Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Obama Dunk T-shirt: More Than Humiliation

Since I’m still in Thanksgiving leftover mode, I thought I’d take the chance to post this piece, which I’ve been tweaking since early September.


In general, I don’t care much for political T-shirts, and from the bootleg shirts on the corner to the Bro-bama shirts that fratboy douchebags and their hipster cousins love, I’d considered Obama shirts especially lame.

Then I spotted this brilliant Undrcrwn T-shirt, which features a seemingly routine caricature of Obama dunking on McCain. Spike Lee was wearing this shirt at the Democratic Convention in August. As is clear in the following video, he could barely contain his enthusiasm for the shirt.

Upon seeing the shirt on Spike, I had the same reaction. Since that day, I have been pondering why this shirt resonates with Spike, me, and so many other politically progressive basketball fans and negrophiles.

The Dunk:

In addition to being an amazing physical feat, Carter’s leapfrogging dunk over 7-foot 2 Frenchman Frederic Weis during the 2000 Sydney Olympics was an iconic moment: the ultimate manifestation of brazen, post-Jordan bluster.

The 2000 U.S. Basketball team was the last to win Gold prior to this year’s team. As with every one of the NBA-player led Olympic teams assembled after the Original 1992 Dream Team, the 2000 team was roundly criticized for its trash-talking and its lack of respect for opponents and the game of basketball. Traditional media types also slammed the 2000 Team for its failure to dominate, as exemplified by near losses to Lithuania and France. Despite the fact that many European fans and white American sportswriters accused the U.S. team of being "ugly Americans", the U.S. players left Sydney with Gold medals draped around their necks.

Many players, even the best, get smashed on. What Carter did to Weis, however, was arguably the greatest public basketball sonning ever (no disrespect to Shawn Kemp or Scottie Pippen). It’s not just that Carter’s actual dunk was incredible; it’s that Carter rendered Weis a public spectacle worthy of derision in the process. Most basketball fans scoffed at the suggestions that the W+K Nike ads were homophobic, but those who complained about the ads are right about one thing: getting a face full of nuts is widely considered the most humiliating fate a player can suffer on the court. Carter’s dunk proved that there is something even more humiliating: having your opponent clear you like an inconsequential hurdle.

Vince Carter and Obama: Respectable Negroes, “Bad Niggers”:

Vince Carter is a polarizing figure. He has a strong following among kids and highlight-centric fans, who elevate Carter’s style above all else. Yet, because he has a tendency to wilt in big games and is known for underachieving, Carter is frequently dismissed by basketball heads (myself included). For instance, in one of our email exchanges, freedarko’s Dr. Lawyer Indian Chief expressed concerns about the shirt linking Obama to Carter, given Carter’s poor reputation and failed promise.

Along with this legitimate criticism of Carter’s game, there has also been unjust criticism about Carter’s character. Carter is loathed by basketball purists, who insist that athletes “play the game the white right way.” Adherents of this view never miss an opportunity to complain about Carter’s lax attitude and his excessive celebration and preening. This criticism is often couched in language that evokes the “bad nigger” trope, e.g. “spoiled,” “punk,” “primadonna,” “ungrateful,” “disrespectful,” “quitter.”

When pressed, even Carter’s harshest critics would concede that he is a respectable negro outside of basketball. He bears none of the visual markers of black thuggery that have supposedly ruined the NBA: he has no visible tattoos and has never worn cornrows in public, and, more importantly, he has never been in trouble with the law. Carter hails from a two-parent middle-class household and is a committed father. He spent his high school years excelling at several sports as well as playing in the band. Though he left the University of North Carolina early, Carter eventually completed his degree in African American Studies. And to top it all off, he’s an Omega.

What’s more, Carter helped to promote a 12-year-old kid’s film about the importance of education for black males. When Carter decided to attend his graduation ceremony the day of an important playoff game 7 against the Sixers, he was criticized by the mainstream media and fans—yes, the same people who decry the cultural and academic failings of young black kids; the same people who lament the lack of famous black role models; the same people who believe that black celebrities and poor black people don’t value education.

