Saturday, August 23, 2014

Drawing Lessons & Inspiration from Sporting Excellence

Years ago, for my lead college applications essay, I was prompted to discuss a quote with special meaning. I based my essay upon this 1968 quote by Chief Justice Earl Warren: "I always turn to the sports pages first, which records people's accomplishments. The front page has nothing but man's failures." The mere act of writing the essay was one of the most important moments of my life. The ideas that were crystallized for me through the process of writing live with me to this day. 28 years later, when I am saddened by life's realities as they come across my news feeds, I still turn to sports. ...

So here are two things that have moved me lately. ...

1) I have been thrilled to learn about and watch 13 year old pitcher Mo'Ne Davis and to watch all the youngsters having fun and competing their hearts out at the Little League World Series. What a joy to watch these kids!

2) As if that isn't enough, I finally had a chance to watch the amazing finish of the 4x400 meter finals at the European Athletics Championships. France's Floria Guei came from ridiculously, impossibly far back to bring her team from 4th to 1st in the last 50 meters of the championship race. I so appreciate such winners -- and not just folks who win foot races, but all folk who have undeniable tenacity, who refuse to lose, and who you just know will persevere and achieve no matter what they are hit with. 

Walter Bieri/EPA
Guie's amazing finish. Photo by Walter Bieri/EPA
I see sports as a microcosm - a small arena in which we see metaphors for what is possible. Call me romantic and simplistic, but a person impossibly coming from behind is no different, a metaphorical level, than other, more meaningful victories that we fight for as we try to improve a world, that, let's face it, on a day to day basis can be pretty crappy for a lot of people. 

Often, all we have is our years of dedicated training, combined with our refusal to lose. But sometimes that is all we need.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Does self-protection justify genocide?: The Jewish dilemma today

I have seldom been so saddened by remote occurrences as I am at the circumstances involving Israel and its ongoing bombing of one of the most densely populated regions on earth.
Today, Jews across the planet are in a horrible position. Jews in Israel love a land and seek to protect it against those who seek their eradication. As they assert their right to defend themselves, they are literally blowing children, families and communities into unrecognizable little pieces.
Jews, as participants in a global community, stand at a moral precipice. I am saddened to offer my opinion, but it is that the global community of Jews risks falling into as deep an evil as is possible for groups of humans to fall into. We can see isolated videos of groups of Israeli's chanting in celebration over the death of children. We can see isolated videos of groups of Israeli's watching and cheering bombings of neighborhoods. We can watch isolated videos of elected Israeli officials and isolated videos of Israeli academics, both proclaiming the right to kill Palestinians, including those not involved in harming them. The "isolated videos" of the justification or celebration of death are too numerous to count. I do not imagine that these videos accurately reflect Jewish sentiment, rather they reflect one segment ofJewish sentiment. But … (and here is the tough part) ...
No matter how justified you are in your anger at your enemies, when your community includes a critical mass of people wishing for and celebrating their utter destruction - to the point of genocide - the rest of the community needs to stand up to it and say "NO, This is not right; we must clearly and effectively denounce and marginalize this sentiment," or they go along with it. It really is one or the other.
I pray that non-violent leaders rise and are able to accomplish the miraculous task of facilitating a new, alternative approach to the seemingly intractable mutual hatred and destruction that characterizes this region of the world.
Mandela did it in South Africa;
King did it in the United States;
Ghandi did it in India.
It can happen. …
Can we find, bolster and otherwise empower the Jewish sentiment towards peace without genocide? I hope so. I will keep my eyes open. and I will actively look for the person or people whom I can support. … We'll see.
And why, by the way, do I focus on the Jewish community? I focus on the global community of Jews, because this is the community with the greatest power to either destroy or to heal…

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Maleficent - A provocative conversation starter for adolescents and adults, not a movie for kids.

