazine and newspaper clippings and other ephemera for a series of collages of African-Americans in golf. I’m inspired by the work of the late Charles McGill, an African-American artist, who repurposed vintage golf bags by creating assemblages to tell the story of race in America.
“I find the golf bag to be a very political object due to its historical associations with class and racial injustice,” McGill said. “It is both an object and subject that lends itself well to found object abstractions and assemblages that address these well-chronicled complexities.”
In 2016 at his first major museum exhibition at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, a year before McGill died of cancer at age 53, his show “Front Line, Black Nine” featured golf bags with images of black history. In his “Skinned” series, there are rain hoods designed to keep golf clubs dry that recall the Ku Klux Klan. In an earlier exhibition, “Club Negro,” his “I am, I am not” consists of 54 single balls on tees in a rectangular case with this handwritten manifesto: “My name was never Uncle Tom. I have never been a runaway slave. I have never used a hot comb. I have never been an invisible man. I never had a dream.”
McGill also was a performance artist. In his performance piece “Playing Through,” he famously ventured down 125th Street in Harlem, dressed in an argyle sweater and plus fours, teeing off watermelons. Arthur Negro was his alter ego, a black militant power broker and the founder of The Former Black Militant Golf and Country Club. In his “The Complete Brief History of Club Negro,” Arthur describes a place where “Black Americans find themselves politically listless and ineffective…. They see no, hear no or speak no points of view on racial politics, economics, or the educational disparities between the black and white communities. They speak not a word on the outright violent injustices perpetrated at the hands of the ‘men in blue,’ aka the ‘Po Po.’ It is an illusory state of leisure shielded by denial, wealth and celebrity…. It is a place of complacency where the lack of collective outrage towards conditions, which persistently burden black men and women, is the norm and not the exception.”
During the past week, I have thought a lot about my friend Charles McGill and Arthur Negro as American cities have been consumed by protests following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of police officers. Floyd’s death calls attention to McGill’s construction of a world in “The Complete Brief History of Club Negro” where racial disparities go unchecked and the police are empowered by the criminal-justice system to systematically commit brutal acts against black men.
McGill also has forced me to wrestle with the role of golf in this struggle to come out of this horrific tragedy with solutions that can help heal the nation and build better relations between the police and black Americans. No one understood better than McGill the power of golf to understand race in America. For him, golf was a metaphor for race in America: the game’s elitism, whiteness, segregation and policies that excluded generations of top black professionals from competing on the PGA Tour.
In my own career as a golf writer, race always has been a central theme in my work. From the time I started the game as a 9-year-old growing up in Georgia, I understood the sport’s racial legacy. I knew there were places that I couldn’t play because of the color of my skin. I also knew that black people had built their own professional tour, golf clubs and associations. As an adult, I would learn as a black male that my mere presence at certain country clubs as a guest could elicit stares and questions from members and staff.
I was surprised recently when Jay Monahan, the PGA Tour’s commissioner, said he struggled with what his role should be in addressing some of the hardships and injustices faced by black Americans. Monahan said that he had conversations with members of the black community to “better understand the current crisis and the systemic racism that they grapple with on a daily basis.” He went on to say that this was the time for “listening and making a commitment to understand.”
What country has he been living in all of his life? How can you live in America without having a basic understanding of the pernicious legacy of slavery and Jim Crow? What does he think Martin Luther King Jr. was speaking about at the March on Washington or fighting for during the civil-rights movement? Where was he during the L.A. riots in 1992? He need not look further for understanding than the history of the PGA Tour and the travails of Charlie Sifford to break the PGA of America’s “Caucasians only” clause in 1961. Surely, he knows the stories of Sifford, Lee Elder and other black golfing pioneers who systematically were excluded from the game because of their skin color. Perhaps he doesn’t contend with race on a daily basis in his job because the Tour has only a handful of black players. Imagine if the commissioners of the NFL and NBA feigned this level of ignorance about the African-American community?
I hope that Monahan and other leaders within the golf industry ultimately take real steps to challenge structural racism in America. But in the meantime, while they are on their listening tours they should hire more black Americans in senior-level positions and tap historically black colleges as an employment pipeline. They also can become acquainted with the work of Charles McGill. He can teach them all they need to know about race in America.
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