The Pussycat of Prizefighting: Tiger Flowers and the Politics of Black Celebrity
In 1926 Theodore “Tiger” Flowers became the first African American boxer to win the world middleweight title. The next year he was dead, the victim of surgery gone wrong. His funeral in Atlanta drew tens of thousands of mourners, black and white. Atlantans would not grieve again in comparable numbers until Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968.
Flowers, whose career was sandwiched between those of the better-known black boxers Jack Johnson and Joe Louis, was not America’s first successful black athlete. He was, however, the first to generate widespread goodwill among whites, especially in the South, where he became known as “the whitest black man in the ring.”
The Pussycat of Prizefighting is more than an account of Flowers’s remarkable achievementsit is a penetrating analysis of the cultural and historical currents that defined the terms of Flowers’s success as both a man and an athlete. As we discover the sources of Flowers’s immense popularity, Andrew Kaye also helps us to understand more deeply the pressures and dilemmas facing African Americans in the public eye.
We read, for instance, how boxing reinforced fans’ notions of masculinity and ethnic pride; how whites rationalized the physical superiority of a black sportsman; and how blacks debated the value of athletes as racial role models. Kaye shows how Flowers, mindful that the ring was a testing ground for much more than his punching ability, carefully negotiated the mass media and celebrity culture. He crafted an uncontroversial public personathat of a religious man who prayed before each match, was deferential to whites, and exuded an aura of middleclass respectability.
Through the prism of prizefighting, this book reveals the personal cost African Americans faced as they attempted to earn black respect while escaping white hostility. Andrew Kaye gives us much to ponder regarding our own hopes and prejudices-and how we often burden our athletes and celebrities with them.