Just Another Black Man Caught Up in the Mix
The morning after Iverson's press conference, I referred to AI as "the athlete least likely to bare his soul, admit mistakes or appear in the least bit sympathetic unless you bought into his rhetoric." My friend Q. McCall took me to task for it, and after a lengthy chat, I recanted and convinced him to do a guest post. You can also catch his writing over at Swish Appeal.
I once lost a job over an argument about Allen Iverson’s cultural significance.
Actually, it was more a mutual agreement to part ways because things clearly were not going to work out, but that’s beside the point—a dispute over Iverson was ultimately the reason I lost income.
I was a 23-year-old black graduate student at a research university working with a professor at a smaller university on a project designed to “empower” an economically distressed de-industrialized black community. For me, the project embodied exactly the type of community work that I had always wanted to do – bringing together my academic knowledge with the budding activist impulse I had developed during undergrad. It was one way to participate in the ongoing post-Civil Rights struggle for racial equality that my parents (both from Virginia, father from Newport News) had convinced me was the responsibility of an educated black man.
However, a tension quickly emerged between the lead professor and I during the course of the project due to competing definitions of “blackness”.
The week prior to “the Iverson incident”, he sat me down in his university office after I presented him the results of a community survey that suggested we should slightly alter the direction of the project. He responded by telling me how the “white knowledge” that I brought from my university—in this instance, the use of a survey to determine the opinions and needs of the black people we intended to serve—didn’t apply to the folks of this community. My counter-argument—that we cannot understand the needs of the community simply by assuming we know what all black people need—fell on deaf ears.
The image of him wearing a dashiki with his doctoral robes hanging on the door of his office in the comfy confines of the ivory tower while telling me that I didn’t understand the struggle as a young academic is something that will remain forever etched in my memory. It was at that point that my admiration of his work was officially overcome by skepticism over his intentions.
In some ways, the interaction is representative of a generational disconnect that so many who lived through “the struggle” justifiably lament: while they fought and died for increased opportunity, we post-civil rights babies either didn’t take advantage, didn’t appreciate the newfound opportunity, or sold out. Within that framework, I was told in no uncertain terms that I was the sell out based solely on the fact that I attended a “white university”, was using “white methods”, and was honestly just sort of “square”.
It was within this broader context that the job-ending Iverson argument occurred. It was not at all random but an extension of this tension over “blackness” and “authenticity” between us.
The argument began at a dinner party he was hosting. He claimed that he could identify “conscious brothers” merely by the fact that they were wearing dreadlocks and not walking around with sagging pants and cornrows. I chuckled at the simplicity of such an assertion—regardless of what it means to wear dreads, the idea that one can could so confidently assert knowledge about a person’s identity based merely on their physical appearances strikes me not only as bizarre, but anti-intellectual. The statement was even more troubling given our collective investment in improving the conditions of one small black community many of whom have chosen not to sport “conscious” hair styles.
As we went around in circles evaluating a multitude of rappers and other public figures as “thug” and “conscious”, we eventually came to then-Sixers guard Allen Iverson, who had recently come off an outstanding run to the 2001 NBA Finals.
He claimed that Iverson’s swagger, sagging pants, do-rag, and chains hanging from his neck (“bling” was not really part of the lexicon at this time) clearly indicated that he was a “thug”. No longer worried about keeping the job at this point, I blurted out, “That’s ridiculous.” At that moment, the other graduate students in the room—all white—gasped and everyone got quiet waiting for him to respond. Which he of course did.
After he and his more loyal graduate assistant—a white man a few years older than I who had grown up around black people and had thus established his “street cred”—explained to me the strong relationship between sagging pants and thuggery, I responded with a simple question that ultimately got us nowhere: “What has Iverson done to constitute being a thug?”
I listened to him rant, was accused of not understanding the struggle by a white assistant as the professor’s white wife chuckled, and I eventually left early with no intention of working for the man again. I had no desire to have my “authenticity” judged by a university professor wearing a dashiki, nor did I care to listen to him categorically dismiss others based on a priori assumptions of who they are all under the guise of “racial uplift”.
What I found “ridiculous” was his apparently simplistic categorization of black people—whether it be calling me a “sell out” (yet simultaneously surrounding himself with educated white people), dudes wearing dreads “conscious”, or Iverson a “thug”, not to mention establishing his own “revolutionary blackness” by wearing a dashiki in a university office. It was simply too convoluted, contradictory, and hypocritical a standard to tolerate given the nature of the work we were doing.
