On one hand, it makes me smile that the biggest athlete on the planet right now (at least until Usain Bolt runs this weekend), took the time to hit up a black Atlanta barbershop to get his pre-Olympic haircut. As any man will tell you (black or white) a pre-big event haircut is absolutely important. It boosts a dude's self-estem and makes him feel invincible, and that is half the battle when tackling an event or in Phelps's case, a world-record setting mission. Phelps veered away from his usual barber--as I have written about before, that is risky business--and stepped into the foreign world of black barbershops. Not only did he get a cut, then he decided to give them some major league shine by posting the name of the shop and a picture of the staff, on his Instagram page. I have no doubt that between his Olympic performances the past few days and the aforementioned ESPN article, that picture has gotten millions of views and perhaps that barbership has seen a favorable uptick in business.
Not to mention, in this era of weird racial relations, it is nice to see a white dude and lots of black dudes combine organically sans incident. To his credit, Phelps seems like a cool enough dude and I have no doubt that this isn't his initial foray into the world of black-ish culture. On the surface, what I've written so far should be all I have to say about this issue. But there's always a but..
I don't know whether I'm overly sensitive about race (of course I am) or if my occasional black man rage is out of control (entirely possible) but the picture and the article (ironically enough the ESPN article was written by folks from The Undefeated, which is primarily a group of black writers writing about black and black-ish issues) has a Bill Clinton feel to it. Allow me to explain.
When Bill Clinton was the President, black folks (not me) loved to toss around the narrative that Clinton was the first black president. Some folks said this because he loved watching basketball, was seemingly "cool" with black celebrities, and cheated on his wife with reckless abandon and seemingly no remorse. Others like Toni Morrison were a bit more eloquent about their reasoning:
After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas. And when virtually all the African-American Clinton appointees began, one by one, to disappear, when the President’s body, his privacy, his unpoliced sexuality became the focus of the persecution, when he was metaphorically seized and body-searched, who could gainsay these black men who knew whereof they spoke? The message was clear: “No matter how smart you are, how hard you work, how much coin you earn for us, we will put you in your place or put you out of the place you have somehow, albeit with our permission, achieved. You will be fired from your job, sent away in disgrace, and—who knows?—maybe sentenced and jailed to boot. In short, unless you do as we say (i.e., assimilate at once), your expletives belong to us.
Either way, the implication was that certain white folks were more down simply via their tangential brush with broad black culture, was always insulting to me. I have no problem with that on the surface as long as there is some substance and authenticity behind it. If you're into the barbershops and the music, please stay for the more substantive issues like brutality, inequality, etc. You can't cherry pick the great parts of black culture and extol them via in Instagram page, unless you are equally as passionate about the issues plaguing those same people. That's like me constantly talking about Michael Jackson's "Thriller", "Bad" and "Off The Wall" albums without properly acknowledging that "Dangerous" and "Invicible" were weak(er) sauce. I'm an MJ fan so I liked it all, but I embraced the strengths and his glaring vulnerability. Perhaps I shouldn't compare black culture to MJ, but it was the most accessible example in my mind at the time.
Again, I could be acting like a sensitive, hit dog, and if that's the case, I am quite sure someone will hit me up via email to put me in my pace. Maybe I should relax and be happy Phelps has no fear in shouting out black folks who helped him out. Or maybe my condition is so conditioned that I cannot get out of my own way. Either way, I'm glad I wrote about it.