Those of us at Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle (LBS) have had the opportunity to mentor many of the most successful debaters in the country. We are proud to showcase the work of students who have a tremendous sense of social and political consciousness on issues that are pertainate to their success and growth as debaters.
The following essay is a co-written piece written by high-school debaters Quaram Robinson & Charles Athanasopoulos. They reflect on their experiences as debaters of color in the nationally competitive high-school policy debate.
As members of this debate community, we want it to be known that we do appreciate all the funding and support that is given to us, which enables us to travel and do what we all feel so passionate about: debate. It is our strong belief, that everyone should have the equal opportunity to debate, and reveal their potential to succeed. However, we realize that this is not how it plays out in the real world; being competitive in debate is extremely hard, even more so for debaters who do not fit the White Hetero-Patriarchal Able-Bodied norm. Specifically, Cedar Ridge RP comprises of two Womyn debaters, one of which is both Black and Navajo, both debating for a small program with little to no institutional support; Bronx Law AL comprises of two Latino debaters, part of the vast diaspora of blackness, including Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.
Though both teams have enjoyed competitive success, we believe that it is imperative to reveal the way teams can be pitted against eachother in the fight to gain access to funds we both need so desperately, in order to have a chance to succeed. We hope this will provide a much needed criticism that can begin a productive discussion, and maybe extend the critical consciousness needed to understand the two sides of how the fight for funding can take its toll, and begin to attack that.
The Forgotten (Quaram Robinson)
“We hate ethnography…The distrust that we feel toward it is not caused by our displeasure at being looked at but rather by our obscure resentment at not having our turn at seeing”
– Edward Glissant, in L’intention poetique
‘What happens to the non-poster child debaters of color?’ that’s a question I’ve had to ask myself a lot lately. This year, my debate partner and I have been through a lot; attempting to fight through barriers meant to exclude us via speaker points, framework, ballots, etc., and have also learned a lot from it. The debate community seems to be built in opposition to me, as a Black Navajo female debater. Our solution to this problem lies in one of Joy James more recent publishing’s—creating a Beloved Community. A revolutionary community against anti-blackness founded in the commitment to resist anti-black violence that manifests itself in the form of homophobia, capitalism, and sexism- with the purpose to make a collective grammar of suffering where we can come to understand anti-black violence. While this community can and should exist in other places as well, we have made debate our starting point due to our love for the activity, and the close connection that we have with it.
The problem that I’ve run into is that despite Emma and my success in the activity, we aren’t receiving the same sort of community love in return. We got to quarters of Greenhill, where we found ourselves paired against friends of mine, Charles and Geo, another competitive performance team on the national circuit. Emma and I sat up together until 1AM that night, attempting to work out our strategy against them. A few coaches walked up to us and told us to go to bed, but none of them offered to help. After finally working something out, we trudged up to the hotel room that we were sharing with our friends, due to use of lack of school funding, and fell asleep. Six hours later we stumbled out of bed, grabbed our files, and walked into the room we were debating them in. As we took our place at the front of the room we witnessed multiple people running up to Charles and Geo, wishing them luck in the round, telling them that they respect what they do in debate, and to put it bluntly making a spectacle out of their success. I want to preface my opinion in this, in saying I don’t in any way think Charles and Geo are at fault for this odd sense of spectacularization, and I know in Charles part of this article he will speak about his frustrations with a physic split this has put him in.
I sat there with my partner dumbfounded and confused- had we not just had the same success at the tournament as my male peers from the Bronx? I have worked my entire high school career, fighting for the belief that when you’ve put in your work to the activity, you will receive complete entrance and support- yet; we had just done our best debating, fighting for the same end goal and still ended up in a very uncomfortable situation. Here we were, two teams committed to fighting anti-black violence in debate, and for some odd reason people were too busy choosing favorites, creating a spectacle out of one team instead of doing what Charles, Geo, Emma, and I wanted to do– have a discussion about which political methodology was best suited to resist anti-Black violence.
