Wednesday, March 23, 2011

No Uncle Toms Here

The ESPN documentary, Michigan University's 'The Fab Five', is an interesting look at one of the most accomplished basketball teams in NCAA history.

But, it's become more than that.

These comments have become fodder in the media and around social media. They took on added significance when the Phoenix Sun's Grant Hill and son of former Dallas Cowboy Calvin Hill responded in New York Times op-ed piece...

"In his garbled but sweeping comment that Duke recruits only “black players that were ‘Uncle Toms,’ ” Jalen seems to change the usual meaning of those very vitriolic words into his own meaning, i.e., blacks from two-parent, middle-class families. He leaves us all guessing exactly what he believes today."
"I am beyond fortunate to have two parents who are still working well into their 60s. They received great educations and use them every day. My parents taught me a personal ethic I try to live by and pass on to my children."
"I come from a strong legacy of black Americans. My namesake, Henry Hill, my father’s father, was a day laborer in Baltimore. He could not read or write until he was taught to do so by my grandmother. His first present to my dad was a set of encyclopedias, which I now have. He wanted his only child, my father, to have a good education, so he made numerous sacrifices to see that he got an education, including attending Yale."
"This is part of our great tradition as black Americans. We aspire for the best or better for our children and work hard to make that happen for them. Jalen’s mother is part of our great black tradition and made the same sacrifices for him."
Athletic rivalries, whether they high school, college or pro, can be huge. And for some players they become intensely  personal. The higher the stakes, the greater the level of personal investment in the outcome, the more rivalry involves reflects personal resentments. I can get all of that. I also understand what Rose was saying a little more, now that I see the clip. I definitely understand Grant Hill's personal umbrage at being portrayed as an 'Uncle Tom' and that there was anything less than admirable about his parents or the upbringing they provided him. 
But as sports columnist Michale Wilbon says, there is probably the basis for something of a larger conversation to be had here. 
What Jalen Rose believed two decades ago, has been expressed in the black community for decades: life in which 'the rules' are followed and traditional paths to success are traveled (i.e. traditional family make-up, good grades, college, successful career) makes one 'less black' than those who have to navigate more troubled waters (i.e. poverty, single parent homes, challenged in school, etc.). It is mostly survival. The 'heroism', if you will, of survival has to be romanticized and those who haven't faced the same obstacles have to be considered 'soft'. It is glorified in media. It is, in many ways trans-cultural. But its impact on the black community introduces an intramural conflict that can be unhealthy. 
Calvin and Grant Hill
Grant Hill's 'exceptional' upbringing didn't come without cost. Those of us who remember Calvin Hill's playing days remember that his being a first round draft choice by the Dallas Cowboys was questioned 1) because he was from Yale 2) because he was black and from Yale. Media didn't quite know what to do with him. That was a time when pro football players didn't make millions of dollars. Nearly all of the Dallas Cowboys had off season jobs. The media considered Hill an oddity, because in the off season he took courses at SMU's Perkins Theological Seminary. 
Housing was a problem. It wasn't until 5-10 years later that black players weren't steered toward housing that was in 'the black part of town' - 20 to 30 miles from the Cowboys practice facility. They were almost no endorsement opportunities. But Hill was a role model because of his reckless running style but because he was successful on the field (he was the Cowboys first 1000 yard rusher, when 1000 yards rushing actually meant something). And he showed off the field that athletic success and academic achievement didn't have to be mutual exclusives. 
Hill parted ways with the Cowboys for a time to play in Hawaii, for the new World Football League (for the same reason other NFL stars defected - money) then after another brief stint with the Cowboys played for the Cleveland Browns and Washington Redskins. The point is: to say that Hill didn't work hard or suffer discrimination because he was a pro player with an Ivy League education is totally untrue. 
Jalen's upbringing was different - but the same - in the sense that a hardworking mother provided him the upbringing that created an opportunity to develop his talents in spite of the obstacles that she face. Decidedly different obstacles, but obstacles nonetheless. 
I think we should be careful about being too hard on Rose because of how he felt when he was a teen-ager (its a little more disturbing that he has a hard time distancing himself from those attitudes as an adult). He now is a wealthy man trying to provide kids who grew up in circumstances similar to his, the opportunity to get the education he knows is necessary to escape poverty. In the process, he's trying to instill in these young people the same qualities he indicates he despised in Grant Hill. 
Interestingly enough, the same entertainers that extol the virtues of the type of survival upbringing that Rose says made him feel rejected, achieve success in the same way Calvin and Janet Hill did - hard work, devotion to their craft, taking advantage of opportunities and maximizing the returns on their rewards. A number of us don't like what they do, but, again ironically, not one of them passes up the opportunity to become 'mainstream'. They, like Rose, like the Hills, find out the obstacles you face are not nearly as important as your determination to overcome them. 
That makes none of them 'Uncle Toms'. That makes none of them sellouts. It makes those who grow in maturity role models. 

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