About Uncle Toms

About Uncle Toms


About Uncle Toms

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It took me a while to find it, but I finally watched the Fab Five documentary. Who would have thought the whole thing would be on YouTube? Go figure.

Since it took me so long to find, I read comments, rebuttals, backlashes, and apologies all before I even saw the source. My initial reaction to the doc, without having seen it, was that Jalen Rose went a bit too far with the Uncle Tom comments. I then read Grant Hill’s response and thought it was good, but also seemed to attack Rose too personally. From what I could gather, Rose said that he felt that way as a youngster, so it’s hard to say that their friendships and respect for one another have been tarnished because he told the truth in a very open, honest documentary. The last thing I read was a piece on Truehoop that was titled Grant Hill Was Wrong. It made some good points about bringing up the topic, but it was too premature for me to have an opinion just yet.

Today, this whirlwind of emotions came to a head when I watched “The Fab Five.” For starters, man, it was really good. My first thought was that Juwan Howard looks younger now than he did back then. Man, he even sounded old as hell in his U of M days.

“Fab Five” conjured so many memories and emotions within me, which is funny because I was 7 years old when Michigan lost to Duke in the NCAA finals. I actually, specifically remember someone giving me a “Duke NCAA Champions” shirt. I remember not liking it, but I don’t remember why. I guess a big part of it was that I loved UNC and I knew that Duke was the enemy. The other part was that I liked how other teams played so much more. Both Michigan and UNLV seemed fluid, fun, carefree and relentless. As a seven-year-old, I somehow recognized that Duke played like robots, or so it seemed like they did. I really had no idea what championship basketball was, though.

Then the “Uncle Tom” comment came up. It honestly kind of stung me. I knew it was coming, but I don’t think anybody framed it quite properly. It was actually a huge shot at Grant Hill and his family. Between certain guys saying that they “hated the faces of Duke,” and that “Grant Hill was a bitch,” they seemed to really single him out as representing a guy whose family sold out, so he did too, buying into the Duke way. I believe that Rose felt a certain way at a certain age, but in that moment there were so many other thoughts that came into my mind. I felt consumed by a wave of negativity that goes far beyond the sport of basketball.

It was the first game of the playoffs, we had a big lead over Mount Miguel High, a school whose racial makeup was much more diverse than my Torrey Pines Falcons were. To put it plainly, all five starters on that team were black, and then there was Torrey Pines. Then there was me.

When I checked in during the fourth quarter to get my garbage time minutes, Mt. Miguel’s 6-foot-2 center immediately pushed me, then gave me a sharp elbow to the back. Before I could say anything, he said: “Don’t say nothing to me. You whitewashed.”

As the “Fab Five” documentary wore on, I went and re-read Grant Hill’s response. In that moment, I felt what he must have felt. I wondered why it was so important to edit Rose’s line into the final cut of the show. It was just such an attack on one kid’s perceived character. I mean… I get it. It’s controversial. It’s good TV. It conjures up different emotions in different people. Heck, when I asked my teammate here in Korea about it, he laughed and said, “Cause they were Uncle Toms. It’s just Duke, you know?”

That answer pissed me off a little bit. I asked him how he could call a 17-year-old kid who wants to play basketball at the highest level, an Uncle Tom? Could he possibly consider someone so young to have deliberately turned their back on their entire race? His answer was, of course, no. But I knew it would be. It came down to, and always has come down to something of a difference between being a “real n—a” and an “Uncle Tom.” Uncle Tom being used liberally to describe a wide range of people either turned their back on or never were from “the ‘hood.” It’s used to describe any African American who is seen to be corny, soft, and never had any struggle.

There were a few subtle points made by the documentary as well. The Fab Five (and the unmentioned UNLV Rebels) grew along with the rap music and culture of the early 90’s. The music at that time, although socially conscious, also carried with it a tone of real vs. fake, hard vs. punk, and the ‘hood culture vs. that of the suburbs. These times changed black culture in a way that has lasted to this day, morphing the meaning of the words Uncle Tom along the way.

The doc also touched on the private vs. public school issue. Someone said that Chris Webber went to a private school but always wanted to be a public school guy. The private school thing bothered him. The doc mentioned that he wanted to be rough, but that “he wasn’t.” Rose said his public school league was dangerous and tough and that they didn’t have buses, all while ESPN showed footage of Webber getting his ankles taped. He later went on to say that Duke didn’t recruit public school guys like him. I guess they recruited guys like Grant Hill. Bitches.