The point is that Carter is the personification of black bougiedom. Only in our nation’s twisted racial logic is he a “bad nigger.” That critics would even go there is evidence that mainstream sports and political discourse has no language to reflect the nuance of black identity (any time Mike Tyson and young Muhammad Ali are lumped together, something is wrong).

Obama has been painted in these same broad, “bad nigger” tones, despite being the prototypical respectable negro in terms of education and achievement. This disconnect between borderline racist perceptions and reality, between each man’s public and private black identities, is why the Obama-Carter parallel works so well for me. Moreover, large numbers of black folks identify with Carter and Obama in part due to black people’s tendency to embrace the spirit of the “bad nigger” as a symbol of defiance in the face of white criticism (in public, however, black folks will refute the “bad nigger” characterization by pointing to the respectable negro private life of the accused).

The Shirt:

The first thing that stands out about the drawing is Obama’s big head. This image recalls the silly sports caricature shirts that just about every basketball fan owned about twenty years ago. Yet, unlike the caricatures on the 80s shirts, this Obama isn’t grinning goofily; he is wearing a solemn, presidential expression while looking off into the distance. Though Undrcrwn uses this same style to depict rappers and ballers, placing this style in a political context alters the meaning. So, while the tone of the shirt is playful, it also nods toward the gravity of Obama’s campaign.

Obama is not just striking Carter’s pose; he’s wearing Carter’s uniform, namely, that of the U.S. Basketball Team in 2000. Depicting Obama in basketball gear marks him as a baller; depicting him in the U.S. Olympic uniform marks him as a willing representative of the United States and a patriotic American according to the low bar set by mainstream, nationalist sports writers and fans (more on that later).

McCain, on the other hand, is depicted as no more than a suit…literally: his face isn’t shown, and he has to be identified by the name across his back. The fact that McCain is portrayed wearing a suit (with short pants no less!) singles him out him as an outsider, as one who doesn’t belong on the court—a notion supported by the fact that the “court” is Obama’s campaign logo.

The absence of a basketball court/hoop removes the dunk from its practical end: scoring. This has two important effects. First, it makes humiliating McCain an end in itself; and second, it gives the impression of a perpetual Obama ascent, suggesting his boundless future.

Obama’s caricature is palming a red, white, and blue ball. This ball was a signature of the American Basketball Association, the stylish, upstart 1970s professional basketball league that was often contrasted with the more traditional, stodgy NBA. The ABA eventually gained mainstream credibility and influence when the two leagues merged in 1976.

Given the dynamics of the 2008 presidential election—Obama, a young upstart vanquishing McCain, an old, out of touch insider—the ABA-NBA angle seems especially appropriate.

The heart of the shirt’s brilliance, however, lies in Undrcrwn’s decision to use American Carter’s dunk over the Frenchman Weis as the metaphor for the Obama vs. McCain contest. This choice represents a clever symbolic inversion that turns conservative stereotypes inside-out.

In popular conservative discourse, American conservative men are real men: brave, rational, and decisive. Conservatives always respect and honor national traditions and history and are unabashedly patriotic. By contrast, conservatives depict American liberal males are effete, spineless, unpatriotic losers. Aside from women, Europeans are the group conservatives most commonly associate with liberal men. Conservatives love to compare liberal American men to the French, in particular, owing not only to French men’s supposed lack of masculinity, but also to France’s anti-American attitudes and (unfair) reputation for surrendering during war.

By representing McCain as the ineffectual Frenchman Weis, the shirt turns the rhetorical tables on the “freedom fries” crowd, equating the Republican war hero with the hated French “cheese-eatin’ surrender monkeys” and even making the surrender explicit by having McCain wave a white flag. That leaves Obama, the liberal embodiment of multiculturalism, as the wearer of the “real, patriotic American” mantle. Such a reversal is a slap in the face to dyed-in-the-wool conservatives, which helps to explain their rage over the reality of an Obama presidency.


