Some people think they should go to heaven but NOT have to die to get there.
—Dan Gilbert, Owner, Cleveland Cavaliers, October 2008 Letter on LeBron James
Joe Posnaski, a rather entertaining writer on Sports Illustrated, published a long blog post on the hate for LeBron James, and he comes really close to putting his finger on the basketball player as a cultural phenomenon when he argues that James is a character. James is a character, but it’s not the one that Posnaski thinks. What James became by his decision to leave Cleveland is the reverse of the character that he was advertised to be, an Uncle Tom. With his departure to Miami, his new role in the American cultural imagination is to be the opposite of an Uncle Tom, an anti-Tom for short. I suggest this label entirely from the standpoint of how James is perceived in public discourse and as a useful mental construct for thinking about this discourse. I have no insight about James as a person except for what I see on the basketball court and have gleaned from a handful of interviews. But I suggest that the player inspired an emotion near hatred in Cleveland’s basketball fans because he was not an Uncle Tom, the fictional character in whose image Nike marketed him.
The Uncle Tom to which I refer comes from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, perhaps the most widely read novel of the 19th century. One of the work’s most resilient public legacies is the name “Uncle Tom” as an insult, a byword for a black man who chooses subservience rather than resistance to white oppression. Though this motif is well-known, it has gradually faded from general public consciousness even if it the insult remains salient in Black communities. The fictional Uncle Tom’s subservience is a simplified popular-culture reading of Stowe’s work, and many readers have noted that in Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s subservience is a principled resistance and an effort to protect others. However, the work’s more enduring and insidious cultural legacy is the racist belief that the lives of black or dark-skinned people serve to provide meaning for the lives of white people. Stowe presumes that her reader is white, and her recognition that slavery is evil served not to offer fulfillment to the black person but to redeem the white person and the American nation from the sin of slavery. This is a just criticism of Stowe’s imaginative limitations: Uncle Tom sacrifices himself so that his first master can escape debt (though Tom also hopes that his family will be safer) and offers to remain with a second master until that second master can find Christian redemption with Tom’s assistance. He offers to die to free his third master Simon Legree from sin. Though Stowe was able to imagine that black people would prefer freedom to slavery, her ability to imagine free black people on equal footing, legal and social, in the American nation was quite limited when she wrote the novel. Black critics like Martin Delany were forceful in their condemnation. See Robert Levine’s parallel-lives biography of Delany and Frederick Douglass, which includes a section on their responses to Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
As Stephen Railton points out, Stowe’s theme has been a favorite American motif throughout the history of cinema. American movies often have dark-skinned people as secondary characters, who serve to provide a dollop of spiritual authenticity to the troubled primary character, always a white person. The reason that the fictional dark-skinned characters do these things (in these later movie retellings of the Uncle Tom myth) has nothing to do with the personal wants or desires of the black person—nobody ever bothers to ask in these movies what the black character wants—but entirely with Christ-like self-sacrifice for someone else’s spiritual redemption. This is not explained in the logic of plot or character motivation: the black movie character is just presumed to have some deeply felt (instinctive?) need to help a white person.
There are echoes of Stowe’s Uncle Tom character in the public discourse around LeBron James. Stowe’s character is described as his master’s “best hand” and runs the farm. LeBron James is easily the best player on his team. Another perhaps relevant parallel is James’s unusually selfless play on the court. Among superstar players I’ve watch on a basketball court, and he is unquestionably the most gifted player of his generation, he is unusually selfless and willing to pass to an open team-mate, a quality for which he has been criticized. But I don’t think either status as the “best hand” or the selfless play explains why James is perceived as an Uncle Tom. Ervin “Magic” Johnson, a player similar in selflessness and skill, was not regarded as an Uncle Tom (a caveat, I’m not sure about this because I am only recalling from my teens). One reason that the public may have expected LeBron James to act like an Uncle Tom and sacrifice for his home town is that Nike marketed his image that way, as a Christ-like savior for Cleveland, a city starved of championships.
In support of my James-as-Christ reading, consider the poster with which Nike marketed James in Cleveland:
This poster is obsessed with Christian iconography, with King James as a basketball savior. The player is in the pose of Jesus crucified on the cross, and the viewer is invited to a sports cult in which we “witness” James. He promises to bring “Nike”—shoes of course—but also the goddess who personifies Victory, a salvation to Cleveland as a title-starved town. And doubters who cannot quite accept what they see are offered further encouragement: “believe at nikebasketball.com.” So the iconography of the cross, the encouragement to believe, the challenge to witness, the promise of victory, and the offer of basketball salvation rest on a chosen one, King LeBron James, a basketball Christ. He is an Uncle Tom not in the insulting sense of subservience to white people but in the other sense, of being willing to sacrifice his own hopes and dreams, to in the fictional Uncle Tom’s words, “stay with Mas’r as long as he wants me,—so as I can be any use.”
When James the man, who may not have realized which fictional character he was being marketed as, chose not to “stay with Mas’r as long as he wants me,” he became an anti-Tom. He chose not to play to type, the Uncle Tom and Christ that Nike had sought to make him in the public eye—a myth that Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert invokes. This twisted but longstanding American thought—which traffics in the logic that defends slavery—is why northeast Ohio basketball fans (white fans far more so) were viscerally angry when James departed from Cleveland.
If we accept as essential to the competitiveness of sports teams in league play that a team may force a player to accept a job in that league only with that team that drafts him, we should accept that in return after a defined initial contract period the employee is granted the freedom to choose a place of employment at his own discretion. If you are angry at James for leaving Cleveland and any element of your anger is his failure to live up to this old American stereotype of the Uncle Tom, then you ought to be look closely at yourself. Why do you believe a black man, a player on a basketball court, owes you redemption?
28 April 2014: Update with Dan Gilbert Quotation