Pictorial Representations of Allen Iverson
The picture shows Iverson, dressed almost entirely
in black, leaning against a white brick wall. Iversonís arms are
slumped at his sides, while his head and shoulders are leaning against
the wall. Iverson has on a black baseball cap and his gaze is fixed
on the camera. There is an expression on his face that makes him look like
a juvenile delinquent. The style in which he wears his baseball cap
and his facial expression bring out Iversonís teenage nature in this photograph,
linking him again to the Sambo figure. Although this youthful expression
is attached to Iversonís head and face, it is certainly not a look of innocence.
The lighting in the picture is extremely poor which highlights Iversonís
skin color. With Iversonís blackness exposed in the center of the
picture the reader then sees the laziness that accompanies his blackness.
Iverson is flanked by two other African-Americans, part of his posse, who
are cast in similar poses. The three men, all leaning against the
wall, appear as if they are in a police line up.
As mentioned, the lighting in the picture is poor. But, surrounding Iversonís head is this strange white glow, probably the flash from the camera, that could be read a couple of ways. It could be read as the spotlight that Iverson is constantly in. Ever since the bowling alley brawl, Iversonís life on and off the court has been under the microscope. The glow could be the spotlight on Iverson that he doesnít really want. Another way this glow could be read is that it is the gaze of the white community. Reading the picture as the gaze of the white community adds another element to the photograph. Instead of the picture being the photographerís and Sports Illustratedís representation of Iverson, it becomes white Americaís representation of Iverson.
That representation or gaze is that Iverson is shiftless. Viewing Iverson as the shiftless Sambo has its support through white columnists like Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated. McCallum tried to write an article in August, 2000 that said Iverson is getting too much criticism both on and off the court. But in his article McCallum compares Iverson to Sly Stone saying, ďheís frequently late to his gigs.Ē While this is a comment about Iverson being late to basketball practice and not necessarily about his race, McCallumís words reiterate what the picture, the photographer and the white community are seeing; that Allen Iverson is lazy.
Sports Illustrated isnít the only publication to paint Iverson as a Sambo figure. Iverson is once again depicted as a Sambo figure in a Reebok advertisement in ESPN the Magazineís March 19th, 2001 edition. As in the Sports Illustrated picture, Iverson is clad entirely in black. But instead of leaning against the wall, in this photograph Iverson is lounging on his sofa. The background of this picture is red, which makes Iversonís blackness more apparent. Iversonís corn rowed hair also brings out his blackness. Sprawled next to Iverson on the couch, with her head on his hip, is his daughter, Tiaura. Iverson has his arms spread out over the back of the sofa and is not assuming a fatherly posture. In a fascinating commentary on his shiftlessness, it is impossible to tell whether Iversonís eyes are cast down on his daughter or whether his eyes are closed. So either Iverson is asleep and unaware that his daughter is at his side, or he doesnít care that she is there. Iverson carries an expression of boredom on his face. To juxtapose Iversonís posture, his daughter is wide-awake, making his aloofness more striking and his position as the modern version of the Sambo more apparent. It could be argued that appearing with his daughter makes him an adult figure in this picture. But I believe that since Iverson appears to be asleep while his daughter is awake, it makes him look like he may be grown up, but he is neglecting his fatherly duties and this would link him again to the Sambo.
The irony that accompanies this picture that represents Iverson as a Sambo figure is Reebokís attempt to change Iversonís negative image. As noted, Iverson has carried a negative image ever since the bowling alley brawl. What I believe Reebok wanted this picture to do was to subvert the negativity surrounding Iverson and subvert the stereotype that African-Americans men donít take care of their kids. The idea that Reebok was trying to change Iversonís image with this photograph was introduced to me as I watched a television segment regarding Iverson. Four journalists from The Philadelphia Daily News debated as to how this photo was an attempt to change Iversonís image. Panelist, Elmer Smith, argued that in order for Reebok to sell more shoes, they needed to rid Iverson of his negative image (Daily News Live). So Reebok created this advertisement where Iverson shows he is a fatherly figure. The picture wants to show that Iverson is an African-American involved in his childís life. The ad does not even show his shoes, the shoes are displayed on the opposing page. It is ridiculous to think that Reebok would purposely represent Iverson as a Sambo, but with their lack of foresight into his eyes and facial expression that is what the picture makes him out to be. Compared with pictorial representations of other African-American NBA players, Iversonís position as a Sambo becomes more glaring. Both Reggie Miller and Shaquille OíNeil are featured in television commercials encouraging kids to read. OíNeil can also be seen in a rap video where he is playing basketball with a child. David Robinson is often shown playing the piano, which shows that he is cultured or whiter. In any event, these opposing representations reflect negatively on Iverson.
