Review: ‘Tigerland,’ by Wil Haygood
Wil Haygood’s “Tigerland” tells the story of the 1968-69 academic year at East High School in Columbus, Ohio, focusing on state championships the school won in basketball and baseball.
Haygood tells you the sports outcomes upfront. What may seem like a spoiler is actually a statement of intention — “Tigerland” is about more than sports. Sports provides a plot line and characters for a conversation about race in America.
The years 1968 and 1969 were full of conflict and tumult, two years among many when racism, segregation, white flight and limited opportunity were policy and practice, providing headwinds that made life oppressively difficult for millions of black Americans.
“Tigerland” chronicles the players’ lives during the season and in the many years after high school. It features a dozen main characters, but Haygood also introduces many others, ranging from national heroes such as Jesse Owens to local heroes such as Jack Gibbs, the principal at East. Haygood triumphs through thoroughness, also telling the story of Columbus at that time. His research and careful descriptions of the athletes and community distinguish “Tigerland” and give it humanity.
The heart of the story remains the players — especially the basketball stars, some of whom joined the baseball team for the school’s second championship. The stories of the athletes and the teams are dramatic, memorable, triumphant and heartbreaking. Through their struggles and successes, it’s difficult to undervalue the cost of racism for individuals, communities and America.
In “Tigerland” you’ll come to understand what it was like to be black in America in 1968. You’ll see the toll of racism as the students leave high school to make their way in a world aligned against them. You’ll come to know their motivations, what drove them, what called to them, how they imagined their futures and how things turned out.
“Tigerland” maintains relevance today because it demands that we ask what, if anything, has been resolved. In 1968, high schools adopted policies against Afros; today, it’s dreadlocks. Police brutality was a problem then and remains a problem now. We’re as segregated as we ever were.
“Tigerland” took place a half-century ago and takes place still today. In 2018, characters like these face similar headwinds. The plot line and conflict are too familiar. All that’s missing is a satisfying denouement. Much has changed and very little — Haygood makes that point subtly but clearly.
Michael Kleber-Diggs is a poet and an essayist in St. Paul.