On this past Sunday night, ESPN had a much anticipated documentary on the namesake Fab Five team of starters on the 1991-92 Michigan (University of Michigan) basketball squad. They’re known for radically changing the aesthetics of college basketball and the NBA as we know it–and being good basketball players at that. For what was a decent and well put together documentary, the walk away from the piece was Jalen Rose’s (one of the Fab Five) comment where he used the phrase “Uncle Tom.” Rose said
“I hated Duke and I hated everything Duke stood for. Schools like Duke didn’t recruit players like me. I felt like they only recruited black players that were Uncle Toms.”
This was one of those things that gets picked up by Twitter and a couple of die-hard bloggers who had watched the documentary and not something that really blows up. I saw Field Negro wrote about it and The FreshXpress published it this week and I figured that would have ended the discussion. There really wasn’t much to debate about.
I really thought that this was a non-issue.
Then Wednesday arrived and a blog over at the New York Times carries this erudite and iconoclastic piece of literary artwork written by Grant Hill, a former Duke player and rival of the Fab Five, and current Phoenix Suns team member.
To say I was floored by the article is a slight understatement. I was totally impressed with his command of the English language and just how well put together the article was. It was, to me a near orthographic orgasm. I read it and understood where Hill was coming from with his point of view and certainly welcomed his opinion.
Then the floodgates of social networking were officially open.
Battle lines were drawn and sides were picked. Most fell either in favor of Grant Hill’s lofty assault, from a piece that utilizes the Latin phrase Ad ingenium faciendum meaning “toward the building of character,” or immediately spoke to the contextualization of Rose’s comment–that that was how Rose felt as a young 17, or 18 year old kid.
The discussion had now become a debate.
What I noted, and what made me appreciative of Hill’s response was that although it clearly was a response birthed out of a personal offense, Hill still made the decision to respond to Rose’s perception and not Rose as a person. What Hill did was take issue specifically to the notion that he was an “Uncle Tom” and for that reason I think Hill’s response was necessary.
To call someone an “Uncle Tom” or even my personal favorite “handkerchief head Negro” is definitely an insult to the utmost. It’s labeling a black person as a “sell out” with the inference that they don’t just have selfish interests, but have now shifted their alignment to that of white, patriarchal and hegemonic American exceptionalist culture. I know that’s a mouthful, but I think it begins to address the nature of what wearing the label of “Uncle Tom” means in a contemporary sense. So what I read in Hill’s letter was a response to why he shouldn’t be labeled an Uncle Tom by Rose or anyone else who applauded Rose’s honesty.
What made me appreciate Hill’s retort was birthed from some personal place, I’ll admit. The nomenclature of “Uncle Tom” is nothing but a close relative to sometimes how was define what it means to be an “uppity Negro.” Personally, I have defined an uppity Negro as someone who unashamed of their black heritage, unapologetic for their possible privileges in life and finally one who reaches back and becomes their “brother’s [or sister's] keeper” while looking out for “the least of these.”
There’s a difference between being an elitist Negro and being an uppity Negro.
Hill’s awareness of blacks from Duke and their accomplishments is what catapulted him toward the designation, in my book, of being an uppity Negro. He writes
It is insulting and ignorant to suggest that men like Johnny Dawkins (coach at Stanford), Tommy Amaker (coach at Harvard), Billy King (general manager of the Nets), Tony Lang (coach of the Mitsubishi Diamond Dolphins in Japan), Thomas Hill (small-business owner in Texas), Jeff Capel (former coach at Oklahoma and Virginia Commonwealth), Kenny Blakeney (assistant coach at Harvard), Jay Williams (ESPN analyst), Shane Battier (Memphis Grizzlies) and Chris Duhon (Orlando Magic) ever sold out their race.
Generally the likes of Justice Clarence Thomas or any of the random blacks that grace a news desk at Fox News get the title of being an Uncle Tom. Understandably to be categorized with the likes of Jesse Lee Peterson, the infamous Pastor James David Manning of ATLAH World Ministries or the countless rabble of names of black Tea Party members that have been interviewed by Glenn Beck or Sean Hannity is a dubious category indeed. Those who are Uncle Toms wouldn’t care to be, as Michael Eric Dyson puts it, “intentionally black.” Michael Eric Dyson reserves the idea that those who would probably be called Uncle Toms are those who are “accidentally black.”
Now I’m not going so far as to say which category Hill falls into, but for him to write that
Just as Jalen has founded a charter school in Michigan, we are expected to use our education to help others, to improve life for those who need our assistance and to use the excellent education we have received to better the world. [emphasis added]
His want and ability to give back certainly go against him being an Uncle Tom.
