Friday, March 18, 2011

The Fab Five, Duke & A Crisis of Identity

Photo Credit: pursuethepassion
The 1991-1992 college basketball season saw Michigan's "Fab Five" freshmen capture the nation's interest and the Duke program cement its legacy as one of the greatest squads ever with its second consecutive championship. But now, almost twenty years later, these two teams, both from institutions boasting reputations for academic and athletic excellence, are making news once again.

This past weekend saw the premiere of ESPN's newest documentary, featuring Michigan's Fab Five. The film, which garnered record ratings for ESPN, has continued to be discussed days after its initial showing due to some comments made by Jalen Rose, one of the Fab Five and the executive producer of the documentary. In explaining how he felt about Duke's African American players during that time, Rose described them as "Uncle Toms." 

This term, used in a pejorative manner towards African Americans considered to live in deference to white people, is a loaded term that carries with it strong connotations.  One African American member of Duke's teams during that era, Grant Hill, felt strongly enough to respond by penning an op-ed piece for the New York Times

Rose has reiterated that the description that he used for the Duke players was how he felt when he was in college and that he doesn't share the same feelings today but his comments have evoked a dialogue that addresses issues much deeper than basketball.  Adena Spingarn has written a thoughtful response to the matter in the and offers this nugget:
"As a kid from a single-parent household who had to bundle up in layers of clothing to keep warm at night, Rose resented Hill's privilege, both material and familial. But this wasn't generic class resentment. In the United States, there was and is a difference between being poor and white and being poor and black. That's what Rose was talking about.

The history of black folks in America is full of adversity -- and, yes, achievement too. But for better or for worse, the enduring marks of our adversity -- the single-parent households, the poverty, the street culture -- have become ingrained in the way many African Americans define themselves and their histories.

Certainly, as Hill points out in his Times essay, black people who grew up with two parents and financial security are no less black than those who struggled the way Rose did. But Rose, defending his choice of words to ESPN's Bayless, emphasized that backgrounds like Hill's are "the minority. I was speaking for the majority." As a recruited player, he said, "I looked at it as, [the Duke players] are who the world accepts, and we are who the world hates."

What Rose meant by calling black Duke players "Uncle Toms" was not that they had actively betrayed the race by growing up in secure middle-class families but that, by virtue of their backgrounds, they occupied an enviable cultural space that seemed intensely unreachable to a young Rose. The differences between the Fab Five and the Duke team of the '90s may have largely disappeared -- today both Rose and Hill enjoy successful careers and greater financial security than either of them grew up with -- but there remains a deep division within the African-American community between those who are accepted by the nation at large and those who are not."
This topic has clearly touched a nerve and it goes beyond the world of collegiate athletics and race. It extends to issues like socio-economic status, power, class and privilege. In an extremely insightful and passionate viewpoint on the matter, ESPN basketball analyst Chris Broussard addresses this situation in a way that strikes at the heart of the matter. You can view the video below or click here if the video player does not show up.

For the record, I am a fan of both Jalen Rose and Grant Hill. They've both turned successful NBA careers into pathways for giving back to their communities and I admire both of them for their maturity and wisdom. But I don't think that this is fundamentally a Grant vs. Jalen thing. Nor do I even think it's about Duke and Michigan. As Chris Broussard said, this discussion demonstrates an identity crisis that exists for many young black men.

How "blackness" is defined and who gets to define it is a question that has been around for centuries and it won't be going away anytime soon. Will African Americans that seek the best educational opportunities they can find be considered "sell outs" and will those that get those opportunities continue to give back to the communities that gave them birth? For the multitude of African American youth that don't have a jump shot and won't be playing ball at either Duke or Michigan, the concern remains about whether they'll be afforded the same academic opportunities that a Grant Hill or Jalen Rose received. Those issues will continue to be prevalent until the educational and economic disparities that exist between our nation's cities and the suburbs is addressed.

1 comment:

carlene said...

And it also seems a fair question (speaking as a Caucasian First Gen college graduate): Why should it be essentially demanded of African-American "First Gen" successes that they "give back" even during the early years of their careers when professional success depends on 80-hour weeks? The challenges of a community don't just belong to that community -- or, to put it in terms more accurate to our faith, if the African-American "hands" (and "feet" and "eyes") are injured, does not the entire body feel pain? If we don't, we have failed to perceive the Body correctly. And we are failing to care for the Body correctly.