Another argument that pictorial representations of Allen Iversonís body make is that he is part of hip-hop culture. Just as Iverson appears as a Sambo figure in many photographs, most photographs also show him as a part of hip-hop culture. To understand how pictures of Iverson show hip-hop culture, it is important to understand where, why and when hip-hop emerged in America.
Hip-hop first emerged as an African-American musical movement out of New York City in the late nineteen seventies. As a musical movement, hip-hop blends rhythm and blues with funk. Some of earliest and most influential hip-hop artists that fueled the creation and expansion of the genre were the rap group Run DMC and Chuck D., most notably from the group Public Enemy. During the nineteen eightyís hip-hop spread throughout urban America and became a fixed part of American culture. As hip-hop expanded it became more than just a musical movement, it became a cultural movement as well. Hip-hop, argues Nelson George in his book Hip-Hop America, has come under unjust criticism and been misunderstood by many members of the white community since its inception. Pictorial representations of Allen Iverson show him to be part of the hip-hop community.
Photographs of Iverson in the mid-nineties when he attended Georgetown University are the first images that portray Iverson as part of the hip-hop culture. Iverson, in every picture taken of him at Georgetown, wears a loose fitting uniform. This baggy uniform, consistent with the uniform he wears while playing in the NBA, is a fashion style for men in the hip-hop community. Notice how Iversonís shorts run down past his knees and how loose his shirt is. Baggy, hip-hop style clothes also dominate Iversonís attire away from the basketball court. The first two pictures cited do more than show Iverson as a Sambo figure, they show him in the context of hip-hop. Iverson has donned a loose fitting windbreaker and wind pants in the first picture. In the second picture, Iversonís wears baggy wind pants again, as well as a loose sweatshirt. Both of these outfits that fit loosely on Iversonís body argue that this is Allen Iverson as well as hip-hop. It is also important to notice Iversonís hair in the second picture I have cited.
In this second photograph, Iverson wears his hair in cornrows. Although Iverson did not invent the cornrow style, he did bring it to the NBA in 1997 and since then, corn rowed hair has become associated with hip-hop culture. Almost every photograph taken of Iverson, on or off the court, in the last three years shows him with corn rowed hair. Iversonís cornrows further cement the hip-hop representation seen in pictures of him. Nelson Georgeís book, Hip-Hop America, supports my claim that pictures of Iverson show him as part of the hip-hop community. George examines Allen Iverson in a chapter of his book, The Sound of Philadelphia Dunking. The chapter focuses on criticism Iverson receives as well as Iversonís association with hip-hop. George in a 1998 interview with Al Hunter Jr. speaks specifically about Iversonís corn rows saying, ďthe corn rows in his hair upsets white peopleĒ (Hunter Jr.). The author, George, then labels Iverson as part of the community. George says, ď[Iversonís] commitment to hip-hop values, his friends and posse he supports whole-heartedly, the way he expresses himself, upsets the hell out of peopleĒ (Hunter Jr.). George further pushes Iverson into the hip-hop world with his comments and Iverson gladly accepts this label even though it brings criticism.
It is interesting to note that some of the same photographs that show Iverson as a Sambo figure also show him in the hip-hop culture. If the picture that shows Iverson in the light of the white gaze were looked at from that point of view, then the white gaze would then see Iverson in the hip-hop context and as the Sambo figure. Does this mean that the white gaze would associate the Sambo figure with the hip-hop figure? Based on pictures of Iverson that answer would probably be yes. Once the Sambo can be related to the hip-hop context that Iverson is in, the image becomes negative.
This pictorial representation of Iverson once again
shows him in the hip-hop context. Iverson has on his trademark baggy
uniform which is the first hip-hop characteristic of the picture.