Some were saying the general nature of Hill’s response was “a punk move” and “immature, sensitive, uppity and snobbish in his editorial” reads quotes from the Twitter feed of @BlkSportsOnline. Such comments were retweeted onto my timeline that said that said Hill’s use of “‘Ad ingenium faciendum’ in an editorial is trying too hard.”
To which I respectfully tell persons to pick up a dictionary and increase their vocabulary and comprehension.
To use some of the sentiments that Hill even addressed in his editorial when he said “To hint that those who grew up in a household with a mother and father are somehow less black than those who did not is beyond ridiculous,” I want to say this idea that one is less black or not “keepin’ it real” because of how they speak or how they write is an absolute disgrace to who we are as black Americans.
For me this was not a cut and dried issue of Jalen Rose versus Grant Hill (or vice-versa) in the personal sense, but brought up issues of how we talk about race within our own community, how it’s perceived outside of the community, class issues that are slowly becoming an elephant in the room (along with many other issues), issues of black masculinity and just our general lazy and lethargic approach to critical thinking as blacks and as Americans. When we fail to look at this issue from a deeper and more critical point of view, we have conceded our righteous minds to the bondage of apathy and mediocrity. No more can we afford to be affable in our approach to issues that affect us negatively.
Oh Uppity, you sound just like Grant Hill! It aint that deep, you say.
Sorry, it is that deep. To ignore it and dismiss it as a shallow something is to err in judgment and it’s going to cost us with the death of innocence in generations to come. Enmeshed in this topic between these two outstanding basketball players is the intra-racial ideas of one black calling another black an Uncle Tom and the latter fighting the label of such. Hill now has to write a response that a) maintains his masculinity and prevents him from coming off as a “punk” and b) write in such a way that is understandable by dominant culture. Hill is clearly addressing class issues from the beginning of the editorial until the end, because in fact the perception that Rose had was one of higher class versus lower class, but the inability for some mediocre and average people to comprehend that in Hill’s editorial resulted in them resorting to ad hominem attacks.
Of penultimate concern is the typical bullish approach to debate we, as Americans generally like to use. We tend to begin making personal attacks when one either a) doesn’t comprehend what’s being said or b) disagrees with what’s being said, but is incapable of mounting a coherent and logical defense. I think Hill’s refraining from going to personal attacks is what kept him a class above the rest. But to defame Hill for doing so makes me question just what did we expect him to do?
I think a response was necessary. You don’t go around using “Uncle Tom” lightly as I said earlier (and remember the “bitch” comment as well). Personally I don’t think Hill’s manhood was on the line (but some may interpret it that way), but certainly I think his integrity was. But was Hill’s response supposed to be some poorly written piece of garbage worthy only of a Sarah Palin speech, or some tragic vile worthy only of Jason Whitlock? I would think not.
This was the same old tired discussion we’ve been having in the black community for forever and a day surrounding issues of class and ontological ideas of blackness. A friend mentioned to me when I asked him about this, that perhaps many who were reading Hill’s editorial were expecting him to apologize for Duke’s recruiting practices and act conciliatory toward the notion that Duke wasn’t quite what it was and throw the word “racism” out there for good measure. But as my friend pointed out, Grant Hill was a college graduate debating between going to law school and the NBA–that is to suggest, he wasn’t your average student athlete. I think his editorial suggests that it is wrong to think of him in any way as average.
Granted Rose might have been speaking in the context of his 17 or 18 year old mind frame, but he brought up the notion again as a 38 year old. And according to Hill’s editorial, Rose apologized via Twitter even prior to the documentary airing. Generally speaking, persons don’t apologize unprompted unless they feel that they had done something wrong. I’m not going so far as to say that Rose was wrong for his comments, but as I said concerning Shaun King and the Bishop Johnathan Alvarado situation in my previous post, it was just tacky.
Jalen Rose was tacky for saying what he said and how he said it, Hill on the other hand showed class and an acute command of the English language to the point that detractors were befuddled that resorted to discussing the surface issues of his writing style rather than the substance. Hill essentially told Rose where to go and how to get there and why he should with the eloquence of W.E.B. DuBois and some people just can’t understand that. Hill, based on this editorial, understood the nuances at play with such a statement and thankfully took some effort into trying to parse them.
If only more people took the time to think critically and use what they have to the benefit of humanity, rather than as a tool of destruction.
Keep it uppity and truthfully radical, JLL