I had never heard of anyone besides me who wrote about competitive debating. And so I had to go to the multi-plex at our mall when I heard there was a new movie on this very subject called The Great Debaters.
These debaters in this movie are debaters in college, while my debating had been in the prep school years, but it was the same thing and the movie is mostly accurate about this little known field of endeavor. That time when you are standing alone before a large audience and everything depends on how persuasive you alone can be with oratory and logic.
I was the anchor for the debate team of a very small, fairly Anglophile prep school in the scraggly New Hampshire countryside in the 1950s. The debaters of the movie are in a small black college, Wiley College, in the roughest most racist part of West Texas in the 1930s. They are supposed to be the underdogs, but we know they will be the champions – which was much the way it was in New Hampshire. They come out of a dangerous place where there are lynchings and where local police and Texas rangers combine forces to beat up people who get in the way of how things are supposed to be. At our little school, and the town it adjoined, everyone was white. Yet there was danger in those gentle Georgian buildings.
I thought I would have broken bones from being beaten for being non –athletic and, as it seemed at first, slow. One day they held me down and Ted Clifford went to get the Japanese sword his father had brought home as a war souvenir from the Pacific. They held me down and ran the sword blade across my throat. They did not kill me but I had no way of knowing they wouldn’t.
I became passionately interested in the subjects we were debating – coming down on the side of peace and civil disobedience and pacifism – also socialism in this time of the Red Scare. Just like in the movie. It all seemed immediate to me, though I was in New Hampshire, which was merely reactionary, not facing violent racism in West Texas. Still, it did seem just as dangerous. And somehow I became a vehement opponent of racism – there was enough the air taunting a blind boy, calling out “Kike” to a Jewish boy – so that I knew how boys of color might fare if there had been boys of color in the school. I got into deep trouble for writing in our school paper in favor of Negroes coming to Holderness. All copies were confiscated, and the headmaster at his own expense had a new edition printed that substituted for my editorial an appeal to the alumni for donations. It turned out he had been planning all along to send this issue to the alumni, and I had ruined the plan.
Small stuff – but it seemed life and death at the time.
The Texas debate team – Wiley College – actually got to debate Harvard and won. It was a grand scale version of my beating the aristocratic debaters down in Boston at Milton Academy.
The movie was inaccurate in that it did not emphasize that all competitive debaters have to be willing to shift sides, though it did show that in the Harvard debate the Wiley team did not know until shortly before the debate which side they were supposed to take. And the movie also showed how a young debater’s intense connection with issues could connnect to passionate beliefs.
I keep going back to that glorious time in New Hampshire that I write about often from different perspectives. It is an old story to me, but sitting in the movie it was hard not to cry when social justice came up. These debaters favored civil disobedience, just like me. And it was hard not to cry when the small school came out on top, and hardest not to cry when certain memories that had been tucked away out of sight all these years suddenly surfaced. I was not the only potential outcast saved by the unlikely world of debating. My first big triumph was against the hottest school in New England, and the anchor of that team, from Portland, Maine, was an actual Negro girl. And for two years our toughest competition came from the Laconia team, which was anchored by an albino. Laconia remained strong after her graduation.
And when we beat them in the last debate – the finals of the championship – I could see that my opposite number in Laconia, with whom I had been competing for three years, knew he would now never beat me, which was rough, for I believed that his self image was as wrapped up with debating as was mine.
And one of the top debaters in northern New England was a hunched-over guy from such poverty that he had green mold on his front teeth. He talked like a worldly academic when it was his turn to speak. He was dressed in a three piece suit, each piece different shades of gray to which they had faded when worn separately by his elders over many years.