Kobe Bryant and Mythologizing Black Greatness

I can not remember how old he was turning. But it was summer in NYC, and somehow, in a pre-google, pre-instagram world, I found a graffiti artist to spray paint Kobe Bryant’s image into a shirt. The gift would be a keepsake item for my younger brother who admired Bryant for his work ethic more than his feats. I thought back on that moment as I turned my car away from my destination, back home on January 26, 2020 after hearing the news that Bryant had transitioned. Like countless others, I spent at least twenty-four hours in complete doubt, yet when the news revealed that his beautiful daughter was also gone, it simultaneously proved too painful to be true and too terrible be a complete lie. This tragedy marks a poignant moment in the black narrative, as the chiseled featured, talented man with the gorgeous smile came to an end no one saw coming. Though death is the one thing promised in life, it somehow manages to always catch us by surprise. Through his life, his fans, and even those acquainted with his trajectory, saw a man with all the talent in the world, work for over two decades to hone his skill. Kobe taught us that talent, without skill, is just mediocrity, but this is not the only lesson that Kobe taught us. 

His transition, in particular, yields imperative lessons for those of the black collective. 

  1. That additional casualties matter more when they correspond to white people

I make the following statements with full sympathy and compassion for all lives lost. However, the persistence to mention the names of all victims, even at Kobe and Gianna’s memorial was striking. The banal reference to the additional victims, in light of Kobe and Gianna’s centrality, seems yet another effort to prioritize white victimhood. This is not to say that Kobe and Gianna are the only ones that mattered, however it is to say that the other families have a privacy available that Bryant’s family does not—so wishing to assume some of the attention but none of the affect is also one of great convenience. 

  1. That caricatured immortality engenders a raceless state that erases the black past. On the Kobe Bryant memorial, Dr. Greg Carr, Chair of Africana Studies at Howard University, referenced the ceremony as narrating Bryant into “public mythos.” This process is perhaps best delineated by the glaring reality that remembering Bryant equated to a public ignoring of his parents, siblings, and early life. Viewers heard from Vanessa Bryant, who many have never seen speak publicly prior, teammates, etc, but not his parents or siblings. In fact, only one speaker referenced Bryant’s family. Now, despite rumors of a rift, Bryant was still Joe and Pam’s Bryant’s son—he was still a brother to his sisters. In fact, Pam is in a similar position to Vanessa, as she too has lost her child. She too is a mother that must live in a worth without the life she created. Yet, in his entry into public mythos, Bryant must seemingly shed his blackness. Ignoring Joe and Pam Bryant proves similar to American encouragement that the Americanized African forget their enslaved ancestors and African origins, and embrace America.  

3. Branding the black body with a necessary villainy also composes a necessary component to narrating the black celebrity into public mythos. For Kobe, early charges against him, though eventually dropped, would attempt to return and haunt his legacy. These charges reflect American effort to deter black talent with weaponized caricature. This, of course, is nothing new. When a black man is good-looking with extraordinary talent and worth ethic, charges of sexual assault, battery, or drug use are soon to follow. These accusations have nothing to do with truth, but everything to do with what America needs to be true to maintain the myth called white supremacy. 

So as we as a people tread the path to heal the wounds of an unexpected departure, let us miss Kobe with pride, but also let us contemplate what remains missing in America’s praxis to mythologize black greatness.

May Kobe and Gianna Bryant Rest in Power.  

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