culture

Lavar Ball, Randall Pearson and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream Come True

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In his iconic I Have a Dream speech, Martin Luther King Jr. shared a dream that embraced the theological tension of the already-but-not-yet. It was a dream that transcended the current circumstance and focused on what’s to come: a future of restorative justice and the racial concilation of a fallen nation.

I have a dream, that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream.

This dream captures the mind with a breathless beauty and a sense of anticipation. Because the beauty of this dream is derived from the one who said, “Behold I am making all things new.”

Even so, it is hard to imagine that this dream could ever come to fruition. At best, it seems to be wishful thinking. But I would suggest, the dream is beginning to come true right before our eyes; it just requires Christians to look more intently.

Lavar Ball is a glimpse of Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream coming true.

Lavar Ball: A Glimpse of a Dream Come True

When I first heard Lavar Ball speak, I felt an immediate connection — he was like my father.

With his larger-than-life personality and braggadocios manner, Lavar Ball has quickly risen to become a much-talked about public persona. On the surface, he seems arrogant, outspoken and overbearing. But, I would propose that he is a primary example of what is becoming an archaic figure: The old-school black father.

Lest I overgeneralize, I am not speaking for all older black fathers. Lavar Ball is like a certain type of black father cut from a different cloth, who comes from a specific cultural and family background. In a recent interview, his sons Liangelo and Lamelo Ball admitted as much. Their insightful conversation on the radio show The Breakfast Club commenced:

Charlemagne (Interviewer): “Lamelo, is there ever a time you want to tell your father to tone it down?”

Lamelo: “Who me?”

Charlemagne: “Yeah.”

Lamelo: “Oh, no.”

Charlemagne: “You scared, or you just don’t want to…”

Lamelo: “No. It’s just no point.”

Everyone in the studio broke out in laughter.

Charlemagne: “Why? He ain’t gon’ listen?”

Lamelo: “No.”

Charlemagne: “What about you Liangelo, you ever want to tell him tone it down pop’s?”

Liangelo: “Nah, I‘m used to that, he’s been like that my whole life, so…”

Here’s where Lavar Ball gives an insightful explanation of his personality as a father figure and why his sons react to him this way:

Lavar Ball: “Well, you guys know from the culture (black culture) man, come on, from your father…the way black folks was raised, [you] ain’t saying nothing even if [your father] is wrong. And they like that with me, man…

Everyone agrees, and Charlamagne responds with this comment,

Charlamagne: “Even when people were giving you flack when you were saying you can beat Michael Jordan one-on-one and stuff like that, I’m like, I don’t know too many black fathers that show weakness in front of their sons. You ain’t gonna tell your son another man can beat you.”

These comments are remarkably insightful for the listener — if we listen closely and understand their background. In essence, this interview gives us a peek into who Lavar Ball really is.

Lavar Ball is very much an archaic figure derived from a rich black culture. He is reminiscent of the old-school black male who plays spades into the late hours of night, who is loud and boisterous and talks trash, who brags about how good his sons are on the basketball court or football field (even if they’re not as talented as he makes them out to be). He’s the Fred Sanford type: He has a determination to survive, a rare sense of ingenuity and the ability to make something despite a lack of resources. Lavar probably learned all this and more from his father, and his father learned it from his father. Lavar Ball is just different, often in a good way.

To be clear, not everything Lavar Ball does is good. It’d be naive and foolish for me to hold Lavar Ball up as a saint. We could condemn many of his actions, but we could also commend others of his actions.

For instance, I mentioned that Lavar Ball has a rare sense of ingenuity. His entrepreneurial wisdom and antics are questionable. But we ought not wholly dismiss them. As Lavar Ball’s loving neighbors, we should ask, “Why does he think and act this way?” One reason might be that he comes from a background with a lack of resources, and he has developed a rare sense of ingenuity to survive. Though this ingenuity, developed from his cultural and background experiences, isn’t bad, the way he uses it may be (e.g. charging $400-$500 for sneakers).

However, as we reflect on Lavar Ball, we ought to keep in mind what C.S. Lewis says:

Goodness is, so to speak, itself: badness is only spoiled goodness. And there must be something good first before it can be spoiled…evil is a parasite, not an original thing.

