A New Spin on Duke
Debunking the ‘Uncle Tom’ myth.
We’re pleased to present Prof. James Braxton Peterson’s essay on ‘Uncle Tom – gate,’ which stemmed from ESPN’s Fab Five documentary. He is an Associate Professor of English at Bucknell University and a Duke alumnus. Prof. Peterson contacted us out of the blue and we thought his views were well worth running.—Ed.
by James Braxton Peterson / @JBP2
Now that the men’s college basketball season has come to an end I can address some issues/concerns regarding ‘Uncle Tom – gate,’ that have been festering with me a bit – my own consternation being stoked by numerous queries and solicitations of my opinion on these matters from various friends/classmates within the Black Duke alum community. I am a Black Duke alumnus, class of 1993.
In case you missed it, ‘Uncle Tom – gate’ commenced after the debut of the ESPN documentary, Fab Five. In the film, Jalen Rose states the following: “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 players who were Uncle Toms.” Note well here that Mr. Rose is narrating his mindset at the age of 17 or 18 years. He’s describing his mental approach and preparation for the Fab Five’s first encounter with the Duke basketball team and its much valorized programmatic presence in the NCAA’s and college athletics more broadly. For an 18-year-old Rose, the thought of battling Duke on the court was a daunting but welcome challenge.
But the off-court contests, of racial stereotypes, institutional history, recruitment preferences and of class and experiential diversity within the Black community proved to be weighty for his young mind. He was honest if not eloquent in his narrative and I have to say – much like Duke’s drubbing this year at the hands of Arizona, I was not upset by it. Instead I absorbed it with the kind of quiet, confident knowledge that being a part of the legacy of Black folk at Duke requires. When winning is the norm (in any competitive arena) the hate that winning breeds becomes a natural part of the public discourse. It is the grassroots response to the top down media love affair with Coach K, Duke’s elite institutional status, and those consistently copied Cameron Crazies.
Don’t get me wrong. I immediately grasped the anachronistic sense with which Rose deployed the ‘Uncle Tom’ epithet. For points of clarification please note that the conventional meaning of ‘Uncle Tom’ — a Black person (usually male) who is a sellout; someone who exhibits self-hate via subservience to white folk and white supremacy. Malcolm X coined the term in his excoriation of those Black folk, even Civil Rights leaders, who he felt chose conciliation over confrontation. This was not exactly the meaning that Rose was going for or achieved. Rose used the term as a means to express his frustration with the racialized and stratified nature of college basketball (then and now), our society (then and now). If we really wanted to ‘go there,’ we should acknowledge the literary figure of ‘Uncle Tom,’ that famous, cheek-turning, Christian man in bondage, who was actually quite popular before Malcolm and others transformed him into the signifier of Black anti-black identity.
I certainly understood Rose’s remarks as offensive from my perspective as a Black Duke alum, but I did not/do not distinguish the depiction of Duke from the perspective of the Fab Five from the depiction of Duke from the perspective of the early ’90s UNLV squad in HBO’s Runnin’ Rebels documentary from the steady vitriol directed at Duke during this time of year from some of my dearest friends. All paint Duke as a white institutional(ly) Evil Empire – kinda like the way all non-Yankee baseball fans see the Yankees. Say what you want about recruitment preferences, character vs stereotype, etc. – perennial excellence breeds perennial hate. So yes, the loss to Arizona this year still smarts a bit – maybe not as much as Fab Five’s losses in their appearances in the final rounds of NCAA tournament play – but there’s much consolation in the fact that we’ll be back next year and the next year, and the next year… In fact, we’ve been there so much since I graduated in 1993 (after winning back-to-back championships and being in the Final Four ALL FOUR years of my undergraduate experience) that I don’t even fill out brackets anymore – sorry Mr. POTUS. I just put Duke in the winner’s slot.
Now this might make some folk mad — my arrogance or confidence in Duke – an institution that is persistently read as white by Black folk, mostly because of the white bodies on the bball courts/TV screens. But what I have taken issue with over the years and years of brow-beating that I have endured at the hands of those of my Black friends who hate Duke for one reason or another, are the ways in which other (white) institutions somehow become the nexus of Black authenticity and the David-of-the-moment team to undermine Duke’s Goliath-status in Men’s college basketball. Is the University of Michigan somehow ‘blacker’ than Duke? Is the University of Arizona or UNLV somehow more down for the causes of Black folk? The black bodies on the courts do not necessarily indicate the racial makeup of the university, nor its institutional commitment to recruitment, retention, and support of Black students or the Black community. Surely there must be some conflict in rooting for the state that birthed the Michigan Militia or the state that reified racial profiling of folk who might look like they are Mexican.
I am certainly not exonerating Duke for its own historical or institutional racism – I just don’t think that too many of the other bball programs that are coded as Black simply because of the racial makeup of their respective squads should get a free pass just because they lose to Duke in the NCAAs (or win occasionally).
Hampton can get that though.
From the time I attended Duke, it had one of the largest percentages of Black undergraduates among any of its elite institutional peers. The community of Black students that attended Duke while I was there reflected the experiential, demographic diversity of the Black community. We had those traditionally rich Dukies who drove BMWs and had sizable allowances from their two-parent homes and we had hustlers – real street hustlers – who continued to run their routes as undergrads and sent money home to single-parent homes in inner city America. And yes, we had many many Black students whose experiences could not be situated in either of these subject positions – or along the kind of limited identity spectrums with which these discussions have been conducted.
Even as alum, Black Duke graduates run the gamut of professional success and access. And believe it or not, some of those hustlers are still hustling. For me, obviously, the entire discussion of black authenticity is almost always limited and off-base and it is ALWAYS inherently flawed. Tethering oppressive experiences to black authenticity strikes me as the most parochial means to discuss the complex ideas at issue in racial identity discourses.
For the record, Grant Hill is one of the most humble, down-to-earth, respectful, and affable brothers I know and have had the privilege to spend some time with. He carries himself like a quiet warrior – on and off the field. Surely Duke had its share of ‘Uncle Toms,’ but GHill certainly wasn’t one of them. That people took his New York Times response as overly reactive or overtly indicative of Rose’s comments about him, only reflects people’s misunderstandings of Duke University within the context of other mainstream institutions; the unyielding attacks heaped upon Black Duke folk just for going to Duke; and the now common misunderstanding of the term ‘Uncle Tom.’
Is the New York Times a white institution – sure it is, but is its readership exclusively white? I think not. And not only do Black folk read NYT, but using it as a platform to respond to Rose’s comments (made on ESPN) seems to me to be a case of turnabout (on white media platforms) being fair play. I think some of these responses also reflect a little of the Duke hate that has become such a regular feature of our existence as Duke alum. Hill’s response definitively reflects the feelings that a lot of Black folk — who go to institutions seen as white – have been dealing with throughout history.
I’m Black and I grew up in Newark, NJ. Am I any less Black because I went to Duke? Some folk then (and now) seem to think so. I would summarily disagree with them. I say all of this to say that my response to ‘Uncle Tom – gate’ for those folk who wanted to know is the following: Real Niggas go to Duke too. Yea, I said it. Real Niggas go to Duke too. Real here means the full range of experiences and subject positions that constitute Blackness for Black folk. Niggas? Well Niggas stands for those Black folk who are never ignorant, gettin’ goals accomplished.
James Braxton Peterson is an Associate Professor of English at Bucknell University. He is the Founder of Hip Hop Scholars, LLC and appears regularly on cable news networks including CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News. Follow him on Twitter @JBP2.