Jalen Rose was young and uninformed. This explains why he ripped the Duke basketball program for recruiting, in his words, “Uncle Toms.” This is not an unforgivable offense.
But some corrections are in order.
The original Uncle Tom sprung from the fertile mind of author Harriet Beecher Stowe. He was a slave who was beaten to death because he wouldn’t betray the whereabouts of his fellow runaway slaves. The original Uncle Tom would rather die than turn his back on his people. The original Uncle Tom was a hero in the way all martyrs are heroes.
But during the Civil Rights era -- one in which Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party urged their brethren to defend themselves -- any beating taken was viewed as less than heroic. Those who allowed themselves to be whipped by white cops, bitten by their dogs, and stung by fire hoses, were branded Uncle Toms. Over time, the term devolved into any black person who acted how white folks wanted them to act. It was assumed the black folks did this because they too wanted to be white.
This is the definition that made its way into the Rose household.
Rose is correct in his synopsis of the Duke program. Coach Mike Krzyzewski has indeed sought and signed those black athletes who most positively represent the university and its storied program. And why wouldn’t he want clean cut, articulate young men who play good defense, hit the boards and excel in academia?
Why wouldn’t any coach want that?
That’s a good question, made even more intriguing by something the late great coach Al McGuire said of his days at Marquette. He said: "I never recruited a kid who had grass growing in front of his house." Loosely translated, that means McGuire only wanted kids from the projects, those living in a home furnished by a single parent and despair. These kids were thought to be "hungrier" than their suburban counterparts, that they were somehow "tougher." McGuire wasn’t alone in that thinking. I’m quite certain there are still people who still feel this way.
But that theory was blown to smithereens by Coack K’s most coveted recruit in the fall of 1996. The kid fit the Duke profile -- he was intelligent, thoughtful, and raised by two parents in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania. But Kobe Bryant skipped Duke and took his show to LA. Krzyzewski had to be disappointed. Any team featuring Bryant was certain to cut down several nets. Nonetheless, Krzyzewski persevered and won two more championships.
And Bryant, with five rings and counting, continues to purge us of the notion that for black folks, the only path to greatness is paved with disenfranchisement. Even those who hate him must admit that Kobe Bryant is as ferocious a competitor as any man in sport.
And he is no Uncle Tom.
The modern Uncle Tom is that black person who purposely undercuts the efforts of other black folks who are just going about the daily business of excellence. And when this is done publicly, it's even more destructive. In that sense, a young Jalen Rose was the corrosive agent who purposely disparaged Grant Hill and his family of overachievers.
Rose was the real Uncle Tom.
Of course he didn’t know any better.
I can’t say the same for everyone else. "Tomming" is rampant these days. Next time you read a story by a black writer who goes out of his way to lampoon some black athlete, coach, or public figure, ask yourself: "Is this guy being sincere, or is he sucking up to those white folks whose view of blackness is limited to what they see on the screen?"
When I was 17, I was at a track meet, talking to a group of folks, when a white kid from another school quipped: "You talk white." I assumed the achievement of subject-verb agreement in simple conversation was his working definition of whiteness and this is why he said what he did. But I had already encountered enough inarticulate white folks to know that they did not have a monopoly on general aptitude.
So I simply replied, "No, I speak intelligently."
I’m sure if I were to have a simple conversation with Jalen Rose, we would have a splendid time. I would tell him that my wife is white and my daughter is biracial and beautiful. And because of that, I have little time for pretense. Because of that, I have no fear. He would see that those of us who strive to educate ourselves, improve ourselves, and feed and house our young are not in pursuit of some elusive non-ethnic identity. We’re in pursuit of our own manifest destiny. And it’s a shared one, regardless of background or pedigree.
That’s the way it’s always been. That’s how it was when Jackie Robinson opened a letter from Malcolm X. I’m sure you know Jackie’s story, and I’m sure most of you know Malcolm’s story too -- most of it, at least. Most people leave out the part when he and Martin Luther King became friends in the ultimate act of black unity. (Perhaps this is why black unity remains a myth to some … )
Anyway, Malcolm X took exception to Robinson being "used" by white men to integrate baseball. Malcolm wrote: "You proved that your white boss had chosen the ‘right’ Negro by getting plenty of hits, stealing plenty of bases, winning many games, and bringing much money through the gates and into his pockets … "
But Robinson was his own man and he wouldn’t be swayed, not even by arguably the most persuasive figure in all of American iconography.
Robinson wrote back: "I do not do things to please ‘white bosses’ or ‘black agitators’ unless they are the things which please me."
In order for the integration experiment to succeed, Robinson had to keep his emotions in check. Amid unmerciful verbal and physical abuse, he had to be refined, poised and dignified. Robinson didn’t exhibit characteristics specific to white folks; he exhibited characteristics that elude most humans. In order to integrate baseball, Robinson had to transcend basic humanity.
After Malcolm was killed, Robinson was shaken. Though they occupied different sides of a shared struggle, he recognized Malcolm’s intellect and respected his strength. Robinson said: "His murderers quieted his voice, but clothed him in martyrdom and deepened his influence. In death Malcolm became larger than he had been in life."
The same can be said for Robinson. That’s the thing about martyrs. They leave things behind. We are the ones who must keep unearthing those things, dusting them off, and re-examining them.
Lest they be forever misunderstood.