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Grant Hill vs Jalen Rose: The “Uncle Tom” Controversy in Historical Context

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by Weiner

With the Final Four coming up this weekend, I figure it’s better late than never to weigh in on the Grant Hill vs Jalen Rose controversy. Well not exactly weigh in, as I don’t really feel the need to pick a “side,” but rather to put their spat in some kind of historical context.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, Ta-Nehisi Coates has a nice summary with far better commentary than I can offer over here. But I’ll give you some basics:

Rose (left) was a member of the 1990s Michigan Wolverines men’s basketball team, known as the “Fab Five” for their five African American stars, including Rose, Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King, and Ray Jackson. As wikipedia notes, the “Fab Five” became well-known for bringing a hip hop style into college basketball, and later into the NBA. The team reached two NCAA championships, losing both, including the 1992 championship to the Duke University Blue Devils, led by future NBA star Grant Hill.

The class contrast was stark. Hill’s father, an NFL running back, had been educated at Yale, his mother at Wellesley College, where she roomed with Hillary Clinton.

In the recent  ESPN documentary, The Fab Five (which Rose produced), Rose, who grew up poor and never knew his father, reflected on this divide:

For me, Duke was personal. I hated Duke and I hated everything I felt Duke stood for. Schools like Duke didn’t recruit players like me. I felt like 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 Hilary Clinton. Your dad played in the NFL, is 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.

Hill (right) responded in The New York Times, and more extensively on his own blog.

It was a sad and somewhat pathetic turn of events, therefore, to see friends narrating this interesting documentary about their moment in time and calling me a bitch and worse, calling all black players at Duke “Uncle Toms” and, to some degree, disparaging my parents for their education, work ethic and commitment to each other and to me.  I should have guessed there was something regrettable in the documentary when Jay Williams and I received a Twitter apology from Jalen before its airing.  And, I am aware Jalen has gone to some length to explain his remarks about my family in numerous interviews, so I believe he has some admiration for them.

In his garbled but sweeping comment that  “Duke only recruits black 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.   And, I wonder if I would have suggested to former Detroit Pistons GM Rick Sund to keep Jimmy King on the team if I had known, back then in the mid-90s, that he would call me a bitch on a nationally televised show in 2011.

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.  They remain committed to each other after more than 40 years and to my wife, Tamia, our children, and me.  They are my role models and always will be.

Having one prominent Black athlete call another an “Uncle Tom” is of course nothing new. Muhammad Ali, who came from a stable, working class family in Louisville, Kentucky, called Joe Frazier (below), the son of a poor sharecropper from South Carolina, an Uncle Tom. The lighter-skinned Ali also frequently mocked the darker Frazier for being ugly, calling his famous opponent a “gorilla.” In the remarkable 1996 documentary When We Were Kings about Ali’s 1974 fight in Zaire with George Forman, the so-called “Rumble in the Jungle,” we see yet another example. Many of the Zaire natives imagined that George Foreman was white. Even when they saw he was Black, Ali nonetheless remained their favourite, representing a more attractive brand of Blackness than the future grill master could muster.

I remember in high school when the hip hop magazine The Source produced a companion magazine, The Source Sports to focus on those athletes who best exemplified hip hop style. I remember an article contrasting Brooklyn-born, ex-con, and Muslim Mike Tyson with overtly Christian Jesus-praising Evander Holyfield. The  author noted something like (I’m paraphrasing from a vague memory): Holyfield is our friendly neighbour we wave to as he’s mowing his lawn, but Tyson is the guy we identity with. I remember a reader writing in to complain that the magazine wasn’t giving enough props to Tim Duncan, because despite his athletic achievements, he didn’t represent the hip hop flavour the magazine was going for.

This again reminds me of an earlier post here, where boxer Bernard Hopkins denied that fellow fighter Joshua Clottey is really a Black fighter, because Clottey is from Ghana and doesn’t have the slickness of an African American pugilist.

It even reminds me of the way certain people think that Barack Obama is not “authentically” Black, or African American, because he comes from a mixed-race family, his father was an immigrant from Kenya, and he grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia before attending Ivy League college and law school.

Those examples aren’t exactly “Tomming,” but they are efforts to shower one kind of African American experience as purer, as more authentic than others. The other derogatory epithet, “Oreo,” for Blacks who “act white,” comes to mind.

“Authenticity” is a fiction. This does not delegitimize Jalen Rose’s complaints. Duke University likely does have a certain class profile of athlete it recruits, Black or white. But by taking a step back and looking at this in a broader perspective, we can appreciate the tremendous diversity in the Black community in the United States, the struggles between segments and individuals in that community, or communities, and the enduring power of race, however socially constructed, in American history. Indeed, Blacks, perhaps as much as whites, continue to construct their own versions of Blackness, fashioning their racial identities in myriad ways to suit their own experiences and lifestyles.


Written by David Weinfeld

April 1, 2011 at 19:31

3 Responses

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  1. why is it that black people who showed their kids the right way to get ahead (education and hard work) are labeled uncle toms sad!!!!!!


    April 2, 2011 at 12:37

  2. […] we go again. Only a short while after the Grant Hill versus Jalen Rose “Uncle Tom” controversy, and a few months after former middleweight championship boxer Bernard “The […]

  3. […] who have internalized stereotypes and believe that Black people who don’t fit the mold are Uncle Toms, bourgeois, uppity, or “acting […]

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