The Strange Occurrence of the Uppity Negro and the Uncle Tom: Jalen Rose and Grant Hill

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.

Grant Hill

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.

Jalen Rose

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


11 thoughts on “The Strange Occurrence of the Uppity Negro and the Uncle Tom: Jalen Rose and Grant Hill

  1. Thanks Uppity for shedding light on how the two men, Jalen Rose and Grant Hill matured.

    I did not know much about either man. Your covering of this topic spoke to the elephant in the room and our (some/many of us) inability to speak to each other about our responsibility and accountability to either send the elephant on its way OR to to clean up the resultant mess as a daily chore OR not.

    Standard bearing can be difficult, and it seems that Mr. Hill gracefully defended an uppity position that he felt obligated to do. Mr. Rose, in his own way appears to have finally dealt with the hurt and confusion that his immature self voiced out loud. Perhaps it was purging for him and perhaps this will be the teaching moment that we can use to model to our young people–sometimes we simply need to study to be quiet; many times, the quite petty parts of ourselves should not be on display for all the world to see and judge.

    We grow up (uppity) AND we lead by example. Uppity is as uppity does. We do our theology in our behavioral words, spoken, written, and/or acted out. It does appear that Mr. Hill is fittingly uppity.

  2. While I agree Grant Hill’s editorial was incredibly eloquent and well-written, it should have been: He had the advantage of publishing a comeback two and a half days after the documentary aired. Jalen Rose’s candid comments were recorded in response to a question regarding a rival college whom he despised for not recruiting him.

    It’s true, the Dukes of the world rarely–if ever–entertain athletes like Jalen Rose, and as a private institution, that’s their prerogative. I don’t think Rose was “tacky” for admitting his discontent and using an inflammatory label, because it was honest and genuine–something we lambaste our athletes of not being enough.

    “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,” you write. I respectfully disagree. I think what some people “can’t understand” is the fact that it appears Mr. Hill’s message is “better” than Rose’s because of the delivery. (You’re not exempt, Uppity, with your juicy description of the piece as an “erudite and iconoclastic piece of literary artwork.” Really?) Both points have a place in this dialogue, but the discussion seems to be about how mesmerizing Hill’s prose was, without extracting enough of the actual text to further the discourse.

    Rose’s comments are just as uppity and snobbish as Hill’s silver-penned counterargument. An entitled Rose felt– because of his on-court abilities–he should have been heavily recruited by schools like Duke, whom he feels ignored him because of the environment he grew up in. In my opinion, that perspective’s been been lost in the conversation.

    Again, with the utmost respect, I ask: Is Hill really worthy of your “Uppity Negro” distinction for his “awareness of blacks from Duke and their accomplishments?” If you follow college sports–not just Duke–you know who these men he referenced in his piece were. I caution you not to catapult Mr. Hill onto higher pedestal than earned by simply knowing the accomplishments of his fellow alum. Most loyalists to their universities could do the same.

    Thanks for adding your perspective and opinions to the debate, er, discussion!

    1. @ The Style Professor

      I’ve long since been a proponent of using a thesaurus and a dictionary where I can use monosyllabic words. And yes, I effusively heap praise upon the editorial that Hill wrote. I still stand by its rhetorical integrity unapologetically. But, I am the Uppity Negro. I’ve kind of made a name for myself by doing just that: using big words.

      I’m not sure if it was noticeable enough, but I didn’t go so far as to call Hill an “uppity Negro” outside of what he presented in the editorial. If that was the tone of the article, then I missed my mark. I don’t know Grant Hill enough to make that jump. I certainly didn’t go so far as to say that he was intentionally black either, I just used it as an example.

      “but the discussion seems to be about how mesmerizing Hill’s prose was, without extracting enough of the actual text to further the discourse.” <—-
      Is that not what I said when I said "some people just can't understand that" because I went on to say "Hill, based on this editorial, understood the nuances at play with such a statement and thankfully took some effort into trying to parse them" which was your equivalent of "extracting enough of the actual text to further the discourse,” correct?

