The Misappropriation of Uncle Tom

For those of you who aren’t sports fans, there’s been a major flap over at ESPN, “the worldwide leader in sports,” regarding racially-charged comments made by one of their analysts. Let me set the stage for you. ESPN has a widely acclaimed sports documentary series, “30 for 30,” in which they cover key events, teams and personalities in sports history. These documentaries transcend the usual discussions of X’s and O’s and wins and losses to address social and cultural impacts, with compelling human drama to draw the viewer into the story. They are uniformly excellent.

In that same tradition, their most recent standalone documentary, “The Fab Five,” recounts the exploits of five players recruited in 1991 to play for University of Michigan basketball team. They were widely regarded as the “greatest class ever recruited,” and they changed basketball, and brought controversy, by introducing the “hip-hop” culture to the court, a culture that’s de rigueur today.

Subsequently, their legacy was tarnished by a scandal in the wake of their departure involving a booster and laundering of gambling money through payments to players.

Neither their controversial style nor the scandal, however, was the catalyst for the provocative comments made by the ESPN analyst.

The analyst, Jalen Rose, was the most outspoken of the Fab Five, and he produced the documentary. One of the key distinctions of the Fab Five is that, despite their skills and style, they never won a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) title. One of the two teams to deny them a title was Duke, which beat the Fab Five in the 1992 NCAA title game, and defeated Michigan four times in all from 1990 to 1994.

In the documentary, Rose describes the animosity he felt toward Duke as an 18-year old from a single-parent home who grew up in Detroit:

"Schools like Duke didn't recruit players like me…I felt that they only recruited black players that were Uncle Toms. ... I was jealous of Grant Hill. He came from a great black family. Congratulations. Your mom went to college and was roommates with Hillary Clinton. Your dad played in the NFL as a very well-spoken and successful man. I was upset and bitter that my mom had to bust her hump for 20-plus years. I was bitter that I had a professional athlete that was my father that I didn't know. I resented that, more so than I resented him. I looked at it as they are who the world accepts and we are who the world hates."

The layers to this comment are many, so let me attempt to address them one at a time.

First of all, there’s the exclusivity of Duke, a private school, compared to Michigan, a large public university. Duke is known for its high academic standards and recruits players who can meet their rigorous requirements. Michigan is a fine school but, like many public schools with large athletic programs, they often accommodate blue-chip athletes with modest academic credentials.

The background of the Michigan players compared to the black players recruited for Duke is also a factor in Rose’s comment. While the Fab Five came from single-parent families and were raised in the inner city or in poor neighborhoods,  the black players for Duke were from two-parent, middle class families.

Their sports trajectories were different as well. Duke recruited players who would commit to a disciplined athletic and academic program for four years. Michigan recruited superstars that were determined to move to the National Basketball Association (NBA) at the earliest opportunity. Given their impoverished backgrounds, one could forgive them for wanting to make money as soon as they could.

Racial tension was also a factor. While not the first all-black major college basketball team, the Fab Five were certainly the brashest, and they were criticized for their attitudes more so than their play on the basketball court. The Duke team, on the other hand, reflected their university and their coach, Mike Krzyzewski – disciplined, steady and white, with the exception of the “Uncle Toms” referenced by Rose.

Finally, most will remember the infamous Duke lacrosse team rape case, where three white players on the team were accused of raping a black stripper they had invited to a team party. The case led to the forced resignation of the lacrosse coach and the suspension of the team, condemnation from many within the university, and the exposure of deep-seated racial animosities in the Durham, North Carolina community toward Duke.

Durham is also home to a public historically black college, North Carolina Central University, and their students, administration and faculty were quick to pile on Duke. Perennial race sharks Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton swam into the chum-infested waters and expanded the feeding frenzy to the national stage.

The charges were eventually determined to be false, the prosecutor was disbarred, and the ex-coach, the three accused players, and the rest of the team went to the courts for redress.