My teammate elaborated by saying that Grant Hill proved he “wasn’t a bitch… Eventually.” So it would seem that the only way people would grant him his “black-ness” would be for him to prove that he’s not a bitch, because real black folks ain’t no bitches. Real black folks grow up in the ‘hood with real problems, and they definitely, definitely do not talk like they have been to a nice school. Further still, it doesn’t matter how you talk, if you’re from a good, private school, you don’t count. It goes beyond sports, and creates a cycle that discourages some young African American men and women from attempting to succeed through traditional educational means.

Grant Hill has two successful parents, a stable home, and a bright future. Wait, he knows Calculus, too? Oh hell no. That’s the whitest s#!t I’ve ever heard.

In a poorly lit room in one of the main buildings on the UC Berkeley campus, I sat in my discussion lab for my African American studies class. The topics seemed so relevant at the time as I watched a room full of soon-to-be very successful young black men and women discuss how hard it is to get their education and also stay “black.” There was talk of “code switching,” which if I recall correctly is the practice of changing your dialect based on who you’re around at the moment. There was talk that giving back to the community was the key. There seemed to be a bunch of different tactics and strategies.

There were obviously a few people who justified themselves with some nonsense about how they could never be a “sell-out.” Then there was a girl who was really shaken. She mentioned that it was really hard for her in high school because everyone accused her of “talking white.”

I felt a connection to her immediately. Was it supposed to be my fault that my mom refused to let me say the word “ain’t” and instead gave me a different vocab word every week, starting in the sixth grade with “integrity”?

Yes, my mom was a trip. Is that my fault? Should it always be my burden that other basketball players will assume that I’m an Uncle Tom, or not a real ball player because I chose a school with a good academic standing? Hell yeah, I would have gone to Duke. But like most players, maybe even Rose at the time, I wasn’t good enough.

OK, so Jalen Rose said that he felt jealous of Hill. He said that he felt left out of that world and that he felt like the outcast. He felt that Duke was full of players whom the world accepted, while he and his teammates were who the world hated. I disagree that he really felt like that. I’m not taking away from the feelings of growing up in a single parent household with a mom who has to “bust her hump” to make ends meet isn’t something to be bitter about. I grew up in similar conditions. Clearly, I’m not in his head, but I just think he’s looking for a way to justify his previous statements. When you call someone an Uncle Tom you single them out and put yourself in the majority. Who hates the majority? To me, that’s the same as calling a white guy a member of the KKK, then taking it back by saying that I felt left out and jealous. I personally prefer to be left out of both the KKK and the Uncle Tom group.

In his response, Grant Hill said: “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.”

After I finished the documentary, I reflected on everything. It’s my opinion that it doesn’t matter what Rose thinks today. I also think that he did need to say what he said. This discussion needs to happen on a wider scale, and sports have always seemed to be the medium to begin larger discussions. What’s missing is that Rose doesn’t seem eager to change anyone’s mind about Duke players being Uncle Toms. He just throws it out there as if to say, “Yeah, other people probably agreed with me, and probably do now.”

I know why Grant Hill is so angry, it’s because it’s something he has dealt with his entire life. He has probably felt racism from all angles during his life, and then had to defend his own cultural understanding, publicly, to members of his own race.

Should Hill have to let everyone know how many times he’s been called the N-word? Should he trace his family lineage back to its slave roots? Should I? My last name, Benson, is traced back to a slave plantation in Texas. My name exists only because a slave master put it on my family and others. Would a story like that make Hill black enough? What now? Am I an Uncle Tom? Is Grant Hill even so much different from me? From you?

That’s why I’m on Grant Hill’s side, but I still think there was more to his response. Rose is an older gentleman now, and everyone knows that as you get older, the drive to be successful eventually ties us all together. Rose’s outlook was bound to change over time. What hasn’t changed is the perception among our nation’s youth that Rose is right. I think Grant Hill took this as an opportunity to do what many people don’t get the proper forum to address. He made a statement that success, and the pursuit of it, doesn’t mean you have turned your back on anybody. It doesn’t mean you’re soft, a coward, or a bitch. Hill proved that by winning championships. He made a statement that stable black homes do exist and that well-rounded, educated men of any race should have the right to learn and grow in any institution without ridicule from anybody else.

I don’t think Hill’s bitter. I’m certainly not. He took his opportunity and I’m doing the same, only able to do so because Grant Hill took a stand, and gave people encouragement to be whoever they want to be – just like the Fab Five did.

Let’s be honest, I loved and still love the Fab Five. They did things that allowed me to be who I am today. I hate short shorts. They’re the reason I never got comfortable with soccer – that, and the fact that I suck at soccer. Unfortunately, my college coach made us go shorter with our shorts when Leon Powe wanted to get another inch on his inseam. I love me some black socks, EPMD, and Starter caps. My second CD I ever owned was Westside Connection. I also love money, success, and a suit that fits just right. Sue me, but don’t call me an Uncle Tom.

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