Perception of Image: The LeBron James Controversy

The interpretation of images is as varied as the people exposed to them. Perception of an image’s intent is often based on the individual’s experience and the analysis of that experience. I came face to face with this notion this week while watching the morning news. The newscaster’s teaser implored me to “stay tuned” to find out why many in the media and African American society were upset with the basketball star, LeBron James.
Certainly I was intrigued as I could not imagine where this scenario was headed. After the newsbreak, the April 2008 cover of Vogue magazine was splashed on the screen. LeBron James and supermodel Gisele Bundchen were front and center. Gisele was long and shapely in a green evening gown, while LeBron was wearing a blue sleeve-less athletic shirt and matching warm-up shorts. The supermodel had a look of sheer glee while LeBron, who was dribbling a basketball and palming Gisele’s waist, displayed a powerful snarl. Opponents of the cover argued that the image perpetuated the stereotype of aggressive and dangerous black manhood. Many likened it’s symbolism to the 1930’s King Kong, where a huge black ape grips a fair maiden in one hand while growling and swatting at her would-be rescuers.
Admittedly an ape, or more specifically King Kong, was one of the first thoughts that crossed my mind when I saw this cover. However, I was not offended. I marveled at how striking LeBron looked. In addition, there was something sexy about that image. After years of all the oppressive images of black people in general, I never want to see a black man in a position of subordination. Being a long-time spectator of basketball, I am well aware of the raw facial expressions these athletes make while driving to the hoop. To me, LeBron’s expression was nothing more than that. I was far more impressed by the image of power and aggression he displayed. When looking at this cover, it is LeBron who grabs your attention. Gisele is a mere after thought; a beautiful after thought, but an after thought nonetheless.
Opponents argue that there were many other shots Vogue could have used for its cover, many fine shots which are displayed inside the magazine. However, if one of those shots would have been used, would we all be discussing this issue? The cover’s image also took away from another surprising fact. LeBron James is the first African American man to grace Vogue’s cover after over 90 years in circulation. While Sean “Puffy” Combs and Naomi Campbell appeared on UK’s Vogue in October of 2001, I could not find an instance of an African American man appearing on the cover of the U.S. version. Over the decades the covers ranged from abstract art often with only objects depicted to tarot card-like images to silly carefree snapshots and finally to glam-goddesses in every branch of the media/entertainment arena.
There is an underlying objection to April’s cover that has less to do with the pose LeBron chose and more to do with what Gisele and LeBron represent together. Many on both sides of the racial coin are still uncomfortable with seeing a white woman and a black man together. Unlike the damsel in King Kong, Gisele looks elated with her partner, not terrified despite LeBron’s exaggerated snarl. Some feel it plays to the myths about the dangerous criminal minded black man and his desire to possess the white man’s woman. Interestingly enough the contrast between Gisele’s fair skin and LeBron’s ebony beauty was evident throughout many of the other pictures as well. Pictures of Gisele’s curvy five foot eleven frame dressed in white and LeBron’s towering six foot nine inch body dressed in black on the inside pages of the magazine played up their biggest differences. The contrast would have been more interesting if LeBron had been wearing white and Gisele the dark garb. Maybe the images would have then played upon the integration and perceived intimacy instead of drawing stark differences.
Once I was able to look past the controversy of the ape stance and the interracial coupling, I became more intrigued as to why LeBron was the first African American male to be immortalized on Vogue’s cover in the first place. Nothing against LeBron, but certainly there were more debonair African American men that would have kept with Vogue’s fabulous fashion image. Names like Denzel Washington, Muhammad Ali, and Michael Jordan come to mind.
This issue not only demonstrated our continuing struggle with cultural image and interracial intimacy, it also speaks to the conflict of gender identity. Gisele and LeBron are no doubt excellent representatives of their gender but does a woman always want to be depicted as a possession and the man as predator?
Vogue has brought to light many conflicting ideals with a simple picture. Isn’t that what we expect from art?

The Power of Hair

Over the last week or so, hair has been a running theme. Like many African American women, hair is a recurring issue in my life. I go through spells of trying to grow it out and episodes of impatience where I cut it all off. Tired of being in between hairstyles and trying to hold out long enough for it to grow past my shoulders, I found myself contemplating how to change it again. During this time of hair indecisiveness, I shared a meal with two bald men who expressed the reluctance to accept the loss of theirs.
Each man, one African American and nearly thirty, the other Caucasian and a few years away from 40, shared how they came to embrace being bald. The younger one had vowed years earlier that he would shave his head the moment his hairline began to fade. The other gentleman shared his experience in the military and how the ritual of having his head shaved affected how the hair grow back from that point on.
I listened as the men exchanged their scalp maintenance rituals in much the same way women share how they keep their hair shiny or what techniques they use to achieve the desired style. As I sat there with my hair clipped up off my shoulders, a sort of mock-baldness, it wasn’t long before the men offered to change the subject for my benefit, assuming I had nothing to contribute.
At that moment, I took a chance in sharing the contemplation of having hair extensions added to my hair styling arsenal. Being a purist, anything fake, whether it is nails, boobs or hair never really appealed to me. My hair grows long, only if I am patience enough. Much to my surprise, these men urged me to abandon my pure hair bias.
In prep for the transformation I visited a wig/extension accessory shop. Afraid to fully commit to sewn-in extensions, I resolved to get temporary real hair tracks that clip in among rows of my own hair strands. Waling into that store felt natural. It was a black owned and operated business. Being very successful, it was one of two locations the family owned. As my friend helped me pick out the hair, the other works asked why a black girl would buy clip on hair extensions. My friend reassured them that clips-ons were best for a hair extension virgin like me. They were struck by the idea that a black woman over thirty had never worn hair extensions before. My friend laughed, “Hell, she only started wearing fake ponytails over the last year.” Needless to say, I am not the usual customer at an establishment like that.
That weekend with those wavy hair clips in place, I felt like a different person. I was more confident than before. I felt more feminine than before. Certainly, women with short hair are no less confident or feminine than those with long hair, but after having shoulder-length hair for so long, having hair that swung against the middle of my back affected how I reacted to others and now they reacted to me.
While not real important, I noticed that the glances of men lasted longer and women of other ethnicities recognized the equality of my beauty in relation to theirs. In the workplace my knowledge lends to a feeling of power, but even that power was given a surge with my long wavy locks. No longer did I feel like a teenager with my hair pinned to the back of my head in search of an identity. Now I felt like a woman with purpose and a solid grasp of my existence.
The last time I encountered these feelings was when I returned to work after having my hair cut into a layered bob. That cut conjured such feelings because I was no longer hiding behind my hair but I was willing to put myself in the forefront and compete. With long hair, I am still competing but embracing what a softness that long hair represents. This experience as well as the conversation with those bald gentlemen taught me that confidence and self-assurance have nothing to do with the length of hair or the presence of hair. It has everything to do with how we feel about ourselves and our hair.
So whether I wear my hair short, long or enhanced with extensions, my power rests in how I feel about myself and how I project that feeling toward others.