Shoot the J!: Negotiations of Blackness and Normalcy in The Fab Five

Looking back at the Fab Five’s reign in the early '90s, it was framed by numerous moments in blackness, including the burgeoning crossover of hip-hop music and culture into mainstream “white” America, Rodney King’s beating, the ‘hood genre in film, and Michael Jackson’s vitiligo.

The Fab Five

Distributor: Team Marketing
Network: ESPN
Release date: 2011-08-23

Uncle Tom’s soft ass could probably hoop in black socks.

Okay, I’m being facetious. But seriously, ESPN’s documentary, The Fab Five, has re-hashed some unsettled feelings about negotiations of blackness and normalcy in this latest moment of American history. Although I watched the documentary twice, apparently I missed a helluva lot, perusing through heated commentary surrounding Jalen Rose’s commentary about sellouts, Uncle Toms, and authentic blackness. Oh my.

While Rose’s comments and the softie-in-question Grant Hill’s rebuttal (which was anything but soft) warrant discussion, I’m more so interested in the social-cultural moment surrounding not only the Fab Five but also the moment where their story is being absorbed, debated, and discussed. Looking back at the Fab Five’s reign in the early '90s, it was framed by numerous moments in blackness, including the burgeoning crossover of hip-hop music and culture into mainstream “white” America, Rodney King’s beating, the popularity of the ‘hood film genre with releases including of Boyz in the Hood (1991) or the Hughes brothers’ Menace II Society (1993) and, obviously, Michael Jackson’s vitiligo. The '90s, arguably, indicates a merging of black and white culture, a blurring of once solid indicators of race and class. The Fab Five embraced and troubled these social-cultural changes, forcing the nation to pay attention through the much adored medium of college basketball.

Perhaps most penetrating about the documentary was the inclusion of commentary from hip-hop legends Chuck D and Ice Cube. Their inclusion demonstrates the significance of hip-hop as a cultural medium, necessary to understanding the Fab Five’s narrative and actions. Chuck D, a political activist and member of pro-black rap group Public Enemy offers an intriguing analysis of what the Fab Five represented: “Who were these five basketball playing Muhammad Alis with no resume?”

Chuck D’s loaded observation suggests not only the Fab Five’s iconoclastic implications, but also their heavy media presence as a form of resistance against the status quo for not only college basketball, but specifically for black college ball players. Their cultural medium for expressing themselves was basketball and hip-hop instead of boxing, often invoking questions of their music and dress preferences. They got hype off the music of N.W.A., Public Enemy, and Compton’s Most Wanted instead of “acceptable” (e.g., mainstream) country or rock artists. While their reasoning for baggy basketball shorts was comfort and a nod to Michael Jordan, their equally baggy street clothes reflected their experiences, often indicative of their interactions with street life and their various working class backgrounds.

The Fab Five updated the tradition of black resistance in white spaces, using sports figures like Muhammad Ali or Jack Johnson as icons. Juwan Howard fondly recalls the Fab Five’s meeting Ali at the 1992 NCAA finals. Ali offered advice and encouragement, openly complimenting their playing style and mannerisms. Howard’s excitement and discussion about the importance of this meeting further solidified the need for continued black protest in sports at the time.

The film also documented the evident struggle to balance if not blur the two oppositional sets of experiences. The University of Michigan was certainly no Southside Chicago or Detroit, but their story is further complicated because their form of resistance was met if not exceeded by Michigan alumni and naysayers. Disapproval of the Fab Five’s performance on and outside the court manifested in written and verbal retorts against the team and its coaching staff. The Fab Five, while rebelling against the normalcy set by tradition and (white) expectation, also re-emphasized the fear of an uncontrollable blackness seeping in from the fringes of American society.

Perhaps this fear is a factor in Rose’s comments regarding Duke University and its black basketball players. Rose vilifies Duke in the same way he feels he and other players with inner city backgrounds were portrayed in the media as thuggish and dysfunctional in a conservative collegiate environment. “Uncle Tom” suggests not only a trump card in intra-racial dissing, but also indicates a lack of language available for a then 18/19-year-old Rose to articulate his anger and feelings of rejection. Maybe it was a particularly brash form of trash-talking against Hill and his team as a strategy. Or, perhaps, it boils down to possession of power to represent one’s self, a privilege that many black folks feel is not within their grasp. As James Baldwin so eloquently asserted, “No one holds power forever.”

Enter Grant Hill’s eloquent rebuttal regarding Rose and other Fab Five member’s about him. I appreciate Hill’s pearls of innate wisdom about racial uplift and his small yet retaliatory barbs against Rose, also participating in a slight form of trash talk – “I caution my fabulous five friends to avoid stereotyping me and others they do not know in much the same way so many people stereotyped them back then for their appearance and swagger.” Translation: “Don’t f*ck with me or my swag. I’m Grant Hill.” And, the ever slight dropping of the microphone-esque line “I am proud I never lost a game against the Fab Five.”

As the lines of battle are drawn in the, er, paint, one factor often overlooked as debaters stake their positions is how Rose’s comments as well as Hill’s response is nestled in reflection. Where Rose’s initial comments came from a place of a teenager on the brink of adulthood, Hill’s come from a space of maturity and experience. Here lies the danger in (nostalgic) recollections: points and facts are snubbed, intentionally left out, or forgotten.

Another glossed over yet significant factor to discussing the importance of The Fab Five and their place in social-cultural history is how they gauge the beginnings of an increasingly unstable racial climate at the end of the 20th century. Their presence foreshadowed a shift of marginalized experience to the mainstream. Where tattoos, rap music, and “uncouth” hairstyles were rebellious of the conservative '90s climate, as Rose indicated, these visible markers of blackness are now more accepted, dare I say, normal.

While there are still outcries against these displays of blackness, they are fewer and less public than what Rose and his comrades faced. The new challenge, then, lies in what is not only considered "normal", but acceptable public and visual normalcy in a social climate where primary indicators of race and performativity are no longer as clearly demarcated.

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