In the March 31 edition of the New Yorker there’s a great profile of Kobe Bryant by Ben McGrath. In it, Bryant talks about aging out of his Hall of Fame career with the Los Angeles Lakers, and how he thinks his fame is “pretty fucking cool” for a kid who grew up in Italy and moved to suburban Philly as a teenager.
Throughout his career, Bryant’s been talking about as an outsider, specifically when it comes to being the most famous in the world in a sport that’s overwhelmingly black. It’s given him a politically moderate stance on things, which was on display when McGrath brought up the subject of LeBron James posting a photo online of the Heat players dressed in hoodies in solidarity with Trayvon Martin.
I won’t react to something just because I’m supposed to, because I’m an African-American,” he said. “That argument doesn’t make any sense to me. So we want to advance as a society and a culture, but, say, if something happens to an African-American we immediately come to his defense? Yet you want to talk about how far we’ve progressed as a society? Well, we’ve progressed as a society, then don’t jump to somebody’s defense just because they’re African-American. You sit and you listen to the facts just like you would in any other situation, right? So I won’t assert myself.”
The profile goes on to quote former NFL running back Jim Brown, who at one point said, “[Kobe] is somewhat confused about culture, because he was brought up in another country.” Bryant then defended himself on Twitter, writing, “A ‘Global’ African American is an inferior shade to ‘American’ African American?? #hmmm. that doesn’t sound very #Mandela or #DrKing sir.”
Setting aside a minute the fact that Bryant doesn’t seem know much about the Trayvon Martin case, what strikes me about this exchange is his insistence on questioning what it means to be black in America, particularly from the perspective of someone who grew up elsewhere. In this vein I think of Zade Smith and Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie’s recent discussion at the Schomburg, where Adichie talked at length about coming to the United States from Nigeria and learning how deeply embedded race is in American culture. What sets Bryant apart is his stingy insistence on clinging to a “post-racial” identity, this very old, conservative notion that black people should not be treated differently in this country — despite all of the evidence, like Martin’s death, that they are. People didn’t stand up for Trayvon Martin just because he was a black boy, they did it because his death so sharply illustrated the dangers of being a black boy in America.