The second hip-hop characteristic Iverson displays is his hair. Iversonís
hair is not in cornrows, but it is in a distinctly African American style
and this is the second hip-hop characteristic Iverson displays. The
facial expression is one of defiance and his arms claim a position of defiance,
or a Ďbring it oní type attitude. Iverson has on his black uniform
and the background of the photograph is entirely black, which once again
highlights Iversonís black skin. Similar to picture one, Iverson
has a white glow around his body. The differences in this picture
are, the glow runs around the entire body of Iverson and the glow doesnít
appear to be the gaze of the white community. I believe there are
two interpretations of the white glow. One interpretation is that
the white glow is the white community and that Iversonís body is defying
the white community. Notice how the white glow runs around his entire
body, but never invades his body. Iversonís body, in this photograph,
demonstrates his freedom of expression, specifically rejecting whiteness
or white labels imposed on him. Self-expression is another characteristic
of hip-hop. Again Nelson George will provide further insight into
this claim from his interview with Al Hunter Jr. George says that
ďSince hip-hop is largely an expression of young black males what discomfort
[people] have with young black men gets translated into musicĒ or into
pictures (Hunter Jr.). As an expression of young black males, hip-hop
often rejects the white community or does the opposite of the white community.
Here, Iversonís body uses hip-hop to reject whiteness through a picture
instead of through music. As mentioned in his historical recounting,
Iverson recently released a hip-hop album. Iverson was forced to
pull it from the shelves because it contained stereotypical remarks about
women and homosexuals. But the fact that Iverson released the album
cements his celebration of hip-hop, even though he gets criticized for
The second interpretation of the white glow could be that Iverson is not rejecting the white community, but the white community is in fact surrounding Iverson, making him a martyr. The defiance on Iversonís face and in the posture of his arms has already been established. But notice that Iversonís arms are spread in classic martyr position. It is also interesting to notice that Iversonís hands are cut out from the top of his hands. Has the white community that labels Iverson also cut off his hands? Is Iverson giving the finger to the white community? Are the wristbands on Iversonís arms actually chains? It is impossible to tell. I donít think this picture is trying to show Iverson as a Christ-like figure, but I think the picture can be read as Iverson being a suffering body. This suffering comes from the whiteness that has surrounded Iverson. If the white glow is read in this way, then Iversonís face turns from an expression of defiance to a look of surrender. Iverson is not surrendering his body or blackness, but he is surrendering to the fact that the white community will stereotype him and there is nothing he can do about it. Viewing Iversonís body as a martyr in this picture could also make him the symbol of the stereotyped African-American dating back to slavery. Iversonís body can then be seen here, not only as his body, but also as the body of any African-American man whom whites have stereotyped. The manner in which the white glow is interpreted in this bodily representation of Iverson will greatly effect how the state of the African American man is viewed in our society. This way of interpreting the white glow also brings into question Iversonís masculinity in interpreting bodily representations of him.
There is not one pictorial representation of Allen Iverson that I have found that doesnít portray Iverson as a masculine figure. It is easy to see how pictures of Iverson paint him in a masculine way, so the bigger question becomes what does his masculinity represent in these pictures. One example is a photograph of Iverson from ESPN the Magazineís March 19, 2001 edition. Iverson has his arms folded, which accentuates his muscles and his manliness. Veins visibly run through his arms and hands and eight of Iversonís tattoos are also visible in this photo. All of this promotes his masculinity. Combine the muscles, veins and tattoos in this picture, along with the consistent black background and corn rowed hair and it becomes clear that Iversonís masculinity is African-American masculinity. The image of Iverson as a masculine African-American man is a growing theme throughout pictorial representations of the twenty-five year old.
Picture 1. Sports Illustrated. November 18, 1999.
Brotherly Love? Not for Iverson. Jack McCallum. www.cnnsi.com. Copyright 2000.
Picture 2. ESPN the Magazine. March 19, 2001.
Daily News Live (Television Segment). Copyright 2001.
Picture 3. www.altosport.com. Allen Iverson Pictures. Martin Richtarsky. Copyright 1998.
Picture 4. www.altosport.com. Allen Iverson Pictures. Martin Richtarsky. Copyright 1998.
Q & A with Cultural Chronicler Nelson George. Al Hunter Jr. Philadelphia Daily News. Copyright 1998.
Picture 5. ESPN the Magazine. March 19, 2001.
Final Answer. Tom Friend. ESPN the Magazine. Copyright 2001.