Jalen Rose: The Real “Uncle Tom”?

By now, many of us have heard something about the Michigan University Fab Five documentary that appeared on ESPN earlier this month. In it, Jalen Rose expressed his discontent for Duke University and one Grant Hill while a freshman at Michigan.  He called Hill an “Uncle Tom” due to Hill’s upbringing.

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?

But that theory was blown to smithereens by Coach 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.

I can’t say the same for everyone else. “Tomming” is running 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?” Of course he didn’t know any better, but Rose was the real Uncle Tom.

When I was the navy, I had a friend named Chris, who was black and when talking to a group of white folks, one of them would always say,”You talk white.” He once said, “I assumed the achievement of subject-verb agreement in simple conversation was normal among all people.” They’d look confused and I’d fall out laughing.  We had both, already encountered enough inarticulate white folks to know that they did not have a monopoly on general aptitude.

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 …that’s for a later discussion.)