Kyrie Irving as Uncle Drew, Grant Hill as Uncle Tom: The Problematic Myth of the “Authentic” Black Experience

Kyrie Irving as Uncle Drew, Grant Hill as Uncle Tom: The Problematic Myth of the “Authentic” Black Experience January 23, 2014

by Shane Huey

The latest string of Pepsi Max commercials has every high-school hooper in America wishing they were a 60-year old man. And not just any 60-year old man, but one of the particular style and flare of Uncle Drew, a presumably debilitated “old head” who wreaks havoc on street ball courts across the country. With his sweatpants tucked securely in his socks, Uncle Drew proceeds to show all the young bloods what real ball players do–“Get buckets.”

Uncle Drew’s mission is to remind us all of the glory days when real ball players wore real shorts and played real basketball. What makes it all work is the yet-to-be-disputed realness of Kyrie Irving, the NBA superstar who plays the part of Uncle Drew. Khalid Salaam has written at length about how Irving has transcended the longstanding prerequisites for mainstream acceptance of athletes and artists among Black America, namely, whether or not he has “street cred”. Irving’s affluent upbringing hasn’t been the impediment it was for Grant Hill and other well-off African American basketball players.

Grant Hill’s father was an Ivy-League educated NFL Running Back and his mother was Hilary Clinton’s college roommate at Wellesley College in Boston, one of the top liberal arts institutions in America. Hill would go on to attend Duke University, which some believe has a certain desired class status for their recruits. Although he was a major contributor to the Blue Devils National Title run in ’91, he went to another level of national prominence in ‘92 because of his contribution to “The Shot”. Down by one in overtime at the Regional Final game against the Kentucky Wildcats–with 2 seconds on the clock–Hill lobbed a 75-foot assist that resulted in the game-winning turnaround at the buzzer. This shot immediately became one of the most reviled and revered moments in sports history, depending on what shade of blue you rooted for.

The fact that Hill wasn’t raised in the hood or reared in the pains of poverty may have amounted to a perceived lack of “blackness” by some. One of the most vocal was Jalen Rose, whom Hill would face off against and ultimately defeat at the 1992 NCAA Title Game. The class chasm between these two was quite vast. As Hill enjoyed a comfortable life in the suburbs, Rose grew up fatherless in inner-city Detroit. In ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary The Fab Five, Rose gave a name to what he believed characterized Hill’s affluent upbringing: “Uncle Tom”. The title of Uncle Tom has become a poorly defined way of describing an African American who is considered a “sell out”. Although Rose’s comment was not necessarily directed at Hill at the time of the documentary’s filming–he’s since clarified that the comments were a reflection of his perspective as a high school recruit–it’s an example of the perception that growing up in the ghetto in the midst of hardship is somehow a more authentic black experience.

While Hill garnered ridicule for occupying a minority class status among African Americans, Kyrie Irving’s life is further evidence of the shortsightedness of this flawed perspective. Born just five days before “The Shot”, Irving is cut from a very similar cloth as Grant Hill. The son of a Wall Street bonds broker and private school grad, Irving would also don the white and blue of Duke University. But not only has he avoided the Uncle Tom stigmas, he’s risen to Uncle Drew stardom. Kyrie Irving serves as a reminder that the adjective “authentic” is always a poor supplement to race. He’s part of an emerging group of professional athletes who don’t have the traditional street cred, and who don’t particularly care. Previously, some people may have hid from their nuclear family and financially stable upbringing because it lacked the bravado and grit of a life in the ghetto. Now, Irving, along with the likes of Steph Curry and Freshman sensation Jabari Parker from the sports world, and Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino from the rap world, are proving to us that one’s identity transcends socio-economic and geographical upbringing.

Irving and guys like him aren’t redefining street cred. I wouldn’t anticipate too many hip-hop songs extolling the glories of prep school education and suburban living. In some ways, the construct of street cred is  necessary because of the generations of oppression and injustice faced by minorities in our country. When you strip people of their dignity and look down on them as less than human, you force them to look for value and worth wherever it may be found. This may be in part why drug lords have become father figures and gangs safe havens. When we’re incarcerating black men at a rate of 1 in 3, what do we expect? Young black men have to turn somewhere for validation.

Although Irving may not be eliminating street-cred stereotypes, he does represent a shift to solidarity. The black guy who hails from the suburbs and the white guy who grew up in the hood are no longer considered posers because we’re learning to at least discover and acknowledge our commonality before we let our variances drive us apart. In Irving’s case, his childhood class status is being trumped by our universal love of basketball. This shift to solidarity allows us to consider someone like Kyrie Irving and embrace him, because whether he originated in the suburbs or on the streets, his ankle-breaking crossover is just lethal.

But even this kind of solidarity still falls short. It’s not enough to accept Irving simply because of his All-Star caliber game. In fact, it almost feels like the easy way out, neglecting the hard work of critically examining our own biases within us and celebrating the differences in others. Most of us don’t have such skill to stand on. For the Christian, this starts with the Imago Dei. The reality of our universal human dignity as image-bearers of God, coupled with the call to love our neighbors as ourselves, should persuade us to celebrate diversity. And not just diversity of a generic sort, but the kind that combats our tendency to categorize one skin color or socio-economic status as more acceptable or authentic than the other. It seeks, instead, to honor God’s people across all classes and categories. Like the facets of a fine-cut diamond, every turn should reveal a new measure of beauty and worth–a fuller view of the image we were created to bare.

Our solidarity is then settled in the finished work of Jesus. The cross has a unique way of settling the playing field, bringing us all to the low and humble place of sin-stained and in desperate need of a savior. There’s no room for exclusion at the foot of the cross because there we see the beautiful diversity of Christ’s blood-bought church, comprised of people from “every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9). The new song of heaven celebrates the work of Jesus in the NBA All-Star and the single mom, the icon and the immigrant. Solidarity says Kyrie Irving doesn’t have to conform to all of the hip hop cultural norms. It also says he doesn’t have to disregard them because of his privileged background. This is a better way forward.

Go ahead and get buckets, Uncle Drew, we see you.

Shane Huey is the Director of Family Life Ministries at Veritas Community Church in Columbus, OH. You will likely find him in a shoe store or coffee shop with his beautiful wife, Allyse.

photo credit: Joel Bedford via photopin cc

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