I probably need not explain at length the problems with casting people into epic characters without granting them the dignity to possess multiple character or personality traits that might fluidly create a unique identity (and not necessarily fit our preconceived notions of who they should be). That’s what makes us human, if you accept Mikhail Bakhtin’s analysis of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s work. Of course, there are times when that can go too far; “liberal individualism” that demands unlimited freedom to define and express oneself disconnected from larger structures can be damaging. Nevertheless, as human beings, one would think that we should all assume responsibility for respecting that there’s an internal world within any person that cannot be accessed simply by seeing them in one press conference or walking down the street.
When we look at representations and personas of black men in particular, it would be naïve to believe that our judgments of them are formed by what we see alone. As bell hooks once said about “rappers like Snoop Doggy Dogg” in 1994, “…it is essential for everyone to remember that they are not only more complex than the way they represent themselves, they’re more complex than the way white society represents them as well. This notion that Snoop Doggy Dog defines himself 'as he really is' is something I reject. He clearly defines himself with a persona that works in cultural production in this society.”
In other words, we must acknowledge that both black male celebrities and the white society that consumes them have a role in the creation of these personae. However, to then take those personae as universal truths that can be applied to anyone, anywhere, without any attempt to understand them on their terms, is problematic at best.
Yet mainstream society has somehow managed to mindlessly conflate “being a thug” with record studio manufactured images of thuggery. It works well for entertainment executives that sell albums to suburban youth with an interest in romanticizing “thug life” as an exotic counter to their own lives, and who possess disposable allowance to support the inquiry. However, the fact that Iverson “fits the manufactured description” is by no means evidence that he consistently exhibited the violent criminal behavior that would constitute thuggery.
Yes, he’s had run-ins with the law, but the facts in the most egregious cases were so unclear that they are almost inadmissible as evidence to substantiate the claim that he is in fact a “thug”. The usual way that people even begin to associate Iverson with being a thug is by linking his image to these artificially manufactured images of “thug life” and our lingering fears of the black “super criminal”.
More than anything, this demonized “AI” persona is the personifcation of stereotype convergence: that of the hypermasculine black male athlete and a record industry manufactured “hip-hop” bravado that has lost its “utopian impulse”, as once described by Cornell West. It is ultimately a shallow caricature of the “hard”, hyper-individualistic, misogynistic, narcissistic, simple-minded, swaggering black male.
It is sad example of how our perceptions are shaped not only by what we see, but also by conceptual frameworks that we draw upon as short hand to “make sense” of the world, as described by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in their classic book Metaphors We Live By. The problem is that to the extent that we draw upon pre-existing metaphors to make sense of people, we strip them of the agency to represent themselves as human; while these metaphors frame expectations for behavior, they also irrationally justify us assuming that our perceptions are universal common sense and those who don’t fit can be demeaned, dismissed, mocked, or vilified.
In other words, the idea that Iverson is a thug is a fictive reality conjured up in the racialized imagination of a society that remains fearful of young black men in spite of electing a black man president. To the extent that Iverson’s image resonates with a set of racialized metaphors we live by, he never had the agency to truly be understood.
As such, “AI” can never be separated from the fact that his persona was created in a U.S. society that was built upon racism, that never figured out how to deal with racial diversity at a structural or interpersonal level, and has a tendency to dismiss the very mention of race as a factor in public life as “playing the race card”. However, it doesn’t take much thought to recognize that even in our treatment of athletes, we cannot really escape racialization much less expect that we might reach the post-racial promised land when race is used as a cheap ploy to sell everything from records to detergent.
Iverson is thus simultaneously romanticized for and trapped within a racialized “thug” image: some disaffected inner-city black youth can draw inspiration from him while others lament the burden his image causes in their daily life; some affluent blacks have looked down upon him with self-righteous disdain while others see him as an example of a meritocratic myth in the U.S.; some well-meaning whites have seen him through a romanticized lens that masks fears of an urban lifestyle their families fled long ago while others claimed racial neutrality; fans can cheer his dominant scoring when he’s winning and blame his ball dominance when he’s losing.
What is often—not always—lost is that AI is a product of circumstance in a world that demonizes black men more often than not. In that context, it becomes unreasonable to assume that he would even want to cater to a media that merely perpetuates a distant and shallow racialized portrait of who he is to a mainstream audience that mindlessly consumes shallow images.
