About a decade ago, conservative commentator Armstrong Williams and I were debating the issue of affirmative action at a branch of North Carolina State University. "May I ask you a question?" Williams uttered. "You just did," I curtly replied. "Well, may I ask you another one?" Williams continued. "You just did that, too," I retorted. When Williams became visibly agitated, I knew I had disrupted his train of thought and would easily win the debate.
No, I didn't learn that technique from the talking heads on TV. I learned that in my debate classes at Knoxville College in the late 1960s. There are many settings in which debating skills can be helpful, whether it is in thinking clearly, developing refined arguments or effectively making a point.
When "The Great Debaters," starring and directed by Denzel Washington and produced by Oprah Winfrey, opens in theaters on Chrisman Day, I am hoping it will have a revolutionary impact on young people and give them a better appreciation for effective communication.
Sometimes I wonder what Mr. Austin, my debate teacher at Knoxville College, or Mrs. Malinda Prude, one of my English teachers at Druid High School in Tuscaloosa, Ala., would say about how our young people express themselves today. I'm no prude, yet I am astonished by the vulgarity and plain incoherence I hear, whether listening to teens talk to one another or hearing them chat – usually loudly — on the cell phone. Let's face it, much of it is unintelligible.
And what we can decipher does not paint a pretty picture. I had just finished speaking at a university when a young man approached me after my presentation. After every other fragmented sentence, he added: "Know what I am sayin'?" Finally, I told him no, I didn't know what he was saying. Further, if I knew what he was saying, there would be no need for him to say it again.
Many adults are also sloppy in their use of language. I've heard adults refer to "reverting back" too many times to count. How else can one revert? You can't revert forward. Or, they will ask you to "repeat that again." Repeat, by definition, is again. Even more prevalent are people saying they need to go to an ATM machine. ATM stands for Automated Teller Machine. So, when one says he or she is going to the "ATM machine," they are, in effect, saying they are going to the "automated teller machine machine."
Perhaps we'd hear less of this nonsense if more people had studied the art of debate, which is what inspired the movie. "The Great Debaters" is based on a 1935 national championship debate between Wiley, a historically Black college in Texas, and the University of Southern California, the defending national champion. In typical Hollywood fashion, Wiley's opponent is changed to Harvard instead of U.S.C.
The debate coach, Melvin B. Tolson, was born in Moberly, Mo. and graduated from Lincoln University, a historically Black college in Pennsylvania. Wiley hired him in 1924 to teach English and speech. He also coached the junior varsity football team, headed the theater club and formed the Wiley Forensic Society, the debating team. Over a 15 year period, Wiley College lost only one of 75 debates.
Denzel Washington told reporters that both hip-hop and a form of poetry known as the spoken word have their roots in Black oral tradition. "Our oral history is rich and deep, and debating is a big part of it," Washington said.
Tolson left Wiley in 1947 to teach at another HBCU, Langston University in Oklahoma. He later served two terms as mayor of Langston and Liberia declared him its poet laureate. He died in 1966.
Wiley, which has an enrollment of less than 900, is located in Marshall, Texas, a town of 24,000 people about 140 miles east of Dallas. It has produced such distinguished alumni as James Farmer, the former head of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and Herman Sweat, who won a landmark Supreme Court decision against the University of Texas' Whites-only admission policy.
In recent years, the college has struggled with limited finances and resources. "The Great Debaters" is expected to shine a spotlight on the college, perhaps enabling it to increase fundraising and enrollment. The debate team, which was dismantled upon Tolson's departure, has been revived and students are eager to join upon learning about what the school calls a David vs. Goliath victory over a major White university with considerably more means.
Wiley President Haywood Strickland hopes the movie will strike a blow for all HBCUs, whose worth is often devalued. Representing only 3 percent of the nation's colleges and universities, HBCUs account for a quarter of all Black college graduates.
"The Davids of the world are the Wiley Colleges of the world," President Strickland said. "We do have a slingshot called the mind."
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach.