I have some questions, you might too. What does it mean to be an African American today? Just who is authentically black? Do Uncle Toms still exist? Are you a racial sellout if you happen to come from an affluent home instead of the inner city? Some of you might ask—do we need to have this discussion? I think we do.
If ever there is a subject that needs re-airing and re-evaluation in the black community, it is this one. Jalen Rose gives voice to this in his recent ESPN documentary about what he and his famous “Fab Five” University of Michigan basketball teammates went through 20 years ago.
For those too young to remember the Fab Five, they were five exceptionally talented freshman who would eventually comprise the starting lineup for the University of Michigan and go on to play for the national championship two years in a row. They represented, in many ways, a myopic shorthand view of Black America—hip-hop and ghetto fabulous, resentful of anything that smelled like the establishment. The Fab Five were both hugely popular—and extremely polarizing.
In the documentary, Rose says he hated Duke University at the time, one of the two schools Michigan would play in their national championship games. Rose says he believed that Duke only recruited African American players who were what he called “Uncle Toms”—black players the elite, private North Carolina school could be comfortable with.
"Uncle Tom," of course, is one of the worst slurs that an African American can be labeled with and Rose’s comments subsequently reverberated all over the basketball world and well beyond.
Being described as an Uncle Tom angered former Duke star Grant Hill, who played on Duke’s national championship teams and is still playing in the National Basketball Association. In response to ESPN's documentary, Hill wrote a scathing editorial rebuttal in the New York Times (we've linked to an official, uncut version). Hill—the son of a Yale graduate who went on to a successful career in the National Football League and a mother who is an attorney—said he is proud of his two-parent upbringing and was anything but an Uncle Tom.
Later, Rose sought to clarify his statements, saying he was speaking from his memory as an 18 year old recruit, not as the nearly 40 year old man he is today.
This discussion is a valid one. Whether intended or not, Rose’s comments and the resulting firestorm touched a raw nerve, re-igniting a wide ranging debate that has troubled and split the black community for years.
A quarter century ago, many wondered whether TV’s popular and wealthy Huxtable family, starring Bill Cosby, was a credible portrayal of African American life. Conversely, many have long been uncomfortable with the Reverend Al Sharpton. Was it his ill-conceived defense of alleged rape victim Tawana Brawley? Is it his pressed and conked hair?
There are dozens and dozens of sociological/race related issues that I can raise here, but keeping this to sports, I don’t think it is unfair to ask why the Duke University basketball team inspires so much antipathy, particularly within a broad cross-section of the black community, irrespective of neighborhoods and income. Nor is it unfair to wonder why is it necessary for so many young black players to wear tattoos all over their bodies. The points of view within Black America are diverse and spirited.
No, I don’t believe that the Jalen Rose of today thinks Grant Hill (or any other African American player) was or is an Uncle Tom. But his words in the documentary nonetheless spoke a truth that made many of us uncomfortable and for that I thank him for forcing us to look back and inward.
I also say thank you to Grant Hill for standing up for himself, his teammates and his family. Too often, many of us don’t do that—not proud enough of who we are, or of the accomplishments of the past and the roots planted by many of our families.
Yes, this is a discussion that we can and should have annually, just like Black History month.