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To Dream With Anger

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Ah, the perils of trying to say definitively what L.A. is and isn't. It all depends on who's doing the defining and who they're talking to--the definer and definee. Even within the confines of academia and agreed-upon facts (the city was incorporated in 1781, the founding pobladores included people of color, etc.) there's lots of room for interpretation and strong emotion amongst everybody from natives to recent arrivals about what L.A. was, is and will be. In short, what L.A. means, especially as an American landscape of last resort for dreams that didn't or couldn't get filled elsewhere. Let's just say the history books are far from closed on the matter.

Nowhere was this more evident than last week at Royce Hall on the campus of UCLA. Last Tuesday, the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African-American Studies staged a daylong symposium in honor of its latest publication, "Black Los Angeles: American Dreams and Racial Realities." The book was a culmination of years of research and analysis by various scholars on black history and life in L.A.; the point was to examine the big arc of that history and see how certain aspects of it differ from black life in other big cities and how it is the same. Four panels were divided by four categories: Place, People, Image and Action (full disclosure: I was on the 'Image' panel, which addressed how perceptions of black L.A. shape the reality, and vice versa). Before the symposium, panelists were assigned to read the chapters in the book that corresponded to their category. They would share their impressions with the audience, who in turn would ask questions, and we would all end up having a fruitful "dialogue" about a topic that all the invitees were genuinely eager to talk about. Nice and symmetrical.

That was the theory. The reality was somewhat less forgiving. Distinguished as the panelists were (myself excluded, of course), discerning as many of their comments were, the audience--especially the natives--starting getting restless right away. Part of it was logistical; because nobody could really buy the book before the event, discussion of it quickly sounded limited to the folks on stage. But the bigger part of the problem was the presentation of black L.A. itself as a kind of academic study with specific conclusions, being discussed by scholars who, though sympathetic and well-versed, didn't live here and therefore couldn't possibly know. People had come to the symposium hoping for a kind of oral history to which they could add their two cents; what they got was more like a lecture.

I can't say the restlessness surprised me (though this being UCLA, it had a polite tenor). Most black public forums, wherever they're held and whatever they're about, have a tension rooted in the fact that those who show up are eager to be heard, to contribute experiences and opinions that tend to be ignored by mainstream media. A symposium that promised such a forum at a high-profile venue like UCLA was one thing, but the fact this forum was on an esoteric topic like black L.A. history--not the usual, ad hoc confab about crises like the latest incident of police abuse--made it that much more appealing. Maybe even magic. You could cut the expectations with a knife.

In the end, we all got slices that weren't as big as we wanted. But we got something, or at least I did. Former Black Panther Elaine Brown, who of course was on the "Action" panel, threw the day's proceedings into a blender by attacking the ideological underpinnings of the whole book and of the symposium itself--what were they, exactly? Was this just more middle-class musing that would go on a shelf and fail to benefit working-class black communities that were desperately in need of ministrations from ebony towers like those at UCLA? In other words, would the growing philosophical and experiential gap between black reality and the black institutions that study them ever be truly bridged?

I don't know the answer, but I'm encouraged that the question was raised so energetically here. People might not have gone away satisfied, but they did go away with a clear sense of unfinished business, to say nothing of a renewed sense of unfinished dreams. Only in L.A.

Image taken by Flickr user mycaptureoftime. It was used under the Creative Commons license.

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