What Charles and I have found, is that there is a certain poster child debater of color that I don’t seem to fit into. Charles and Geo are two debaters of color from the Bronx, who have been debating since they were young and for some reason white alumni who throw money at them think they have a right to take responsibility for their success. The most blatant example of this situation is that about a week ago my partner and I put up a GoFundMe (which is a website used to fundraise money for any sort of goals), and received 291 dollars at this point for our goal to attend a national tournament outside of our region before we go to the TOC. Charles and Geo, within an hour of posting a link to the GoFundMe they created with the same goal, had received the funding we’ve been raising for a week. I think that this is an example of the debate community choosing certain debaters of color that they want to succeed. We’re both teams with two bids, who continually act on our politics, with the lack of ability to nationally travel- so why is it they are favored? I’ve have questioned it all, is it that we’re not from the North? That we’re not two males, not from the Bronx, am I not enough of a performance figure in debate to receive the same sort of love? Do Charles and Geo get help because of their successful coaching staff that gives them much more publicity?
Maybe it’s my mistake, for thinking that debate wasn’t a middle school popularity contest but instead about the arguments that you believe in and the politics you act on. This politics is wrong– Charles and Geo aren’t here so you can make a spectacle out of their success and attempt to pit performance teams against each other. This isn’t an auction where you choose the debaters you feel are the most revolutionary, and then throw your money at them. I think that the situation these people put us in is messed up and unfair– this post is meant for the teams who are silently ignored but who are constantly fighting. This post is meant for the teams who don’t want to step on the success of their brothers and sisters in the debate community, but also think it’s important to call the debate community out when they disagree. Good debaters are good debaters, and we all deserve the same ability to debate and share our politics. It’s not about you choosing the poster child debaters and ignoring the ones that you deem insignificant.
The Spectacle (Charles Athanasopoulos)
“Despite the ‘warmly persuasive’ and utopian quality that the word community possesses…it is important to recognize that the relations among slaves were characterized as much by antagonisms, distrust, contending interests, values, and beliefs as by mutual cooperation and solidarity. As on ex-slave put it, ‘they taught us to be against one another’…”
-Dr. Sadiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection
“At 20 years old, I became a “poster child” for a national not-for-profit program, the Urban Debate League (UDL). The UDL targets minority, inner-city high schools to provide resources and support for the development of competitive debate teams, debate as public advocacy, and use of debate across the curriculum as an effective tool to increase student success in failing inner-city school systems.”
– Dr. Shanara Reid-Brinkley, Ghetto Kids Gone Good
Drawing upon the work of Dr. Sadiya Hartman and Dr. Shanara Reid-Brinkley, I would like to reveal the way certain bodies are spectacularized within this community, and others pushed to the side, and how they are both two sides of the same coin. Hartman explains in her book, Scenes of Subjection, that slaves were pitted against eachother, to fight for their survival, as seen in the above quote. I would like to apply this theory to the debate community, and reveal the destructive nature of the philia and phobia of certain bodies and how they can be used interchangeably in the power structure of Anti-Blackness.
Today as I was on my way home from school, my good friend, Quaram, messaged out of frustration to talk about how the community has picked certain “people of color” to accept, and others to forget. Immediately she tried to make it clear that she was not blaming me, rather the way this community functions, especially when it comes to us. I believe this came from the fact, that she expected me to react in a defensive way and reject her notions. No, she is in fact, correct; this community has pitted teams like Bronx Law AL against teams like ACORN, Brooklyn Tech, Baltimore City College, Cedar Ridge, Eastside etc. especially in terms of gaining access to funding. It often causes resentment between debaters who used to be friends, debaters and people they saw as mentors, all due to this grab for access to debate. As Willie Johnson once put it, “Its like Hunger Games out here!” and indeed it is so. It’s like one huge scramble to get as many donors as possible so you can reach your goal, despite how that affects the person you know equally deserves to get there.