I was initially annoyed by Shoals’s Baseline post about Iverson's press conference:
So fine, even if Iverson can't play like he used to, doesn't really work with the Sixers current coach or cast and is superfluous once rising star Lou Williams returns, there's this breakthrough, which is as much about us—and for us—as it is Iverson. After a decade of being the athlete least likely to bare his soul, admit mistakes or appear in the least bit sympathetic unless you bought into his rhetoric, Allen Iverson hasn't just come home. He's finally made himself accessible. But that's only part of the equation, because now we might have to try and better understand what Iverson really meant during all those standoff-ish years.
It would be pathological for someone to bare their soul to people who have repeatedly torn him down without any genuine attempt to make sense of him. Within the historical context of this country, it makes even less sense for a black male who is consistently misunderstood and boxed into a manufactured “thug” persona.
Nevertheless, to say that Iverson didn’t appear “the least bit sympathetic”, is now more accessible, and less “standoff-ish” completely ignores the honest ways in which he has indeed demonstrated directness, honesty, and passion in his interactions with the media. Shoals refers to former Sixers teammate Eric Snow in the article, describing how outsiders—us fans and members of the media—never really got to know him. However, it’s also difficult to ignore the many occasions in which he was nothing but honest, opinionated, and passionate. The only reason to dismiss those moments when seeking evidence of a sympathy and accessibility is that they might not have come when or how we expected.
How could you ignore his repeated expressions of gratitude for Georgetown University coach John Thompson? How could you ignore his expressions of respect for former Sixers coach Larry Brown? After his ranting about his frustration with the disproportionate attention to him missing practice, how could you dismiss the Detroit press conference in which he lightheartedly laughed at himself? Even in the infamous practice rant, the point was clear: the man wants to win games.
Ultimately, the evidence does not amount to an unsympathetic, inaccessible, ruthless figure but a human being forced to struggle with a complex set of life circumstances. Even if it did, how much can you legitimately claim to know about a person’s character sitting at home and reading the accounts of a few newsmen and watching a few press conferences?
It shouldn’t take a heartwarming homecoming story and on-camera tears to make it clear that Iverson is a man who loves basketball and most of all loves to win. Unfortunately, that has simply been lost as people continually attempt to cast him as an epic character who fits what they want to believe.
The argument that a superstar athlete should expect this type of treatment is indicative of a sick and ugly sense of voyeuristic entitlement in U.S. society. It’s almost irrational to expect someone to take all that and continue to cater to people who make no attempt to understand him as a person because they’re confined to their own metaphors. In that sense, it’s not so much that he’s inaccessible, as much as truly accessing him would cause a form of cognitive dissonance that would force people to challenge their racialized assumptions. The idea that he is inaccessible speaks more to the inability—and even refusal —of some people to make sense of Iverson as one representation of “blackness” in the U.S. than anything having to do with Iverson himself.
While Shoals rightly suggests that “now we might have to try and better understand what Iverson really meant during all those standoff-ish years”, why does it take him choking up on camera for us to make that attempt? If people have to see him publicly overwhelmed by emotion to feel as though he’s safe, what genuine desire is there to understand the man?
When I chatted with Shoals, he said, “I don't think Iverson was capable of being someone he wasn't, but he kept a lot inside.” If that is so, then the very people who have demonized him penalize him for being neither superficial nor a transparently simplistic person. We could certainly smugly sit back and say, perception is everything and Iverson has merely been caught up in his perception. But commenting on Iverson as though his blackness is not somehow implicated in that perception is either naïve or anti-intellectual.
That’s not to deny that Iverson has some responsibility in the creation of his own image—he has dressed and behaved in ways that certainly seem to resonate with a manufactured “thug” representation. In my present role as teacher, I certainly do my best to prepare young black men for an unfair world not by telling them to hate or embrace it, but to acknowledge it and figure out how to navigate it. Has Iverson navigated the public sphere perfectly? Not necessarily. But at some point we, as observers, have to take some responsibility as intelligent life forms to do more than point fingers and make simplistic assumptions.
As Shoals also said in our chat, “Real thugz don't stick around to have HOF careers.”
Like many athletes before him, Iverson forced the sports world to confront a manifestation of blackness that is bound by both his origin and particular time. Race is the elephant in the room that people are normally frightened to discuss publicly, with friends, or at the dinner table. Perhaps it’s time to start discussing that rather than making clearly racialized assumptions from a color-blind stance—or claiming to have the capacity to evaluate one’s character based on how they dressed.
Neither is a particularly valuable way to proceed toward the post-racial society that so many people yearn for to relieve them of the burden of shielding themselves from the reality of race.