It’s hard to have a full appreciation for Langston Hughes’ literary genius without absorbing his “Simple” stories. The short stories were fictional conversations between the reader and a character named Jesse Semple. Semple was ostensibly as basic as his name suggests, but had an innate ability to turn the mirror onto society in an unexpected and brilliant fashion. He was a true exemplification of “street smart.” The type of Black intelligence that resided outside of academia, but as wise as any scholar the reader would come across.
That’s always how Charles Barkley resonated with me. Barkley has always joked about being paid to take classes at Auburn and never learning anything and how he’s just a dumb country boy from Alabama. Yet he was always able to explain complex ideas of race and society in ways that I could relate to better than some of the more “learned” experts in the field. I remember reading Who’s Afraid Of A Big Black Man — his second book — and the way he explained the “twice as good to get half as much” logic by using Black quarterbacks in the NFL (the lack of Black backup quarterbacks as an indicator that Black mediocrity just didn’t have a place in the sport). And how he noted how Nielsen ratings didn’t take Black communities into account — an idea that’s bared fruit by the fact that Twitter has revealed a whole community of TV watchers that ratings seemed to ignore for decades.
I’ve always seen Charles Barkley as a smart man. Someone who spoke his mind from a genuine place and who was in his own way a revolutionary figure off-the-court. Barkley, however, has always had a conservative side that’s more in line with his Alabama roots. He’s a registered Republican (“I’m rich now,” was his reasoning) who’s always had a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” tone to his social issues. But even Chuck’s conservative rhetoric has been met with dismissive laughter because he’s delivered it with that classic Sir Charles charm. Barkley has even laughed off assault charges through sheer force of comedic timing.
We’ve mostly been able to ignore Charles Barkley’s more troubling stands to enjoy his hilarity on TNT before, in the middle of, and after games. As long as he yuks it up on the Inside The NBA set, we can ignore what he says when he’s discussing Blackness in America.
That was then. That was before Mike Brown. That was before Alton Sterling. Now more than ever, Charles Barkley’s comments are life and death. Tensions are as high as they’ve ever been in America and every word spoken in public needs to be addressed with fervent seriousness. Even Barkley’s, whose recklessness and ignorance just can’t stand anymore. Earlier this week, Barkley appeared on Dan LeBatard’s radio show and sounded off on Philando Castile’s death as well as the overall state of Black lives in America. Barkley was at the worst I’ve ever heard him: he said Black people don’t protest when Black people kill other Black people. He said there are valid reasons for the stereotype of Black people as criminals and essentially blamed Castile for his own death.
It’s sickening. And, to be frank, stupid. Barkley’s belief that Black people don’t march or care about violence in our own communities is a falsehood birthed out of a refusal to do the due diligence of even minor digging for truth. There are protests across the country and countless efforts to end violence in Black communities. Barkley should know better. And maybe he does know better. But that doesn’t stop him from spouting his outdated silliness. His comments about Castile were baffling. Barkley suggested that Castile was somehow at fault for his own death by keeping his gun license near his gun, despite the fact he told the cop beforehand that he was showing his license. Barkley refused to pay attention to the law and what was right and decided to not only apologize for Black death, he came just short of endorsing it. As someone who grew up idolizing Barkley and his version of Blackness, the turn is heartbreaking to say the least.
Barkley’s respectability politics have crossed the line from simply “wrong” to violent. He speaks to millions of people every week during the basketball season and has a huge audience. So it’s legitimately deadly for Black people for him to use his platform to justify Black death.
Quite simply, Barkley’s politics aren’t funny anymore. None of this is funny anymore. It’s been hard to accept Barkley and watch him on TV ever since he called the Ferguson protesters “scumbags” and his most recent comments mean I’m not sure I can separate his irresponsibility regarding Black lives from his takes on Oklahoma City’s rebounding on a given night. It’s time for Charles Barkley to either wake up or learn to live with the fact the same people who once loved him are too busy caring about Black lives to put up with his simple stories.