In the debate we had against Quaram and Emma, we discussed the beloved community. Our argument was that, though Assata Shakur reveals the master (The U.S.) trying to reclaim its runaway slave, that she did fall short in one category. We argued that a) Assata did not liberate herself, rather her committed comrades had liberated her and b.) She never came back for us. Therefore, we took the position that we should affirm the scholarship and example of Harriet Tubman, who not only was a black woman who had liberated herself and escaped her masters, but came back and freed slaves in what we know as the Underground Railroad.
Now, lets ignore whether we believe either sides argument to be true or not, and focus on the main point of that debate, which was how to best create this beloved community of scholars and revolutionaries working to uplift eachother. Drawing upon the arguments made in that round, drawing upon Dr. Shanara Reid-Brinkley’s work I believe that this debate community has created a rather insidious form of the divide-and-conquer strategy. One on hand, you will take some UDL/”race” team and tokenize them, and their success, but on the other hand you will treat the other UDL/”race” team as not worthy of such tokenization. It is important to see, that this is all a problem that branches out from the UDL narrative of ghetto kids gone good.
You see, what Quaram has described to you is the phobia, the neglect of certain bodies as invisible because they are not deemed worthy. However, that quotidian marking of bodies also entails the fetishization and spectacularization of these bodies. It is the biggest contradiction; to gaze upon an object as a pleasing spectacle, yet at the same time reject it as inferior. See, a director will start off with say two hundred “ghetto” teams who have never debated before, and begin to develop their love for and skill in debate. Once that happens, and they begin to win, they will demand a need for more national tournament travel. So from there, a director will pick from UDL team number one through two hundred, and pick who they deem worthy of traveling, and will place those teams in interviews, dinners, and basically try to entertain white donors. In this process, maybe five teams get picked, and the rest are left out of the debate community, they still have not made that journey from ghetto to good.
The divide between Cedar Ridge and Bronx Law AL is an example of that; it’s funny, because neither position is fun. You either end up thinking you are inferior, because you are deemed as not worthy as respect, or you are put in a position where you lose yourself, because you are forced to please a white audience. Bronx Law AL, is that spectacle. We are the hard-working Cinderella story of two Latinos, part of the vast diaspora of blackness, from the Bronx, who now enjoy competitive success through the power of debate. We are poster children, the image, and we have battled this overwhelming vertigo called psychic split.
“And when that happened it confused me, because I no longer knew if I was Shanara the real person, right? The person who had all these experiences, the person that did well at debate, and like these people I was really accepted. Or, was I the image? Is this Shanara the poster child for the Urban [Debate League]…right? Who are you voting? If you are gonna be voting for me, am as I smart as I thought I was? Or as you are telling me who I am? Total psychic split. Total psychic split. There was me, and then there was her. The image”
Bronx Law AL is now this image that must be maintained. We must be respectful at all times, never say anything outlandish or we are castigated, and could possibly lose the money that funds our travel. That’s why, at the Barkley Forum when Geo and I, tell two judges exactly what we think of their decision which was maybe the most anti-black decision we have every heard, we are video taped, we are attacked by random coaches as two kids who should not be in this space. You feed off of the images on your computer of our success, but if we ever attack the contours of debate, you get angry and promote a different image that sees us as the overly aggressive and abrasive Wilderson reading team. You fetishize us, but won’t be associated with us. The same way everyone wants to fetishize the champs Ryan and Elijah, but when the time comes, Elijah and Chris aren’t good enough to be invited to your Round Robins. The same way you say you respect us, but then you read a framework argument that tells me this is a gated community, and I should get the fuck off the property. The same way you all love Aaron Timmons, but when he calls the very rancor of your privileged experience and view of debate illegitimate, you turn on him real quick.
