On Gayle King Backlash, Convenient History, & Mythmaking

I didn’t really post much about Kobe Bryant following his death because, well, it didn’t bother me in a deep manner. It was shocking and it was more on my radar compared to others who die in tragic circumstances. But, for me, he was a phenomenal entertainer. I didn’t have a kinship with him nor do I with any other celebrity. I also didn’t really get incredibly bogged down by the coverage of Kobe. But this Gayle King/Kobe legacy conversation has been inescapable. The conductor on my train brings it up with disdain towards King. People on social media elevated the conversation. (Small thing: I HATE when folks blame social media for a thing. Social media can be manipulated into awful outcomes (see the 2016 Presidential Election), but individuals on social media are the story. It’s not just “social media made this awful thing happen as much as “a bunch of misogynists revealed themselves and you may not like to know how screwed we are as a society.”) It’s been a topic at the gym, in restaurants, and at family gatherings. And, after a while, it moves from inconvenient to disturbing. This discussion has been largely reflective of the displays of blind masculine anger that shape why we end up with a myopic, small-minded collection of incomplete stories we call history.

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To my eye, are mad at Gayle King because she asked about Kobe’s sexual assault transgression too close to his tragic death. They believe King was insensitive, irresponsible and out to destroy a prominent Black man. They believe her to be incompetent, petty, and disgusting for asking a set of questions. As a reporter. During an interview with a friend of Kobe Bryant, Lisa Leslie.

This is ri-damn-diculous.

It isn’t to say that people in pain about Kobe Bryant are ridiculous. It isn’t to say that people may grieve differently. It is to say that transitioning from living to memory is an incredibly significant process and that process should not be restricted to the moments we liked the most and blind to the things we like the least.

After Kobe died, and the black and white photos donned with his year of birth and death splashed across TV and internet, we began a time-honored tradition of making memory. We immortalized. We created the story we would set to define the individual. It may not have felt that way because everyone was remembering the good. The titles. The intensity. The commitment to his craft. But we didn’t remember the bullying. The pettiness in passing the ball in Game 7 to simply prove a point to detractors. The indiscretions. All of it, in the light of day, makes the person (especially the man). Memory is fragile and whether we like it or not, first impressions go a long way. There is a reason the nation remembered Christopher Columbus as a great figure only to struggle with his legacy under fair questioning today. It took centuries to get there. Today, the process takes days. That isn’t a bad thing. It isn’t unfair. It is honest and, as the saying goes, the truth hurts.

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The point is simple: It is hard to shake the myth making machine once it gets going. And the lasting impact of that machine, biased towards those we like, the wealthy, the famous, the well-networked is strong. And, whether we know it or not, we all engage in it in a time of tragedy. Whether it’s Jackie Kennedy making Camelot in Life magazine or the need to attack Gayle King as she inquired about a less than satisfying moment in Kobe’s life, we instinctively set the narrative and defend it. King shouldn’t be denigrated, much less belittled, because she brought up one not enjoyable part of Kobe’s legacy among a conversation with Lisa Leslie about Kobe (and amid a national conversation on how we remember who he is and what he represented for us).

One last thing about all of this: it’s hard not to listen to the attacks of Gayle King and not hear how familiar they are for Black people. “Well why didn’t she and others ask Kobe about Colorado when he was alive?” Well, many outlets did. Multiple times. They did again as the #MeToo movement raised reasonable and overdue questions about how we reckon without past golden boys. Bryant consistently and vehemently refused to discuss the incident. Understandable as he was also conscious of his legacy and would rather focus on the positive. Or he couldn’t discuss it for legal reasons. I don’t know. But he has been asked. “Well, this isn’t the right time.” When exactly is the right time? This feels like when protesters protest but folks say “that’s not the right way to be heard” without suggesting a better method. If we are all looking back on the life of Kobe Bryant and this happened in his life, why wouldn’t that be up for discussion too? “What about King/media not talking about [insert White guy]?” These are good questions to ask but they usually aren’t asked in an authentic manner and, honestly, don’t change the subject at hand. There is absolutely a long history of criminalizing Black people, particularly Black men. But that doesn’t change the fact that this person is involved in a notable moment in his life at a time when we are asking people to discuss their memories of Kobe Bryant. Don’t be the person that uses “Black-on-Black crime” as a tool to deflect from a conversation about police involved shootings. Bringing up other names doesn’t change the circumstances of this person and a review of his history.

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Why are questions so scary? Gayle King’s “shortcoming” is that she asked a set of questions as a journalist should of any subject. So, what is so damning that the response would be to use pejorative language, discredit her work, and in some cases send death threats? Perhaps it’s the recognition that people are more complicated than we make them once they lose their light and transition to memory. You can navigate the black and white easier because it creates clear winners and losers. Clear heroes and villains. Clear stakes for those who warm your heart without chilling your mind. But the questions of others may also reveal that there is a long history that we do NOT want to discuss about ourselves. How our talk of standing for Black women may be just…talk. Perhaps it means accepting that Black women are praised and defended so long as Black men aren’t being held accountable. That our pursuit of justice may be engaged on the condition that we like you and that, for survivors, their stories are meant to be buried after an apology. Ultimately, questioning the legacy and life of a person in the unrelenting light of day could reveal that the line between us and them on so many issues is more grey than black and white. Rarely is the truth black and white but it’s so much easier to not confront the tough topics and build the infallible legend.

The backlash to Gayle King is a moment of focus on the depth of the challenges around misogyny. And what I see, clear as day, is absolutely disgusting and in need of dire repair. But let me know the right time and manner to raise it and we will see how much progress we make going forward.

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Allen L. Linton II

Free writing about politics, sports, intersection between the two, and Chicago.