Last week, Beyonce garnered many of the headlines about this year’s The Shriver Report, an annual study about the state of women and girls in society today. Queen Bey’s brief essay both further solidified her position as a feminist and gave bloggers and pundits yet another opportunity to consider the merits of her feminism. Yet, there was a more compelling essay written by an equally famous person that I think should have gotten a little more press. On the surface, the essay that basketball superstar LeBron James contributed to The Shriver Report is an incredibly moving tribute to his mother, Gloria James, and less importantly, a lesson on how a strategically placed exclamation point can do all things. In his piece, James chronicles his mother’s struggle to provide for him:
[O]n Christmas Day when I was 3 years old, my grandmother suddenly died of a heart attack, and everything changed. With my mom being so young and lacking any support and the skills and education necessary to get ahead, it was really hard for us.
We lost the house. We moved around from place to place—a dozen times in three years. It was scary. It was catch as catch can, scraping to get by. My mom worked anywhere and everywhere, trying to make ends meet. But through all of that, I knew one thing for sure: I had my mother to blanket me and to give me security. She was my mother, my father, my everything. She put me first. I knew that no matter what happened, nothing and nobody was more important to her than I was. I went without a lot of things, but never for one second did I feel unimportant or unloved.
James goes on to describe the difficult decision his mother made: She decided to allow him to live with a coach and his family until she could get on her feet. It took a year, but Ms. James was able to find a place to live and provide for young LeBron. James remains for grateful for his mother’s sacrifices, her love, and the lessons her example taught him. He concludes:
After the Heat won the 2012 NBA Championship, the team was invited to the White House. Speaking about me, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh, President Barack Obama said, “For all the young men out there who are looking up to them all the time, for them to see somebody who cares about their kids and is there for them day in and day out, that’s a good message to send. It’s a positive message to send, and we’re very proud of them for that.”
The truth is that everything I’ve learned about being a parent to my boys—9-year-old LeBron Jr. and 6-year-old Bryce—I learned from my mother. Everything I know about being loving and caring, and sacrificing and showing up and being present in my children’s lives—I learned all of that from her example.
James’ essay is incredibly important, not simply because it’s always nice to see someone express their unequivocal love for someone who took care of them, but because it offers a corrective about single-parenthood, black motherhood, and black fatherhood. First, James doesn’t castigate his mother for their situation. He makes it clear that it was not a lack in her, but rather a lack of access, systemic variables that contributed to their material instability. It wasn’t that Gloria James didn’t care; it wasn’t that she was lazy. It was that her circumstances, like that of so many other women, had an infinitesimal margin of error so that any unexpected event–a family death in this case–would likely cause great detriment.
Second, one of the implications of James’ conclusion is straight-up (unintentional) shade at the President, and to a lesser extent his teammate, Dwyane Wade. President Obama both bonded with and chastised black folks by invoking the absence of his black father. Although the narrative is a myth, it did not stop Obama from deploying it when he spoke to black audiences. The comments cited in James’ piece is a nugget of that argument. What Obama is saying is, “Y’all up here admiring these dudes for their athletic prowess, but you need to start appreciating the fact that they aren’t deadbeat fathers.” But James is saying that he is a good parent precisely because the single parent who raised him was a good example. James is not lamenting his absent father or extolling the two-parent household he lived in for a year; he’s not crediting his experience in that household for who he is. He also isn’t implicitly blaming or shaming his absent father for the difficulty of his upbringing. Instead, by praising and recognizing his mother, James is exploding the myth that single motherhood is a problem, and arguing that the goal should be to find ways to support them.
Moreover, James is showing that his image as a participant in the raising of his sons is merely a reflection of what his mother taught him. In so doing, James is essentially saying that he is not here to serve as a counter to how NBA players have been looked at before or to bolster his image. Although, like fellow NBA stars like Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade, James has made commercials featuring his family, including his two sons, he has not sort of sold that as part of his brand in the way that his teammate, Wade has to the tune of book deals and future sitcoms. This is not to say that James’ fatherhood doesn’t play well on American television screens, but rather that James’ crediting his parenting skills to his mother shows that presenting himself in such a way is a manner of honoring her example.
There’s nothing Moynihanian here. Nothing that reveres the two-parent family in a way that both blames single mothers and ignores the fact that sometimes there are realities in life that make the second parent’s absence the best situation for the child. James’ essay is commendable and necessary. It is not often that a person of his stature simultaneously honors the parent who raised him and calls for greater support of them. And whether you roll with the Heatles or another team, what James has said is definitely something to cheer for.