With Lavar Ball, there are some good cultural, background and individual differences that have simply been spoiled. We must uncover and preserve the good things produced from different backgrounds and cultures that have been marred by sin, as we would do with any other neighbor.

Lavar Ball is a glimpse of Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream coming true. He is one portion of nuanced diverse society King’s dream desires to have. But also, as someone who lives in a majority culture while still resembling his minority culture, he unmasks those of us who say we desire the dream of diversity but really desire assimilation. Lavar Ball stays true to who he is, doesn’t submit to the call to assimilation and, in a sense, pushes majority culture and societal social norms to submit to the reality of the dream — true diversity. Simply, Lavar Ball is a glimpse of King’s dream becoming true because he gives us a glimpse of how diverse the world could be.

Lastly, Lavar Ball is a glimpse of King’s dream coming true because he attempts to make society recognize difference, challenges assimilation and unmasks a subtle but deep-rooted white supremacy. Rarely has such a figure been so highly publicized. As a result, the prevailing majority culture, tends to disdain him and misinterpret his actions and words. His trash talk is interpreted as real talk. His loud, boisterous and authoritarian approach to fatherhood is interpreted as abusive. His ingenuity and business acumen is mocked as artlessness and simplemindedness. He’s not like the majority culture therefore he is inferior.

The majority and prevailing culture has never met a man such as him, but they don’t like him. They don’t prefer his kind, and therefore his kind is wrong. Preference becomes righteousness. This is a sign of a subtle white supremacy within us.

Goodness is, so to speak, itself: badness is only spoiled goodness. – C.S. Lewis

The Dream Distorted: When Preference Becomes Righteousness

As I mentioned in a previous post, white supremacy is not pure racism. White supremacy involves attitudes, ideologies and policies associated with the rise of blatant forms of European dominance over ‘nonwhite’ populations. White supremacy is not limited to anglo saxons alone, but extends to non anglos as well. In my previous post, I explained how I too struggle with white supremacy.

These attitudes, ideologies and policies at times are hard to detect because they subtly seep into us from majority culture and prevailing societal social norms. Unless you view yourself as a bastion which hasn’t been penetrated by majority culture and societal social norms, it is highly likely that you hold subtle attitudes, ideologies and policy positions that diminish and subdue nonwhite populations. When our preference becomes righteousness, a subtle white supremacy might exist within us.

An Example

What is it that people don’t like about Lavar Ball? The opinions vary. Yet, there is one primary example that can expose how preference becomes righteousness — more specifically, how the preference of majority culture and white societal norms can subtly become righteousness.

Lavar Ball was being interviewed on Colin Cowherd Show with his son Lonzo Ball. In the interview the interviewers tended to misunderstand of the minority-culture dynamics of their father-son relationship. The interviewers assumed that Lonzo Ball was in fear of standing up to his father’s opinions and that his father was abusive. They also assumed that Lonzo Ball would agree with their preference for Lavar not to be so loud about his sons’ success.

Yet Lonzo wholeheartedly and intelligently defended his father.

Colin Cowherd: “Good fathers know to put a little bit of pressure on their sons.”

In Colin’s statement he was already setting a standard of what’s right — “a little bit of pressure.”

Colin Cowherd: “I think you should bring it down a notch.”

Kristine Leahy: (Colin Cowherd’s co-host): “Is there anything that you and your father disagree on [basketball wise]?”

Lonzo:  “Nah.”

In amazement Leahy responded, 

Kristine Leahy: “There has to be something.”

Lavar: “Like what?”

Lonzo: “Give an example.”

Leahy hesitated. 

Kristine Leahy:  “Your comments about Steph Curry. That put’s a lot of pressure on you (Lonzo Ball).”

Lonzo: “No it doesn’t. It just sets the bar higher. The higher the bar, the better I become.”

Baffled by the response, Colin turns his attention back to Lavar Ball.

Colin Cowherd: “I still think you should scale back a little.”

Lavar: “You know what? I think I’m gonna scale back just for you. H*** nah. No I’m not! I’m gonna jump in [more] cause this is the real deal right here.”

