The Root: The Troubling Nuances Of 'Uncle Tom'

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Former NBA player Jalen Rose arriving at the Grammys in 2008. Rose is in the middle of a controversy revolving around the use of the term "Uncle Toms" in referring to black players on the Duke basketball team in the early '90s. i i

hide captionFormer NBA player Jalen Rose arriving at the Grammys in 2008. Rose is in the middle of a controversy revolving around the use of the term "Uncle Toms" in referring to black players on the Duke basketball team in the early '90s.

Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
Former NBA player Jalen Rose arriving at the Grammys in 2008. Rose is in the middle of a controversy revolving around the use of the term "Uncle Toms" in referring to black players on the Duke basketball team in the early '90s.

Former NBA player Jalen Rose arriving at the Grammys in 2008. Rose is in the middle of a controversy revolving around the use of the term "Uncle Toms" in referring to black players on the Duke basketball team in the early '90s.

Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Adena Spingarn is a Ph.D. candidate in Harvard University's English Department, where she is writing a dissertation on the Uncle Tom figure in the American imagination.

When the Fab Five joined the University of Michigan Wolverines in 1991, their swagger and street style electrified basketball fans and transformed the way the sport is played today. Those who played against Michigan during that era endured plenty of trash-talking on the court from Jalen Rose, Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson. But just two words in a Fab Five documentary aired by ESPN last Sunday — Rose refers to black players recruited by Duke in the '90s as "Uncle Toms" — have prompted an essay-length response from former Duke University Blue Devil and current Phoenix Sun Grant Hill, as well as a flurry of media debate.

Rose, for his part, seems somewhat mystified by the response. After all, as he told ESPN's Skip Bayless Wednesday night, in the 1990s he and the other Fab Five players used that term on the court. In the same documentary, Jimmy King recalls thinking that two former Duke stars were "bitches." But calling someone an Uncle Tom is a different category of insult. It's a serious slur, probably even more offensive than the n-word. Even white people know that. But why is the term so uniquely offensive? And what does it mean, anyway?

Grant Hill, whose response to the documentary appeared in the New York Times blog the Quad, comments that 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." In the documentary, Rose describes how he felt as a teenager from a disadvantaged background playing against the more privileged Duke team: "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."

It's clear from Rose's remarks, in the documentary and since, that he was speaking about how he felt as a teenager, not how he feels today. (Interestingly, several sources slightly edit Rose's words, so that instead of saying that he hated what he felt Duke stood for, Rose is quoted as saying he "hated everything Duke stood for" — a change that elides Rose's careful framing of those feelings at a particular moment in time.) And it's also clear that he doesn't use the term to mean a race traitor. When Bayless asked Rose whether players like Grant Hill and Elton Brand did "a disservice to their black heritage by choosing to go to Duke," Rose replied, "Of course not!"

This confusion over what, exactly, it means to be an Uncle Tom is nothing new. Ever since the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Uncle Tom has been a central figure in American conversations about what it means to be black and how blacks should respond to oppression. That conversation has, along with the term "Uncle Tom," evolved over time.

Some commentators, such as ESPN.com's Michael Wilbon, have pointed out that the differences between Rose and Hill are actually not so great, that what separates them is really just that Hill's parents achieved the American dream a generation before the Roses did. Rose himself admits this. As he told ESPN, although Duke still probably wouldn't recruit someone with his background, they would recruit his son. But reducing Rose's remarks to class resentment doesn't really get at the heart of what makes the "Uncle Tom" slur so exceptionally powerful.

As a kid from a single-parent household who had to bundle up in layers of clothing to keep warm at night, Rose resented Hill's privilege, both material and familial. But this wasn't generic class resentment. In the United States, there was and is a difference between being poor and white and being poor and black. That's what Rose was talking about.

The history of black folks in America is full of adversity — and, yes, achievement too. But for better or for worse, the enduring marks of our adversity — the single-parent households, the poverty, the street culture — have become ingrained in the way many African Americans define themselves and their histories.

Certainly, as Hill points out in his Times essay, black people who grew up with two parents and financial security are no less black than those who struggled the way Rose did. But Rose, defending his choice of words to ESPN's Bayless, emphasized that backgrounds like Hill's are "the minority. I was speaking for the majority." As a recruited player, he said, "I looked at it as, [the Duke players] are who the world accepts, and we are who the world hates."

What Rose meant by calling black Duke players "Uncle Toms" was not that they had actively betrayed the race by growing up in secure middle-class families but that, by virtue of their backgrounds, they occupied an enviable cultural space that seemed intensely unreachable to a young Rose. The differences between the Fab Five and the Duke team of the '90s may have largely disappeared — today both Rose and Hill enjoy successful careers and greater financial security than either of them grew up with — but there remains a deep division within the African-American community between those who are accepted by the nation at large and those who are not.

The persistence of this division is a touchy subject, but as Rose's refusal to rescind his comments suggests, it's a conversation that needs to happen.

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