Monday, April 11, 2011

It's Bigger Than Basketball: Intra-race Class Antagonisms & Public Discourse


March Madness has finally come and gone, much to the bewilderment of college basketball fans like myself. Lost in the hype over what have been thrilling upsets and just great basketball (except for the Championship game) is a controversy of former college basketball greats, Michigan’s Jalen Rose and Duke’s Grant Hill. A couple weeks before the NCAA “Selection Sunday” the passionate responses of two former college basketball superstars took center stage in two of the most widely recognized newspapers in America: The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. The opt-ed pieces were written after the fallout from the ESPN documentary the “Fab Five” which was produced by Rose, whose comments about Hill, cascaded into a firestorm of opinion pieces and uncomfortable moments on camera and in print.

In the immediate aftermath, ESPN analysts and contributors—white and black, struggled mightily to make sure not to say the wrong thing in this war of words, because of the racially charged nature of the comments. Most failed to grasp the bigger issue at hand. Michael Wilbon, co-host of the popular ESPN show, Pardon the Interruption, and long time sportswriter, came the closest to addressing the so called elephant in the room, though well written, his take on the events following the airing of the documentary missed the mark.

In the documentary, Rose reflects on his days as a Michigan Wolverine and says that he saw, Hill as an Uncle Tom. This term has held a certain weight amongst black men going back to the Civil Rights Movement, and even before that. The term usually is directed at a black man of a perceived higher class status that for all practical purposes has sold his soul to enjoy the creature comforts of the market, all while still dependent upon white tolerance of him socio-economically. The Uncle Tom ridicules and despises himself and those that look like him, and takes every opportunity to remind his white patrons how “loyal” and “good” he is to the maintaining of a subjected and indeed peculiar social order.

In one of his most famous speeches “The Field Negro and the House NegroMalcolm X builds on this legacy of the ‘Uncle Tom’ by giving a history lesson of sorts where he explains the caste differences within slavery. He sees the mentality of the Uncle Tom as a contemporary manifestation of an older psychology of self-hate found in the characteristics of the house and field slaves. I am inclined to agree with Brother Malcolm. 

During the height of the transatlantic slave trade there were slave catchers who were themselves forced into bondage by Europeans, just like the captives they hoped to bring to the Western African shores. Even though these slave traders went on to endure the punishing and most dehumanizing aspects of the Middle Passage, they still saw themselves as better than their fellow bondsmen and bondswomen because of their practiced faith or the social status they had back on the continent. Those are beginning of his divide that is only whispered about mostly. However, during the early 1980s art, in the only way that it can approached the subject with care and poignant critique.

One of the most memorable scenes in the 1984 film, A Soldier’s Story, is an argument that later leads to a fight between the characters Sergeant Waters (played by Adolf Caesar) and Private First Class Peterson (Denzel Washington). The fight erupts after the very demeaning way that Sgt. Waters spoke to another soldier that Peterson sorely objects to. Peterson defiantly asks the question of Waters, “Hey, what kind of colored man are you?” Slowly turning around, the sergeant coldly responds, “I’m a solider Peterson. The kind of colored man that don’t like lazy, shiftless Negroes.” The “Sarge” goes on to say, “And, if it wasn’t for you southern niggas whitefolks wouldn’t think we was all fools!” Angry as hell, Peterson mockingly rebuts, “Where you from, England?” The scene and the film are indeed a classic. Not just for the acting in it, but also for the issues it addresses. What I love about the film is how it highlights the issue of intra-race class antagonisms. 

Humans have always found inventive ways to distance themselves from each other based upon fleeting notions of faith and perceived class status, not to mention gender and sexual orientation.  What gets lost in the faux divides we have created is our shared suffering. The slave traders were too blinded by their ethnocentric religiosity and weak minded thoughts of superiority that they failed to see their common plight with those they captured. Contemporarily you can see this same thing occurring with poor whites that vote against their class interests for the sake of preserving and participating in a ‘whiteness payday’—meaning that the psychological wage of whiteness will one day pay them in full and the blessings of capitalism propped up by racial, gender, and class inequality will reward them for their race loyalty.

Thus, the “Uncle Tom” comment by Jalen Rose is not simply just him tapping into his thoughts as 18 year old Detroit kid upset with the hand dealt to him by life. Nor is it just mere fuel for his fire on the court. The comment is just another tacit illustration of the continued intra-race class divide that has existed in the African American community before the Fab Five and unfortunately still exists today as Grant Hill’s eloquent and off the mark New York Times piece reinforces.

In the final analysis, Jalen Rose made one of the best documentaries I have seen in a long while. It illustrates how in the wake of the Rodney King beating and verdict, the Fab Five came to symbolize the expressive aspects of African American youth culture in very real and salient ways that redefined the way we saw ourselves both on and off the court.

The documentary ultimately is an opportunity for African Americans to have some real and meaningful discourse about our continued intra-race class issues, and I’m glad to see scholars like Duke University’s Prof. Mark Anthony Neal open up this dialogue with others (via his show Left of Black). Unfortunately, far too many of us are caught up in the nomenclature of disrespect birthed from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel to deal with the real issue at hand.


R.N. Bradley said...

Yes Dr. Mitchell. Yes indeed!

Nerokorn said...

Isn't the real issue at hand the fact a newborn America, in its desperate need to prove it could be a God-fearing nation, while encouraging slavery at the same time, could only jusitify being both by calling into question the humanity of the beings that were going to be the slaves? Only by devaluing the worth of the creatures that would be the slaves, in some cases suggesting their being made slaves in America actually elevated their conditions, could the "Founding Fathers" of the United States hold onto their own questionable humanity. Flash forward and we find the flawed theory behind the basis of the "Dred Scott Decision" (the Black man is so far inferior to the White man the Black man has no rights the White man is bound to respect)still holds. Only this time, as Carter G. Woodson so eloquently explained, the brutality (against the Black man)has been "outsourced" to the very people originally oppressed. (In our angst, we abuse, mock, demean, insult, injure, maim and/or kill ourselves) In short, we don't have to wait for some other ethnic group looking to feel better about itself to start pointing out the shortcomings of African Americans, we'll do it ourselves thank you very much. The facts of the matter are, African Americans are, to my understanding, the only ethnic group that actually places on recordings for purchase the slurs that the majority originally placed against them and they now have adopted against themselves. African Americans are the first group of previously enslaved people that have been freed that had to develop their own culture because their primary culture was wiped clean by virtue of the disconnect from their homeland and the formation of survival codes that were developed as part of their slavery that evolved in to what is now considered "Black culture." African Americans are the only ethnic group that has allowed its members from the lower economic strata to define, with authority, what being "Black" is. This "Black culture" is still evolving. Its development, along with America's, has not finished yet. America is only 231 years old. That makes America an infant at best when compared to Great Britain, France, Italy, Germany or China. Despite all of our technological advances, we are still in the process of becoming. For one side of our group to allow itself to get caught up in a name calling class war with another is, at best needlessly time consuming and at worst, continually self-destructive. We would best be served by adopting the "Life is like a Roadmap Mentality." Rather than continuously complaining about one's lot in life regardless of station, how about some self examination and honestly acknowledging knowing where we are, deciding where we want to go and then finding a way to get there?

Citizen Ojo said...

Good Read Sir.. Good Read..

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