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The L.A. Sparks 2011 International Dream Games, Honoring MLK's Dream & Black History Month

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When three white Los Angeles teachers got suspended last year for encouraging students to celebrate "inappropriate" black role models for Black History month, the ensuing debate focused primarily on the teachers' poor judgment in representing the spirit of the annual celebration.

Meanwhile, a broader and more persistent problem was described in an AP Photo of a UCLA protest against that and similar incidents in Southern California mocking black history last year: "Our education is dying and racism is intensifying."

Indeed a relationship between education and racism still exists in the U.S. 85 years after Carter G. Woodson created Black History Month as a means to promote awareness of the influence of black people in our nation's history. And the larger issue is the matter of whether our youth -- particularly black youth -- fully grasp what that influence is and the struggles of the past to afford them opportunities for social mobility.

Dahleen Glanton wrote an opinion piece in the Chicago Tribune today arguing that indeed there is a generational knowledge gap that has led to black children growing up with, "no sense of their history and no clear path for their future." The evidence of a knowledge gap about black history extends far beyond that which is described in Glanton's article and could certainly be related to the quality of education in the U.S. that the UCLA protester brings attention to.

Yet there's another way to conceptualize what's humanly at stake for our youth in understanding the economic, political and social impact of black people on the U.S.: how they interact with one another. In a recent conversation with Los Angeles Sparks coach Jennifer Gillom about a project her franchise co-sponsored in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King's legacy, interaction -- not necessarily the accumulation of information -- was her focus.

In fact, Gillom optimistically perceives an improvement in how youth -- and her younger players -- interact along racial lines today compared to her playing days, which ended in the WNBA less than a decade ago.

"I don't think there's a big disconnect - I really don't," said Gillom in a phone interview last Tuesday when asked about the notion of an generational knowledge gap. "Not like when I was playing - I think you could see it when I was playing. You could see it on the court or with your team - you have certain folks on the team where the blacks are sitting with themselves or whites would have their own groups. I think now there's a mix more, there's more interaction with each other versus when I was playing. So I think this generation gets it a lot more than when I was playing."

Perhaps this tension of what youth might know and how youth might interact is a productive starting point to better understand not only what's "appropriate" for Black History Month, but also what ideals we should actually be celebrating.

In his 2006 book Catching Hell in the City of Angels, Professor Joao H. Costa Vargas provides a different way to think abut the source and nature of what some people identify as an increasing generational disconnect that so many people lament.

Vargas describes an even more complex inter-generational relationship with race (and racism) by looking at how old-timers and youth, musicians and activists, and wealthy and working-class black people in Los Angeles construct their own notions of blackness. Even if we accept that a knowledge gap might exist, what Vargas also illustrates is that different -- or better yet, evolving -- notions of blackness are fundamentally shaped by the cultural and social context within which they live.

To be more direct, given the demographic shifts that have occurred in Los Angeles from the 1960's until now, it would actually be unreasonable to even believe that notions of blackness that inform what's important to honor during Black History Month would somehow remain static. The unfortunate reality is that L.A. -- one of our nation's largest cities -- has simultaneously diversified significantly as a whole while its inner city neighborhoods have become less diverse due to a combination of economic, political, and racial factors similar to those described in Eugene Robinson's book Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America.

That splintering of a diversifying city is what makes Gillom's involvement in the 2011 International Dream Games particularly relevant to a discussion of what Black History Month should honor on the last day of February.

The event, which was co-sponsored by the Sparks and the Friends of West Los Angeles, actually took place in January on the weekend before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Its significance was not in lofty words carefully crafted by skilled orators, community service activities, or a long march, but simply the act of bringing together diverse communities in L.A. that might not otherwise come together under normal circumstances. Its stated mission was "to recognize the legacy of Dr. King and to bring people together for one common goal - to give kids in Los Angeles the chance to play sports" but in a way it actually sought to accomplish more than that.