Clearly, the interviewers perceive things differently from Lavar and his son. They have a preconceived notion of what the father-son relationship is supposed to look like, but their ideal doesn’t match Lavar and his son’s ideal. There is nothing wrong with both parties having different ideals of the father-son relationship. But when the Balls’ father-son relationship becomes wrong because it’s not preferred, there is a problem.

Notice, neither anglo-saxon interviewer had probably ever experienced a father produced in a unique way — from the hood — and who still portrayed those attributes overtly. Lavar’s fathering looks different than what they’re accustomed to, so to them it’s not right; “he should scale back.”

But the son views it differently. Lonzo has been raised by this unique father in a unique culture, and he sees his father’s strong presence, loud trash talk and controversial allure as beneficial to him. Lonzo seems to love his dad and the differences that make up who his dad is. The interviewers seem to want Lavar to assimilate, assuming it will help his son progress. Preference becomes righteousness, and that righteousness would diminish and subdue this archaic black father figure.

Lavar Ball, this glimpse of the dream come true, a different kind of man, from a different kind of culture, and from a different time in history may disappear from American society in the coming decades. He may always be remembered as the guy no one should be or wants to be. Yet in Lavar Ball, not all is to be disdained. He holds some cultural and historical distinctions, and these good differences embraced by others are a glimpse of the dream come true.

No Thank You, I Prefer Randall

In the popular show This is Us, Randall Pearson is the adopted African-American child of a middle-class white family. Most, if not all, viewers love Randall. He is praised as the embodiment of a good father, husband, son and citizen. He possess the American dream. Unlike Lavar Ball, Randall is “under control.” Though Randall looks different, he acts like the prevailing majority culture — which is partly why he’s loved so much. Yet, Randall knows he’s missing something.

The show provides a fascinating depiction of what Randall knows he’s missing about himself. In one episode he meets his biological father and is taken to his father’s old stomping grounds – probably like the environment Lavar Ball was raised in. Randall’s father takes him to a jazz bar and he begins to experience the cultural heritage and background that he never knew existentially.

Randall has a much different experience with his adopted father, Jack Pearson, but he experiences affirmation from both fathers. Both fathers urge Randall to know his differences, express his differences and to embrace and live confidently in his differences. Jack says it best, explaining the differences between him and his siblings,

You’re not all the same, you’re adopted and we don’t talk about that enough. Because to me you are every part my son. And maybe I don’t want you feel like you stand out. But I need you to know something, I want you to stand out. I want all of you to be as different as you can possibly be in all the best ways…don’t let your dad’s poor choices make you feel afraid to be different, ok?

We could learn much from these words. In fact, I would suggest that Jack Pearson models in this scene how Christians should think, speak and act on diversity in the church. Jack is doing what the church is called to do in this scene — preserve all good individual, cultural and racial differences, not only with dignity but with remarkable celebration. Humanity is diverse, and wonderfully so.

Seeing diverse people in perfect fellowship distinguishes the church from the present world.

A World to Come. A Dream Come True.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream was prophetic and has awakened in the church. The church is becoming the reality of the dream.

See, entering a church should be like someone stepping into a world where people of different cultures, race and generations share a common bond. Seeing diverse people in perfect fellowship distinguishes the church from the present world; it proves we are those being delivered from this “present evil age.” The preservation of humanity’s diversity is a glimpse of the dream come true — a glimpse of the world to come.

In Revelation 7:9, we are treated to a preview of Christ’s new creation and the dream come true:

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb…

In the world to come, a diverse people will gather together to worship the one who makes all things new. The church should be a living, breathing preview of that world to come.

Thus, we need space for the Lavar Balls in the church — not to affirm that everything about Lavar Ball is good, but that people like him are welcome. In so doing, the church will reflect King’s dream: “sons of former slaves and sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” This is a glimmer of the new world to come — a people with vast differences who gather in good fellowship. When the church embodies and preserves the diversity of humanity, we honor our Creator and his new creation.

Let us cherish this glimmer of the dream come true, preserving the diversity of humanity and not stifling it with our preference as righteousness. I have a dream that this will come true.

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  • culture
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Lemanuel Williams

Lemanuel Williams is the Director of Operations of at Peacemakers and a pastoral intern at Redeemer Church in Rocky Mount, NC. He is a Hunt Scholar working to finish his M.Div. at Southeastern Seminary.

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