There should be no doubt that Undrcrwn made a deliberate choice to highlight the French connection. It’s certainly possible, though, that Undrcrwn didn’t think about the ABA ball beyond the fact that the red, white, and blue color scheme matched Obama’s uniform. And I’m almost positive that choosing Vince Carter as the model had nothing to do with Carter’s off-court respectability.

A young and virile Obama humiliating a disoriented, white-haired McCain on the basketball court is an apt metaphor for the generational clash borne out by the election. Humiliation is definitely a vital aspect of the shirt’s charm, but I see much more. To me, the shirt provides a visual representation of the layers of meaning bound up in the idea of Obama: Obama is simultaneously loved and hated; insider and outsider; respectful and brash; patriotic and rebellious; hero and anti-hero; respectable negro and “bad nigger.”

Because I see what I want to see in it, the shirt is a metaphor (meta-metaphor?) for President Obama.


1.) in the process of writing this, I came across several helpful pieces. Two in particular stand out: the Vince Carter entry in the new Freedarko book and blacksnob’s photo essay on the shirt.)

2.) I just realized that Undrcrwn also produces this Obama- as-Ali knocking out McCain-as-Sonny Liston shirt. Maybe I'll take another 3 months to write this one up.


Anonymous said...


I have this shirt in 3 colors. Its been even the source of discussion in my family whereas the older generation chided me in saying that the shirt was a sign of "gloating, poor sportsmanship" when I wore it to the Thanksgiving table. I immediately laughed that one off, and eventually so did the rest of my Negroe familia.

As a good friend of the folks over at Undr-Crwn I'm sure they'll fully agree with your full assessment of it all. Those guys are sticklers for detail, and besides the obvious Americana of the ABA ball, they also dug the inferred revolutionary element of the ABA with the ABA ball.

Allegedly this is also the #2 most popular Obama shirt after the Shepard Fairy kit.

Anonymous said...

PS - No mention of McCain waiving the white flag while getting yammed on?

T.A.N. said...

vince--obama doesn't work for me. the vince dichotomy comes from his tangible inadequacies. Vinsanity is much closer to being a deranged Marbury than a distinguished Kobe or LeBron. And Obama is more distinguished than deranged. he might be a closet Kobe, but since we don't know yet let's go with the still-unfulfilled destiny of LeBron... DLIC is right to be wary of O's brand associating with non-champions

i think the 'more than humiliation' aspect you're ferreting out is actually captured by the iconic nuts-in-your-face imagery. any sub-god/jordan level player who imposed themselves in such a brazen nietzschean manner would have fit the bill. what resonates in the tee is the universal impulse to put deeeez nuts in the face of your oppressor.

my boy got the shirt. definitely hot, but i don't like the iron-on image styley ... if the image was actually part of the shirt material, like an outline or something, i would have copped.

Black Moses said...

good speech.
i always found the criticism of carter's attendance of his graduation to be strange as hell. sure, he was neglecting his job, but he was placing education above all else, which is what we teach our kids they need to do in order to succeed.
im glad u commented on that hypocrisy so pointedly here.

noddables said...

excellent analysis -- thanks for posting.

only thing is... i'm not seeing a red-white-and-blue ABA ball. looks orange to me.

thanks again,

gordon gartrelle said...

Thanks for checking the piece, T.A.N.

I agree that Lebron would be a better metaphor if I were talking about playing style or broader basketball meaning;

what resonates with me, however, is the private/public blackness aspect, which is why Vince is perfect (even Kobe wouldn't have worked because he didn't go to addition to that whole rape trial thing).

and, drew, i mentioned the white flag! that's one of the best things about the shirt.

Anonymous said...

I know I'm really late, but that was the best review on the t-shirt i illustrated(yes, this is one of my creations. I've read.


Ron Ackins

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