SPARKS: A Basketball Dream Come True
In an effort to combat the budget cuts that have taken sports out of schools in the Los Angeles community and left many kids with no form of extracurricular activity, the Sparks will give kids from eight different Los Angeles City Recreation Centers the opportunity to participate in a basketball tournament at six different Los Angeles Recreation Centers the weekend before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Even a surface-level look at the demographics of Los Angeles City Council Districts 5, 10, and 13 that the event brought together illustrates its underlying potential to embody King's vision.

"You have the black community, the Hispanic community - those communities that were interacting with each other that otherwise might not have had the opportunity to had it not been for that event," said Gillom. "So it could be from one part of the LA all the way to the other side of LA -- Westside to the Eastside."

While District 5 includes among L.A.'s wealthiest areas, including predominantly white Westwood, Chevy Chase in District 10 is a predominately immigrant, Latino district with 40% of its children living in poverty. Vargas describes Baldwin Hills in District 10 as an increasingly gentrified neighborhood that was formerly a destination for affluent Black families (before they, like the city's former white residents, fled to the suburbs) and has grown into among the wealthiest predominately black neighborhoods in the U.S.

As the basketball teams from these seemingly disparate community centers played against one another at the various locations, Gillom had the opportunity to visit all of them and facilitate clinics and observe the interactions among the youth.

"I thought it was a great event because first of all Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a person that emphasized love and people coming together and working together," said Gillom. "I thought that was something that (made) this whole idea of bringing these communities together, working together, playing [a] unique idea and I did see some interaction going on amongst the different communities that otherwise might not have been had they not had this event."

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Of course, any sporting event that is presented as a way to honor the legacy of a major social struggle should be met with a healthy dose of historically-grounded skepticism.

It's not difficult to acknowledge the potential for a basketball tournament to appropriately honor Dr. Martin Luther King's legacy -- such as Seattle's King Holiday Hoopfest on MLK Day this past January -- without resorting to the shallow notion that basketball is a fitting tribute because it's a "black game" and thus represents the monolithic aspirations of all black people.

At its best, the Hoopfest was a tournament that honored King's legacy by bringing together Seattle's diverse, yet rather homogenous, communities that might not otherwise take the opportunity to do so while also honoring the spirit of an ongoing local effort to ensure that black athletes were able to take advantage of the opportunities afforded to them. And at the very least the event was an opportunity to bring youth together through the power of basketball and slide some history in between the high profile games.

However, portions of the event also demonstrated the challenge of using sports as a platform to articulate the lofty principles of a significant social movement. Although there was an uplifting and well-intentioned effort to relay the force of King's dream and the struggle to work toward it, it also evoked the very persuasive, yet misleading, one man, one dream narrative that reduces an entire movement to King putting our nation on his back and carrying it to a higher moral ground (and as some misguided youth will tell you, ending slavery, Jim Crow, and school segregation in one magical act of social justice).

That narrative can very easily overshadow a much more complex story of how civil rights gains were made in this country in which King actually had a more modest role in achieving any measure of success, however you might define that. Although it's still an oversimplification in its vagueness, King's story is more accurately one of individual charisma, faith, and intellect helping to galvanize a collective will of a people that was, as W.E.B. Du Bois noted decades previously, not simply dissatisfied but embodied Dissatisfaction. The brilliance of King was not inventing a movement, but framing the movement with words that resonated with both a fundamental sense of who we were as a nation and who we wished to become in our interlocked futures as human beings.

So the problem with using sporting events to honor such lofty ideals is similar to what Yago Colas wrote about in his account of his own adolescent experiences with basketball and race in the immediate wake of the Civil Rights Movement: there are ways in which we can play with -- or literally play out -- the intersection of race and sports without actually reflecting on that intersection in any meaningful way.

Of course, that critique doesn't diminish the highest potential of what such a diverse basketball tournament sought to accomplish either. The challenge is to see such events as a vision of who we want to become as a nation rather than an accomplishment in and of itself. Bringing youth together in the way the International Dream Games did can be an act of "looking forward to looking forward" as Robin D.G. Kelley describes in the foreward of Vargas' book.