Last night my wife and I had the rare opportunity to go to a movie together without our kids (13 and 11). Perhaps because we are so well trained, we still ended up at a Disney movie. To my surprise though, this kids' movie didn't seem so great for kids, although I consider it an important potential  conversation starter for adults.
Advanced warning: for those who simply want to go and see the flick, this post contains spoilers. On the other hand, for parents thinking about taking their kids, I invite you to read on despite the spoilers.
I am glad I went to see Maleficent.
It is in the vein of movies (I guess started largely by the novel and play Wicked) that add complexity to and rewrite the story behind the story of our cherished villains. I found Maleficent an interesting movie and appreciate attempts to re-write our society's gender scripts. I also specifically enjoyed the power and majesty of the lead character Maleficent, and was interested in and rooting for her success in the long emotional journey to healing that she traversed over the course of the film.
That said, I would NOT take children under 14 to see the movie, and I would only take someone 14 or over so as to begin complex discussions, about, trauma, gender roles, crime, sympathy, healing, and, yes, rape. I say the latter because the turning point of the story is a clear metaphorical rape of the lead character. In her sleep she is horribly and viciously violated and permanently damaged in an outrageous act of cowardice that was for me almost inconceivable in its awfulness (though I know it happens), even given the film's explanation of the perpetrator's motives.
From the metaphorical rape on, the complexity of the movie is in a consideration of how and why the lead character deals with and is changed by the horrible, physical and emotional pain that was inflicted upon her. One piece of broader context is that NO ONE EVER DISCUSSES or perhaps even begins to understand her pain. For me this only deepens the violation as an apt metaphor for rape. From a Disney film standpoint - and for that matter a viewer standpoint - what we have in essence is a a convincing justification for the actions that have the protagonist, Maleficent, viewed as evil, and then we have her journey to healing. Pretty grown up stuff - stuff I believe we should be thinking through in fact. But it is also stuff that needs to be thoughtfully delivered to adolescents, and stuff that younger kids are not likely to be ready to intelligently process without taking away simplistic and harmful messages.
In contrast to the complexity around a victim's response to violation, the featured men in the film (basically all the villains) are just incomprehensibly evil. The simplicity of this part of the film was ridiculous. Several times I felt my face contorting in nothing other than basic confusion as I wondered, "now why exactly, is the King so hell bent on doing this," and then later on "now, why exactly is this NEW king so hell bent on doing this new stupidly evil thing?" The evil men were not only evil, they didn't even make sense in their evil. It was weird. Stepping back, as a viewer I then realized that, wait a minute, there are two kingdoms, the good kingdom of fairies without hierarchy and living in harmony, and the nasty kingdom ruled by men. Hmmm. OK, I guess that is not a totally unreasonable way to describe the world. But then again, I am trying to teach my kids (one boy, one girl) about how to live into and help create a better world, and this picture, well, it kinda messes it up for both sides in terms of the lessons they'd learn. 
In the end, though, I want to be clear. I like the movie overall and will buy it on DVD and watch it again. I will likely even build curriculum around it for my high school students. I will watch in large part as one more piece of fodder as I continually think through how to be an effective guide for young people, so many of whom, whether viewed as "fine" or as "behavior problems" are dealing with horrific shit that most people remain blissfully unaware of. From a curriculum development standpoint, I may use this film to start conversations that (I would hope) help young people I work with collectively and individually think through all these issues that I have pointed out are in play in the film. 

As a victim's advocate, as an advocate for healing after trauma, as a person who enjoys thinking through even those movies that are supposedly not so heavy, I say go watch the film. But I also say, challenge and question the film and explore what you agree with and what you find problematic. As a parent, I also say, go watch the movie. But leave your pre-teens and tweens at home.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Black Studies answer to TED Talks is here!

Season 1 of Blackademics Television features 12 presentations on "Education, Performance and Youth Empowerment" by Black Studies scholars from around the nation. The show will initially air on KLRU PBS-TV Austin starting on Sunday October 13, 2013 at 1:30 pm and will be made available on-line after that.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

When to comment about racists via social media ... the case of the no-brainer.

