Black History made in High School Debate

By Lawrence Grandpre | Call To Action

Mar 04

While Black History Month tends to focus on the past, a careful eye can see Black History being made in the present.

Every year on the second weekend in February, two of the most difficult national high school debate tournaments are held at two of the world’s most prestigious universities; The University of California at Berkley and Harvard University.

Together they attract over 1,000 competitors in policy debate. Out of that, after three grueling days of debate all but 4, 2-person debate teams had been eliminated.

Three of those four teams consisted entire of Black debaters.

For 6 of the 8 debaters in the finals of two of America’s most prestigious debate tournaments to consist of Black inner city public school students is an incredible achievement, given the long history of this level of competitive successes being reserved for affluent private schools.

Charles Athanasopoulos & Geo Liriano

In Boston, the team of Charles Athanasopoulos (recently featured as an author on the LBS website) and his debate partner, Geo Liriano, fought their way to finals of the Harvard tournament after attending the prestigious Harvard Round-Robin, where 13 of the most successful teams from around the country arrived to Cambridge early for a special competition to see who is the best of the best.

Representing New York’s Bronx Law High School, the two finished 2nd out of 110 teams, which in addition to several other outstanding finishes this year, marks them as one of the favorites to win the national “Tournament of Champions” held every April at the University of Kentucky.

“Though we couldn’t capture the three ballots necessary to win the Harvard Debate Tournament”, the senior declared, “this weekend showed to us that we are on the verge of a breakthrough.”

Looking back at the weekend, Charles’ debate partner Geo explained his conception of the importance of competitive successes for debaters using arguments centering on social justice in a predominately white activity.

“We when debating about race, class and gender have always been aware of who is adjudicating the round, the contestants and the people watching.” Lirano said.

Ayaan Natala (far right) and Tiana Bellamy (second left) from Minnesota’s St. Paul Central High School posing with Rayvon Dean and Brooke Lindsey (far left) from Detroit’s University Prep High School.

“The only way people of color can prove to them that we mean business is showing up and taking what they believed was supposed to be automatically granted to them.”

In California, Ayaan Natala and Tiana Bellamy from Minnesota’s St. Paul Central High School (attendees of the LBS’ Eddie Conway Liberation Institute) stormed the competition, winning 6 out of 7 preliminary debates. They then advanced through the elimination bracket to finals with Rayvon Dean and Brooke Lindsey from Detroit’s University Prep High School.

Two all Black teams had “closed out” the finals of the UC-Berkley tournament, the first time this has happened in the tournament’s 40 year history, and along the way the two teams eliminated many of the top debate schools in the country.

Since the final round was not held due to travel scheduling issues, the two were declared “co-champions”.

“I knew we we’re really good debaters because we believed in our arguments and were persuasive.” said Lindsey.

“I didn’t know, however, that we would win the entire tournament …”

Ironically, the two teams have throughout this year used almost identical arguments in debates, claiming that America’s persecution of domestic political radicals, such as Assata Shakur, mirrors exclusionary practices against debaters of color in the debate community, and thus an examination of these power relations is a prior question to having productive conversations on policy changes towards Latin America, the national high school topic for the year.

The radical content of their arguments and their unique style, incorporating hip hop, poetry and even dancing as part of their arguments, reflects, according to University Prep debater Rayvon Dean, the distinct reality debaters of colors face.

“As a student activist, I find it hard to debate under traditional norms. My partner and I choose to critique government policy rather than advocate for economic engagement with Latin America. We choose to highlight anti-blackness as the forefront of our discussions because that is what affects us most.”

While taking home the championship was a historic accomplishment, St. Paul’s Ayaan Natala says the stakes are higher than mere competitive success.

“My success at Berkeley in itself is a significant accomplishment, but to me the most important success to me personally is assisting the next generation of debaters to believe in themselves…Somewhere in the nation if I am helping another young black womyn self-affirm herself in the way my mentors have nurtured me to grow into the person I am today- I know I did my job.”

Both University Prep and St. Paul Central will join Bronx Law at Kentucky’s Tournament of Champions in April. Additionally, teams New York’s ACORN Community High, Brooklyn Tech High Schools, who reached the “Elite 8” at Harvard, and Cedar Ridge High School in Texas, who were top 8 at Berkley, have also qualified teams with Black debaters to nationals, ensuring this year’s tournament will have one of its highest every percentage of Black participants.

St. Paul’s Bellamy puts both their victory, and the community’s traditionalist backlash (with some seeing their style as divisive), into a broader perspective.

“I am not here to save the world, I am not here to personally end all structures of anti-blackness within debate, I am not here to ‘demonize white people’, and I am NOT an exception. WE are the rule in an entire invisible community of young, black, and gifted brothers and sisters.”

Regardless of results of April’s nationals, one can be sure these young scholars will not be “invisible” for long.

NOTE: The students mentioned in the article (along with several other urban debaters) are currently raising funds to attend the prestigious Tournament of Champions (TOC) this April. Please click here to see how you can contribute!

You can also support the LBS Eddie Conway Liberation Institute. 

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About the Author

Lawrence Grandpre is the Director of Research for Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle. His focuses include criminal justice, police accountability, and community-based economic/educational development. He is the co-author of "The Black Book" and his work has been featured in The Guardian and The Baltimore Sun.