6th Reflection, Seeing Rosie
I recruited Rosie Washington, sight unseen. My debate coach at the time, Daryl Burch, one of the most successful and underrated high school debate coaches in the nation, called me excitedly about this amazing talent from Kansas City. He was Rosie’s lab instructor at the Capital University summer debate camp.
Rosie, from Lincoln Prep high school, is a multi-talented threat. She could beat you down in what most would consider a traditional style of policy debate, but she could also get creative through song, spoken word, or simply drop some nasty, creative story that you didn’t see coming, and suddenly you wouldn’t be able to understand why you were shaking, crying, or laughing. The one thing you could be sure of was that you saw Rosie. She demanded it.
Coming to Louisville was a big decision, as we weren’t the normal debate team. We challenged the college debate community’s idea of what good debate was. They spoke fast and made many arguments, while we spoke at more of a conversational pace, debating race arguments, and had become accustom to making outright challenges of the existing evaluation process.
So most of the contemporary debate community couldn’t see my students because of our choice to be different and only saw me when I assimilated to the language, behaviors, and culture of my past life, as a director of a debate program which engaged in the community norms and procedures the same as everyone else.
I often engaged the battleground as a commander-in-chief of a group of revolutionary soldiers fighting today’s invisible civil rights movement in education. Sometimes, in my attempts to fight the larger war, I didn’t see my soldiers, what they were going through and their thoughts about how to fight the battles. This created problems because rarely can an army win if they can’t trust, rely, and most importantly see each other.
All of this created internal challenges inside our squad room as we tried to figure out how to succeed against the daunting odds. As in most Civil Rights Movements, we tend to sanitize the reality of how devastatingly difficult it is to fight for a minority perspective. There are always many different ideas like the basement of the church where King, Abernathy, and Parks argued and fought over the next move. There are many variations in willingness to negotiate, or how much one is prepared to sacrifice for the cause. And our Movement was no different.
I believed that the broader debate community would change when we made the right argument. I thought that their training in logic would override the privilege and power that a majority has over a minority.
However, Rosie believed differently.
After watching our students get dehumanized yet again this fall semester from the hostile reactions by the debate community to a strategy that I and my debate coach created, I understood what I could have learned from Rosie long ago.
Rosie knew, and asked me long ago, when would I stop believing in that community. She ask me how many times would she have to be devastatingly told that while her presentation was excellent, the judge saw no relevance to the evaluation of the debate? She asked me to consider that no matter how true our position was, the community would not accede it’s power and privilege to maintain itself the way it was. In the end, I should have listened, she was right and my unwillingness to give up on the debate community put my soldiers at risk and sacrificed their humanity for no good reason. I write this in their support, recognizing the pain and suffering it will create in a debate community that selectively chooses to say they love our purpose, and consistently say they love us as people, just not our method.
Last fall I gave up when I decided that there was nothing more I could ethically ask my students to do and that I failed to see a good faith effort by the larger debate community to fix the problem. So I read more about higher education law and I figured out a new approach that supported her understanding of the problem, instead of again asking her to wait and reform, one day they will change. Rosie was no longer invisible to me and I as a professor, teacher, and debate coach was substantially better for it.
Rosie has oft reminded me that “power never concedes anything without demand” so in January, she and her partner Jason Walker (from the Washington DC UDL) chose not to debate at the Naval Academy Debate Tournament. They used their time during the debate to engage in social protest activism, in the spirit of the Freedom Riders, the students who started the Apartheid Movement, and most obviously, the Great Debaters.
Challenging whether the contemporary policy debate evaluation process could make the beauty of their “blackness” visible, and evaluate the weight of their passion, their creativity, and their content which can’t be written into the note-taking system used called “flowing.”
Rosie and Jason demanded that those procedures be brought in line with the constitutional mission of the organizations that govern debate. They demanded that their speeches be evaluated through an oral communication process and not the written method used as the norm in today’s policy debate competition. They demanded this protection per their constitutional rights in the mission statment of the Cross Examination Debate Association which states:
“actively encourage participation in all forms of academic debate as a means to create personal leadership, transformation and growth; embrace a diversity of ideas and participants in order to foster an appreciation of the complexity and richness of human existence; promote the value of argumentative discourse as a means of producing reasoned, measured, cooperative solutions to contemporary problems of social and political significance.”
I see Rosie today more than I ever have. And if our educators calling for reforms are really, really serious, they must be willing to question all of their conventions, and test whether they need a new pair of glasses. That’s true of debate, but also of our entire educational system. We can’t teach effectively if we can’t see and learn from those we teach. Thanks Rosie, for not giving up on me, I needed the lessons you had to offer.
By Ede Warner, Jr.
Director of the Malcolm X Debate Society/Associate Professor of Pan African Studies, both at the University of Louisville