From The Fringe

By K. Danielle Edwards
Updated: March 20, 2008

NASHVILLE – Surely, my eyes were deceiving me. It was like a black-faced freak show — circa early 20th century, post-Reconstruction, pre-Jim Crow — had mistakenly gone to print in the Age of Obama, with the implied headline, “Lebron James Stars as King Kong.”

As I blinked bewilderingly, shook my head and rolled my eyes to make sure my contacts were properly aligned on my corneas, I realized the image before me was in fact real. But what was perhaps intended to be provocative was instead a giant retrograde leap into the past.

Much has been made about NBA star Lebron James being featured on the cover of the April issue of Vogue magazine, as the third man ever to grace the cover of the iconic women’s fashion magazine. He joins actors George Clooney and Richard Gere in this novel honor.

This annual issue attempts to celebrate anatomical diversity, focusing on the beauty of size and shape through assorted athletes, celebrities and models, even though endomorphic representations always seem to come up short.

On the cover, Lebron James stands wide-legged, feet firmly planted, face fixed in an expression of animalistic rage, like a primate defending its turf. He stands armed, with the basketball of his success on one side and, on the other, the very emblem of Western social arrival – a waifish, cheery-faced white woman (model Giselle Bundchen), in the clutches of his seemingly enlarged and aggressive grasp.

The image channels a return to the minstrel show. Even though the avenues of Hollywood and the road to The Great White Way remain relatively narrow for people of color even today, in a day when the Census estimates that today’s American majority will be tomorrow’s American minority, many black celebrities find a way to make a living doing what they love without bucking, shucking, jiving and good timing for a paycheck.

This begs the questions: What will people do not only for money but for mainstream social currency? What price is popularity? What is the rate of return on neutralizing that which would otherwise present a threat? At what point are principles and standards so debased that they cannot keep up with the rising rate of moral and cultural inflation?

These are questions Mr. James should be asking himself.

He is the descendant of women like Harriet Jacobs, who persevered for seven years hidden in a coffin-like shed to gain her children’s independence and secretly secure her own freedom. He is the son of men like Frederick Douglass who knew not their mothers, but would have done them proud had they been provided the opportunity to serve them openly.

He is the product of promise and potential pushed back for a front page and pay day — a well-placed backslap to the pains endured to place him where he is today.