Another factor is the non-profit industrial complex, which we see rising in debate. White donors will pour their money into you, and feel as though they have created some change in the world and can claim your success, and everything that you have done in this community. They get a sense of entitlement, without actually being there when shit hits the fan. When I’m sitting there being told that the 2NR didn’t fully explain the impact of excluding black scholarship and black debaters in this community and why that means a team should lose, you aren’t there. I have to deal with this; I have to survive in this anti-black world, not you. You become those white voyeurs who drop a dollar in a homeless persons cup, and think you have done something, while you go back to your apartment in a neighborhood you gentrified with your organic bananas and artisanal mayonnaise. I think its time for people to take more responsibility for their everyday actions, and really self-reflect on what you do daily that is either helpful or problematic. I hope this essay helps spark that discussion.
This is for those who want be able to debate without being a spectacle, and without being deemed as lesser, just because of where they come from, and what how their flesh is marked. Good debaters are good debaters; we all deserve the chance to compete, and succeed. No matter how much you may disagree with my tone, my arguments, my beliefs, you surely must agree with that. Therefore, we demand equal respect for all of us. Quaram, Emma, Shamella, Tyler, Chaz, Rayvon, Brooke, Makayla, Aaron, Peeyman, and everyone else – there is no way around it.
The Community (Quaram Robinson)
We know that suffering unfolds or folds in upon itself even if no one immediately talks; yet we still lack a shared, common language for political violence. Death and mourning are universal human traits. Black suffering and black resistance are part of the human condition conditioned by white supremacy, imperialism and capitalism, homophobia, patriarchy, female, and child sufferings. We share universality with the particularities of black suffering that suggest that this wilderness experience has lasted too long.
–Dr. Joy James, Seeking the Beloved Community
It’s obvious that even though we make strides in the community, there are many anti-black mindsets and opinions floating around. We’ve all been told that what we do in debate doesn’t change anything, that our politics can only be defined by a ballot. Those who speak out about violence are targeted and excluded because they threaten the foundation of the system itself in the form of topic discussions, ballots, and speaker points. I think the solution to this problem lies within each other. While debaters of color in college have a built a support system, by and large I think that is something missing among debaters of color in high school. There will always be people who don’t agree with our politics, teams who read framework, teams who tell us that what we do and what is important to us is not of academic merit. What they can’t take away is the community that supports you, they want to exclude us—special emphasis on the US. We black debaters, “race” teams, whatever we are called these days, are an entity, and we recognize that we are as fungible within the debate community as we are outside of it. While we may not agree on the particularities of methodologies, we can all agree that debate is fundamentally anti-black and that’s something we need to change.
We have ‘friends’ in the community who will constantly tell us they’re there for us, they’re rooting for us, etc., but who really supports us? Is it the ‘friends’ we meet at debate camp who tell us they respect what we do but still insist on reading framework despite the fact that they have know for months what our aff is? I know we’ve all been through judge decisions we think are preposterous, debaters who say incredibly violent things around, people who tell us that because they/the community/the state are not going to change their minds we shouldn’t bother with what we do. After those rounds, it’s important to have a community of people who you can turn to, who will help make sense of that seemingly senseless violence, to remember that those rounds win or lose don’t go without meaning. It takes bravery to put your politics on the line, to put your stories on the line. It takes bravery to post something, even on social media, that you know majority of the debate community will disagree with. It takes bravery to emotionally put your full self into a debate when you’re the one left vulnerable to violence. It takes bravery to know that after you lose a debate, majority of the people at the tournament will have no idea why you’re so upset because to you it’s not only about the ballot. Moreover, it takes bravery to wake up and do it all again and I want to remind you it doesn’t go unrecognized.
Throughout her work Joy James introduces the concept of the Beloved Community, which is a community of revolutionary individuals who are dedicated to combat all oppression while understanding that anti-blackness provides the foundation and structure for other oppressions. The Beloved Community is not one which eliminates all anti-black violence but rather, a community in which we can discuss the ways anti-blackness manifests itself in our everyday lives, and build a grammar of suffering with which we can come to understand that violence. The paradox, Joy James states, is that “political resistance could kill you but the Beloved Community could save you, not from physical death, but from meaningless death.” What we can use to fight the ability for white (and non-white) folk to make a spectacle out of us is the ability to come together as a community. We may not be able to take all anti-blackness out of debate, but we support each other when it manifests itself. I may not know you, but I want to. I may not talk to you, but I understand you, moreover, I want you to know I support you. If you’re ever feeling alone, or forgotten, you can always find support in the Community. If we don’t learn to stand together, and stand up for each other, we’ll always remain the silence—I can guarantee that the enemies of Black debate have got hundreds of kids who are already agree with them, if we have any chance at combating the spectacle it lies in the support of each other.