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Although the stated mission of the International Dream Games was powerful in bringing together youth in a "disintegrated" city, the real power was in how it actually honored the spirit of collaboration that made the movement King led successful - people actually formed temporary relationships with strangers through sport.

"The one thing that I liked too was not only were the kids getting along together and working together, but also seeing the parents interacting with each other and that's something that our kids need today, everywhere," said Gillom. "That weekend the parents were interacting with each other although they didn't know who they were, but they were communicating and getting along. And also you could see that the kids were also doing the same thing and they would look at their parents in that way.

"So I thought that overall the relationships that Dr. Martin Luther King wanted from people in general -- like I told you earlier about the interaction, being together, and the equality -- I thought that was what was displayed during that weekend. Parents playing with the kids, boys playing with the girls, those kind of things. So I thought it tied in really well."

In highlighting the role of gender as interconnected with age and race at this particular event, Gillom also highlights an important aspect of King's vision that we sometimes obscure by reducing it to a mere matter of black and white children holding hands and singing songs.

Not only did his views shift to become more expansive over time, but in 1967 he articulated a disappointment with our nation's, "...failure to deal positively and forthrightly with the triple evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism." King evolved from someone at the forefront of an anti-racist struggle to eventually becoming a voice in opposition to the range of dehumanizing forces that exist plague society.

Although gender was never explicitly at the forefront of his agenda, it's no coincidence that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 paved the way for Title IX. As such, that gender relations caught Gillom's eye was more than appropriate.

"There were girls, co-ed teams, girls playing with guys," said Gillom. "At first it was mostly guys - you know, boys passing to the boys - but then after a while you could see the boys kind of pull back and interacting with the girls. They would pass them the ball and get them involved. So I could see the impression that was being made throughout the different games."

By no means does one weekend basketball tournament have the power to counteract centuries of entrenched structural divisions. Yet there are also times when such human interactions between our youth can provide us all with a vision of a better future and, even if abstract, a goal for the ways we might ideally wish to interact with one another.

It's both possible and necessary to make realistic observations about where we've been and where we are while also finding hope and inspiration in moments that present hope for a brighter future. In an increasingly cynical and consistently individualistic society, those glimmers of hope are most readily found in the unrealized human potential within our youth.

Yet in stark contrast to Woodson's vision for Black History Month it is also an unfortunate reality that much of what's discussed during February becomes almost entirely trivial: disparate facts about individuals become meaningless when disconnected from their historical context, the implications on how race and racism are constructed in our society as a whole, and how we might imagine a society in which we interact in less dehumanizing ways. That's something our nation's schools need to get better at, whether in February or in teaching about Columbus day.

To some extent, a basketball tournament that establishes common ground for interaction among people that might not normally do so paves the way for our youth to learn modes of interaction that will help them cross our nation's structural barriers as adult citizens.

And at least in one sense, when considering the case of the three suspended LAUSD teachers from last year, we not only see a situation in which the youth are being underserved as learners, but also where there is no clear agreement among adults about what exactly it is that we're celebrating. If nothing else, it's the reason why some people find relegating the celebration of black history to one month troubling -- there's the risk of forgetting that the vision of holding our nation to its highest ideals should last for the entire year and inform both how we think and interact.

If the adults are still struggling to come to a collective agreement on these matters, then how can we expect youth to ever attain a stronger sense of history and pathway to the future?

"That's why I think that it was so important that I was there or someone who a kid would look up to be there to really help them grasp it," said Gillom. "I think that whoever put on the tournament did a good job of explaining why the kids were there and expressing teamwork and expressing those things."

Is basketball the answer to our nation's racialized boundaries like those in L.A.? Not quite, but perhaps a little creativity in how we imagine and pass on the vision of King or others who fought to hold our nation to a higher standard would help overcome that perceived generational divide.