Now that you’re caught up, I’d like to use Jalen Rose’s unfortunate choice of words as a teaching moment about the term “Uncle Tom,” which has evolved over the decades into a pejorative describing black people who slavishly emulate and do the bidding of white people.

By that definition, Rose’s use of the term doesn’t make a lot of sense. The fact that Duke’s black players were raised in middle-class homes by a mother and a father, and their academics were sufficient to meet Duke’s standards, should be cheered, not viewed as a capitulation to white people.

Financial success, marital stability and academic achievement are not, nor have they ever been, the exclusive province of white people, or any other group for that matter.

Regrettably, the black community has long endured a “crab mentality,” where success for some is resented by others, and viewed as an attempt to leave them behind, necessitating a sustained assault to drag the “escapee” back into the bucket.

I personally experienced this pathological behavior growing up, and was often ridiculed for my dress, speech, demeanor and studiousness. I was frequently told I was “acting white,” or that I “talked like a white boy.”

Fortunately, God blessed me with wise parents and the discernment to know I was doing the right thing, and that gave me the courage as a child to resist the temptation to “dumb down” in order to be accepted. I flat out didn’t care what my tormentors thought, and I viewed their behavior as reflective of their ignorance, not my desire to be white.

It wasn’t, and isn’t, that easy for everyone, however, and my heart goes out to those who felt or feel forced to abandon excellence to adhere to someone else’s distorted opinion of what constitutes “authentic” blackness.

The other lesson I want people to take away from this episode is how we’ve allowed our enemies to rob us of the honor formerly associated with Uncle Tom. How many of you have actually read Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe?

I thought so.

In my book, SELLOUT: Musings from Uncle Tom’s Porch, I examined the history of the Uncle Tom character in the famous anti-slavery novel, and found that he is nothing like the image he has inherited:

Tom was a noble Christian man who endured the hardships of enslavement with amazing grace. He refused an order from Simon Legree, his cruel white master, to whip a fellow slave and was savagely beaten by Legree as a result. He also heroically resisted Legree’s attempts to break him of his faith in Christ.

Tom comforted the other slaves, encouraged two of them to escape and refused to divulge their whereabouts to Legree. Because of this, he was beaten to death by two black slaves, Sambo and Quimbo, who acted as Legree’s overseers. Tom forgave his assailants even as he was dying and they were so humbled by his mercy that they became Christians too. So Stowe’s main character is a man of great dignity and Christian faith.

Tom represented Stowe’s deliberate attempt to dispel the popular minstrel show stereotypes of black men as ignorant, lazy and frolicsome buffoons. In fact, it was the minstrel shows that subsequently took the Uncle Tom character and twisted him into a happy-go-lucky, boot-licking apologist for his white masters.

I point out in the book that the minstrel shows distorted the Uncle Tom character to appeal to the audiences of the day, who might not be entertained by a black man as “a Christ-like figure.” Eventually, all traces of the original incarnation of Uncle Tom were eradicated by popular culture, and we have the pejorative that an 18-year old Jalen Rose held in his heart toward his black adversaries from Duke.

Some are saying that he should be forgiven for his statement, since it was a recollection of his past attitude rather than a current diatribe against former black Duke players like Grant Hill, who responded to the comments in a New York Times blog.

While his response is very eloquent and uplifting, befitting a Duke graduate whose father, Calvin Hill, a former professional football player, graduated from Yale and whose mother, Janet, graduated from Wellesley College, he repeats the false interpretation of Uncle Tom that has dogged us for decades.

I need to send him a copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Not only is it one of the most sociologically significant books in American history, a novel that professor Will Kaufman credits with “laying the groundwork for the Civil War,” it reveals a man who was not a caricature of servitude, but a model of goodness and selflessness.

As a conservative person of color, I’ve become quite accustomed to names my parents never gave me, but the smile on my face when I’m called an “Uncle Tom” confounds my adversaries.

If they only knew.