Act Out (Charles Athanasopoulos)
“I may not know you, but I want to. I may not talk to you, but I understand you, moreover, I want you to know I support you. If you’re ever feeling alone, or forgotten, you can always find support in the Community. If we don’t learn to stand together, and stand up for each other, we’ll always remain the silence—I can guarantee that the enemies of Black debate have got hundreds of kids who are already agree with them, if we have any chance at combating the spectacle it lies in the support of each other.”
I think Quaram’s words capture the essential point of this essay. This is our way of telling you, that instead of letting us be divided by this anti-black structure, we need to all come together and work through a way to formulate a collective strategy to break down this fantasy space. Our pessimism towards the way debate functions, and its ability to include us, should also create an optimism surrounding our ability to resist. Our point isn’t to overwhelm you with the reality of the world, and make you think you can’t do anything, but rather start looking for ways to create something new. I think one good starting point for this, is to create one combined GoFundMe for all UDL debaters, and can be used as an emergency fund, just in case some team wouldn’t be able to go to a tournament like the TOC.
Additionally, I think there needs to be a space where teams who are in this same or similar predicament can have dialogue and create strategies to challenge the norms of debate, almost like – to steal from Fred Moten here – our undercommons. There are versions of this exist, but none with a central purpose such as this. We cannot make our arguments, and then do nothing in the face of the very systems of oppression we talk about, as it reveals itself to us in debate. If we do, we might as well read a plan, and start pulling out our framework shells; we might as well regurgitate the same “old boys club” scholarship. If we want black scholarship to stop being denied its place in debate, we must make it so. If we want to be able to have a beloved community, we must make it so. To take from Dead Prez, this ain’t a makeover, it’s a takeover. Just like Elizabeth Jones used to say, they are telling us “Put your hands behind your back, and lay down on the ground”; it’s not just that we need to increase black participation, we need to make sure it has a lasting effect, that can sustain itself. We must learn from the pit-falls of the UDL, and begin to work with people who have been in our position, and work today to try and create some change.
The Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle is a clear example of what it means to unify in response to oppressive structures. People like Dayvon Love, Lawrence Grandpre, Adam Jackson, etc. came together using the knowledge and skills they learned from debate, to start helping black people in Baltimore. We have people like Rashad Evans, Ryan Wash, Dr. Shanara Reid-Brinkley, Toya Green, Amber Kelsie, Deven Cooper, Elijah Smith, ‘Professor’ Daryl Burch, Elizabeth Jones etc. who all went out into the world and reflected upon their experiences in the world, and in debate, to try and effect change. The fact that Rashad would come back someone like Geo or myself, when he could choose to live his life is baffling. Ryan Wash, our current coach, united the crowns, and still has a passion for teaching, and helping people like us. They for me represent the support system, the beloved community, and they are here to help us. However, we must realize, that we don’t have to wait until we leave debate like they did, and that’s why they are here. We must realize that Ryan and Elijah’s Wiz Aff, wasn’t just a winning argument, it meant something. I know, Quaram, Emma, and others feel like they receive no love from some people in the community who coach and teach us; I think this would change if we were all able to unite and have a more central form of funding and coaching. I know that people like Ryan and Rashad, or Elijah and Toya would help you, if we all had that, because it would create that space for a stronger communal relationship. They are really here trying to make a home for people in debate, and I think we can’t lose that main principle. In making a home in debate, we must build together, or we risk getting bulldozed.