      Finally, some of these schools pick athletes based on whether or not the athletes can actually do well in the classroom. You can’t tell me the Stanfords and the Harvards don’t have the money and other resources at their disposal to have better basketball squads. Duke is one of those exceptions. A school that has that top tier academic status, and also has a slamming basketball squad. I think Rose’s commentary on Duke’s recruitment practices was a bit myopic. This isn’t to say that Rose wouldn’t have made it at Duke, but just by luck of the draw of natural selection a Jalen Rose (for the sake of argument) wasn’t even in the position of being the type of student that a Duke (for the sake of argument) would be looking for in the first place.

  3. JLL Great post. i have yet to watch the documentary, but i also take offense at the arbitrary use of the term “Uncle Tom”. it is as if the term has become the “go’to” derogatory statement of black people if they speak properly, or have an idea that is not the coonery that has become the acceptable practice of so many. We must continue the dialogue and then take a serious course of action to change the thinking and actions. I also understand context, but to make those kind of charges and not expect someone to take offense is equally ignorant.

  4. I love what you did with this post. It doesn’t overly-scrutinize the issue of class relations amongst Blacks and I appreciate that. Why? Because a true investigation on the topic is entirely too inflammatory for one blog post and would completely detract from the issue at hand: ig’nant niggas on twitter bitchin’ about Grant Hill’s use of proper and eloquent English. *brushes excess crudeness off shoulders* Perhaps the topic could be explored in a blog series? Like a sermon series. Maybe you could even approach your contemporaries in the black blogosphere to tackle it too. (Can you tell I just really wanna start a widespread discussion about this?)

    My one question in all of this, outside of Grant Hill and Jalen Rose is: When did Black people become *entitled* to lower class status?

  5. Ironically I saw this exact same dynamic play out on the season finalie of “Brick City” on the Sundance Channel. Ras Baraka (son of poet Amiri Baraka) high school principal and newly elected city councilman, said in his inaugural speech directed at Mayor Cory Booker “This is not the time to use multi-syllabic words…” Did I tell you this guy is a high school principal? I almost went through the TV!

    No one has said it on camera, but I will bet you my laptop half Newark’s problem with Mr. Booker is he’s too light-skinned, blue-eyed,well-educated, and speaks too “proper”.

  6. I don’t know if I’m absolutely out done with Jalen Rose’s commentary in the documentary. When I heard it initially, I didn’t think twice about it. Then I began hearing how Grant wrote this response and I was a little absent as to why. Jalen Rose was merely saying what his thoughts were at that time in his youth. I don’t necessarily believe he was speaking from a “now” mindset. With that in mind, that is why I didn’t think twice about the comment. Nobody really should have became offended. Jalen shouldn’t apologize for how he honestly felt as a 18 year old freshman in college. People thought some stereotypical things about Jalen at that time in his life, as well. Would people had rather he not been true to his testament of that time in his life? Just wondering…

    1. @ Tavares

      Oddly enough, I don’t think Jalen owes Grant any apology, nor should Jalen apologize in general for what he said. Don’t think it’s necessary, but he did it anyway–via the Twitter. One offering an uncompelled apology means that one feels guilty for said action or statement that they are apologizing for: enter Jalen Rose. That’s like me eating the last of the macaroni and cheese leftovers from Thanksgiving and I know my mother really likes mac & cheese. She never said don’t eat it, but I knew she was probably going to back and eat some, and I know it’s her favorite even though it’s community property. I go and apologize prior to her going to the fridge looking for it; it’s a sign of a guilty conscience.

      I still think Hill had a right to be offended. No matter what the context, 18 or 38, it’s a horrible perception to have of someone I think. How would you like it if someone insinuated you were an Uncle Tom regardless of how old you are? I just don’t find anything wrong with Hill’s response.

  7. I loved your thoughts about this UN. I had absolutely no problem with Hill’s response. Not in the least. I was happy to read it.

  8. Jalen Rose was brutally honest I like him and Grant Hill but try to keep in mind there is always some smart kind of truth to certain rumours and accusations. I despise Duke Univeristy myself there is no dobut that the school has a racist enviornment.

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