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LeBron James, ‘The Shop’ and the art of code-switching

James’ HBO show speaks to issues of language for African-Americans

During the premiere episode of LeBron James’ new HBO show, The Shop, James, flanked by Snoop Dogg, Jon Stewart, business partner Maverick Carter and professional athletes Candace Parker, Odell Beckham Jr. and Draymond Green, explains to Stewart the structure of the black barbershop.

Seated in the center chair, James runs down the core components of the sacred shop: discussions surrounding movies, sports, fashion and just general, good ole-fashioned arguments. He then gets on the topic of the barbershop “regular” who frequents the establishment yet never appears to actually get a haircut. According to James, that person is “only there to roast your ass.” This person will ridicule your clothes and call your shoes “busted as f—” to the point where there’s only one response: “You’re like, ‘Damn, n—a, you been here since 8 a.m. … Get the f— outta here.’ ” In the first two minutes of the episode, dropping at least three “f—s” and two “n—as,” James has illustrated the art of the “code-switch.”

Coming from the face of the NBA, it’s almost jarring.

The term “code-switching” was established in the 1960s, but the practice likely dates to the days of chattel slavery. For African-Americans, according to the book Other People’s English: Code-Meshing, Code-Switching, and African American Literacy, code-switching is the “switching from one code or dialect to another, that is, to switch from using African-American English to Standard English, according to setting and audience.” It’s an adaption — and survival — technique for blacks (noticeably used by President Barack Obama) to fit in all-white settings.

James, one of the most prominent black faces in America since he was in high school, has almost always employed this skill. Between the 2002 Sports Illustrated magazine cover that dubbed him “The Chosen One” and a 2011 NBA Finals news conference where he shot back at “all the people that was rooting on me to fail,” James was the prototypical marketable star. He stayed away from controversial statements and smiled his way through Nike and Coca-Cola commercials. In interviews, he was affable and attentive. Whether sitting down with David Letterman or Magic Johnson, James would meticulously contemplate and enunciate each word. In 2010’s “The Decision,” where he jumped from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Miami Heat, James is in casual sneakers and a purple checkered shirt, covering up most of his tattoos, as he laughs through interviewer Jim Gray’s small talk like an employee sucking up to his or her boss. Despite making the biggest decision of his pro career, there’s no passion in his delivery; it’s cliché athlete-speak.

It’s a considerable contrast from James’ demeanor on The Shop. On the show, James is relaxed and dressed down in all black, tattoos on full display and a neck full of chains. He’s animated throughout, passionately raising his voice and talking with his hands while discussing sports, race and politics. Where he once appeared subdued and conscious of how his words would be perceived mostly by white people, here James says he was not “f—ing with white people” at his Catholic high school. He calls Snoop Dogg the greatest “m—–f—– … I’ve ever seen do what he does.” The African-American Vernacular English flows out like a faucet. “They” is in place of “their.” “Ain’t” and “yo” are commonplace. James says he went to “like fo-five” of his sons’ basketball tournaments. In episode two, which was hijacked by the Drake Variety Hour, James reminisced about a time his mother made him process his hair at a barbershop when he was younger: “I’m sitting down … and I’m like ‘God damn, my s— burnin’.’ ”

It’s noteworthy that James chose a barbershop as the setting for the show, not because of the rose-colored symbol of barbershops as a utopia of “unfiltered” black conversation, but because, outside of historically black colleges and universities, barbershops and black hair salons feel like the only place black Americans don’t have to assimilate. There’s no need for your “white voice” in a place that’s, for lack of a better term, for and by us. In Shelly Eversley’s The Real Negro: The Question of Authenticity in Twentieth-Century African American Literature, which examines racial qualifications of black writers, the author positions barbershops as “a racial and cultural distinction” from her nearby white university. Barbershops are where Standard English isn’t a requirement for entry.

Y’Shanda Rivera, co-author of Other People’s English, argues that, linguistically, James still talks the same way as he did in the early 2000s but he’s matured and “let his hair down” when it comes to what he chooses to talk about based on the times we live in. “There’s this pushback on us being able to be who we are and not needing anyone else to validate us and our language use,” Rivera said.

James, she said, has “come to a realization of who he is as an African-American man. He realizes his platform and the reason why that’s important is because in 2010 we were in the Obama era, and now we’ve evolved through Black Lives Matter, through this Trump, through this Make America Great, and those things play themselves out through language.”

Rivera’s colleague, Vershawn Ashanti Young, a professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, and another co-author of Other People’s English, wrote in 2014 that he used to code-switch to “escape racism, to avoid the structures that oppress black men.” Young, who goes by dr. vay, later coined the team “code-meshing,” which he describes as the blending of “African-American language styles together with Standard English.” While switching languages can negatively impact one’s understanding of their race, meshing languages embraces the different types of cultures. It’s impossible to know why James suddenly decided to be more of himself on camera (he said the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin “hit a switch”), but it’s hard to ignore that The Shop premiered a year after someone wrote the N-word on his home and just weeks after President Donald Trump called him dumb.

In his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk, scholar and civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois, who coined the phrase “double consciousness,” wrote that African-Americans wanted only to be accepted in America as their black selves. “[The American Negro] simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of opportunity closed roughly in his face.”

James, finally shedding what Du Bois considered the “twoness” of how others perceive him, has made and opened his own doors of opportunity, switching no longer necessary.

Martenzie is a senior researcher for The Undefeated. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said "Y'all want to see somethin?"