I’ve not written a whole lot, if anything, about LeBron James’ Vogue cover, but we had a fairly intense discussion about it at work yesterday, whether it portrayed the King Kong imagery that has been written about by both D-Wil and the Starting Five folks, as well as ESPN’s Jemele Hill. One of my friends sent me Jason Whitlock’s latest piece on this, and I essentially got him to side with me by explaining why it didn’t fly — the thesis was so faulty and the evidence so poor that it couldn’t pass muster at all.
Before I get into Whitlock’s deal, I’ll say flat out: this was a poor cover choice. You can fault a lot of folks here — James and his handlers for not knowing about the imagery and enough history to see the parallels; photographer Annie Leibovitz for the loaded shot; the editors at Vogue and the higher-ups at its parent company, Conde Nast, for either missing the suggestions of the image and/or ignoring it, thinking it controversial (the latter is obviously worse) when they had plenty of decent shots in the mag that would have been much better choices.
I agree with LeBron. The photographer captured him exactly as he is. You know, when he covered his body in tatts years ago, mimicking a death-row inmate, LeBron invited people to jump to the conclusion that he’s dangerous. Yeah, that’s the way the image-is-everything game is played. Ink is a prison and gang thing. Don’t act like you don’t know the origin of the current fad.
Vogue put a mirror in our face, and we’re complaining about the reflection. Half the black players in the NBA take the court each night in front of white audiences tatted from neck to toe like they’re shooting a scene for Prison (Fast)Break.
Wait. So because he got tattoos, which have roots as markings for religious, memorial, sentimental, and rite-of-passage reasons in many societies — but only have that criminal association because white Western society deemed them to be so and finds them unacceptable to the norm, LeBron James is asking to be portrayed as a beast and a thug, and so is every other black athlete with ink on their skin? (I’m not gonna come out and deny that certain tattoos and those who get them have criminal associations, but this is like saying that 1 + 1 = 3.)
When David Stern insisted on helping these players with their image by implementing a dress code, many of the players and their media groupies screamed racism. You see, showing up to work in a white T and iced-out (heavy jewelry) was their way of showing loyalty to their boys in the ‘hood, a shout-out to the corner boys and girls.
Possibly, or maybe it’s just more comfortable than a suit. You never know. Might want to ask somebody before you go to the whole “white man benevolently ‘helping’ the players by forcing silly restrictions on them.” The NBA dress code is not a horrible thing to me, but the way he phrases it, as if the big man in the suites is somehow helping his players who don’t know better — blech.
And any time someone with common sense points out that athletes are making fools of themselves and feeding negative stereotypes, he or she is shouted down as a sellout, racist or out of touch.
Just look at how much heat the NFL takes for trying to stop Chad Johnson from bojangling. This is why a handbook to clear up the confusion is so necessary. When Johnson slaps in his gold teeth, dyes and cuts his hair into a blonde Mohawk, dances a jig in the end zone and makes life absolute hell on his black coach, that is fun and good for the game.
Gold teeth, blonde mohawk, and comes to play every goddamned Sunday. It’s not his fault Marvin Lewis, defensive genius, has coached sub-par defenses every year he’s been in Cincinnati. And given the way the NFL (Not For Long) operates with respect to how you can be cut in a New York Minute, Chad Johnson is well within his right to speak up and say that if the organization and the media can blame him for the Bengals’ problems, he wants out. This isn’t bojangling — it’s standing up for yourself in a league where teams can be done with you when they feel you serve no purpose any more.
Would we be having this discussion if LeBron struck the same pose on the cover of Ebony while holding Selita Ebanks? Think about it. And if we wouldn’t be having the discussion, what does that say about us? Are we only bothered by negative images of black men when the primary/sole consumer of the image is white people?
Faulty premise. The outcry has to do with a specific fear in society — black man with white woman. There is no Ebony equivalent here. We would not have that discussion because the outcry over the way LeBron is portrayed would not exist. It’s not the same thing at all. (He then goes on to Tyler Perry’s latest movie, Meet the Browns, having unsavory characters in it and opening to $20 million as an example of stereotypes being sold to black folk.)
LeBron James is a kid, and his talents as a basketball player and absence of a father allowed him to “grow up” rather than be “raised.” His stated goal is to be one of the richest men in the world. Like Paris Hilton, Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan, he is a child celebrity interested in increasing his fame and little else. He’s in very good and very deep company when it comes to being unconcerned with and unqualified for the job of representing black men in a positive light.
Has absolutely nothing to do with the outcry over the cover. Yes, James is a Conveyor Belt creation — sped up since he went straight to the pros out of high school — and isn’t exactly going to be speaking out a la Muhammad Ali, ever. I’ve given up on the idea of athletes being too socially aware or relevant any more in a bigger sense; we don’t teach history well enough in this country any more to our kids — the difference between when I graduated not even a decade ago to now is staggering. So, I can fault James, and I do. But to suggest that LeBron invited to be portrayed by the mass media as a thug because of body art alone and supposed criminal connotations is irresponsible. Do we know what LeBron’s tats suggest and why he got them? Don’t suggest unless you can prove it.
The more I read and the more I write about it, I keep thinking that Vogue‘s editors did this on purpose, not out of any sort of outright racism or need to denigrate LeBron, but to get the world talking about a fashion magazine. We’re still talking about whether this is racially loaded; the issue has been on the Today show. Every bit of press you can get is good press, right?