In thinking about whether to use social media to comment about racists, I've offered that do to the problem of giving racists a platform, the issue of whether to respond to garden variety racists is an open question worthy of additional discussion. In the case of elected officials, however, there is no dilemma

For instance, I would not hesitate to say Congressman Steve King is a stereotyping ass and should be widely acknowledged as such among Democrats and Republicans alike, and especially among those Republicans who don't want to be seen as sharing his heartless and twisted views.

U.S. Congressman Steve King has been an elected official since 1996, and in Congress since 2003. He doesn't like the Dream Act and wants you to know why. So what exactly does he have to say about Hispanic youth? 

 Here is the Congressman: “For every one who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there that weigh 130 pounds and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.” 

Of course, in his defense, King has followed up by saying that what he is interested in is "the most logical, rational policy." 

Even viewed charitably, his utterance is callous and heartless. At best, you could point out that King is referring to an actual phenomenon - that where Mexican youth end up as "drug mules" carrying illegal narcotics into the United States. But he is glibly describing a situation where kids are put into positions of extreme danger and exploited to the extreme. Kids involved are victims, plain and simple. Yet, there is no indication that King is interested in shedding light on human trafficking, the exploitation of children (especially brown ones) or anything like that. He wants to demean hispanic youth in order to reframe a debate that he sees as to charitable to kids he generally thinks lowly of.  

So, here is Steve King, an upstanding an upstanding elected Republican official. To get back to the main topic, my sense is that calling out elected officials like this is a no-brainer. 

Dealing with garden variety racists on social media

In thinking through and attempting to stay on top of things for the Black Studies in the Age of Social Media class I'll teach this fall, I've encountered instances where, after some national event, a few dozen racists will broadcast racist tweets. A cute Hispanic kid in a mariachi outfit beautifully sings the national anthem and a bunch of people go nuts with the name calling. Same thing when a New York born Hispanic sings the national anthem at another national sorting event. Xenophobes come out of the woodworks with idiotic expressions of racism.

I've tried to think of this in context though. There are 400 MILLION mundane tweets every day, coupled with DOZENS (or sometimes HUNDREDS) of publicly shared racist tweets. How should one respond? If you ignore racism, it can take root and grow like an all-consuming weed. On the other hand, when you point out the kooks, you give them free publicity and the opportunity to convince others of their warped perspectives. Working through this conundrum will be one of our class tasks for our Black Studies in the Age of Social Media.

Now, all that having been said, next up, Part 2 (the one where I go ahead and call out a racist asshole since he is an elected official of influence) ...

Monday, June 3, 2013

To "only" finish in the nation's top four ... The making of life-long champions.

UT Softball fell short of a national title this year, and "only" finished as one of the top four teams in the nation. ... They were a joy to watch as they marched to the College World Series. I watched them play at home in the Regionals and Super Regionals, and then on ESPN as they played in Oklahoma City at the College World Series. Through all the watching and rooting, I was consistently struck that the experiences these women were living is exactly how life-long champions are made.

Longhorns celebrate the no-hitter the sent
them to the College World Series.
The playoff system for NCAA softball and baseball is rigorous, grueling and fair. Once the UT Women made it to Oklahoma City, that meant that they were one of the top 8 teams in the country. From there it's a double elimination tournament, where fighting back through the elimination bracket is really tough. They beat Arizona State in the Championship Bracket, got beaten by a powerful Oklahoma, then in the Elimination Bracket beat Florida, before losing to Tennessee. In short, the softball team went 2-2 at the World Series, finishing strong amidst the best competition in the country. 

Pitcher Blaire Luna, who went 31-7 on
the season, pitched 288 pitches in one day,
pitching against both Florida and Tennessee.

I have been watching athletes and athletics for a long time. I know what quit looks like and I know what fight-to-the-end looks like. This team's run was long, exhausting and impressive. I couldn't be prouder ... and more importantly, I bet that Coach Connie and her crew feel the same way. 

Watching these student athletes play, I saw the same drive, persistence and work ethic demanded of anyone who wants to work and thrive in a  top-notch organization. Oh, and one more thing: the team GPA is 3.08, which is well above the university-wide average. Not bad at all.

These student athletes show the best of UT and the best of UT Athletics.

What a pleasure.