Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Uncle Tom's legacy

Jalen Rose, former NBA player and ESPN analyst, has had the racial pot stirred in recent days with his comments in The Fab Five, a documentary about the famous '91-'92 Michigan basketball team. In the film, he criticizes Duke University and its propensity to recruit only black athletes of a certain socio-economic background - presumably those from well-to-do, educated families and not those from inner cities. He framed his criticism, however, in words condescending to the blacks recruited by Duke:
"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."
The term Uncle Tom, borrowed from the lead character of Uncle Tom's Cabin, is used condescendingly for blacks, mostly by blacks, to indicate submissiveness to the ways of the white mainstream. A sharp reaction to Rose came from the Washington Post's Jason Reid:
"(Jalen Rose) seems to hold firm to his flawed belief that the experience of some African Americans are "more black" than those of others. The premise, misguided as it is, asserts that academic achievement, professional accomplishment and affluence somehow reduces or eliminates a person's blackness."
On that subject, not long ago, I was amused to stumble upon a rather obscure and unexpected references to the UncleTom-ness of Booker T. Washington, a rather well-known black educator and leading light of Tuskegee. This is from Their Eyes Were Watching God, a 1937 novel set in black culture of the American south in the early 1900s; two (black) women are talking about Washington:
"All he ever done was cut de monkey for white folks. So they pomped him up. He didn't do nothin' but hold us back - talkin' 'bout work when de race ain't never done nothin' else. He wuz uh white folks' nigger."
Of course, the the character of Uncle Tom is timeless, colorless, and placeless. I have privately wondered on occasion if Mohandas Gandhi had some shades of Uncle Tom, having initially gotten the idea from the way UCLA professor Stanley Wolpert pomped up Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Gandhi's mentor, in Tilak and Gokhale: Revolution and Reform in the Making of Modern India. To Wolpert, and to many other Western observers (for example, these), Gokhale and Gandhi stood for desirable reform, while Tilak represented a meaningless revolution.

In that context, if I was to vote for Uncle Tom #1 in today's world, it would be a no-brainer: Mahmoud Abbas.

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