Little Details1/15/09

Words well spoken

Jan. 15, 2009

By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

History is nudging at my doorstep, leaving distinctive tracks in January snow. It’s tap tapping on my frozen windowpane, beckoning me to pause and pay attention.

We’re about to inaugurate a new president, our first African-American president. Barack Obama’s ascent to our nation’s highest office brings us one step closer to the dream of equal opportunity for all who call themselves “American.”

It seems especially fitting the inauguration follows Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Dr. King, a gifted speaker, galvanized thousands of Americans — black and white — to peacefully advance the cause of civil rights. In my view, a direct link exists between the movement to desegregate lunch counters and expanded opportunities for women, people with disabilities and others historically denied access to America’s mythical fruits of prosperity.

Last year, I took my daughter and her friend to see “The Great Debaters” on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The school holiday afforded time to impart a valuable lesson in American history, albeit with a sprinkling of Hollywood.

The film was based on the real life story of the Wiley College debate team. The small, traditionally black college based in Marshall, Texas broke barriers and drew national acclaim when its team competed against and defeated debaters from more affluent, resource-rich, white colleges. Wiley’s debaters, denied access to whites-only hotels and theaters, showed up and went on to defeat lofty opponents, including esteemed University of Michigan Law School.

Melvin B. Tolson coached the Wiley team. Tolson was a teacher, writer and poet of African-American and Cree heritage. As the son of a preacher, he knew the power of words well chosen. Tolson wrote a newspaper column called “Cabbage and Caviar” for The Washington Tribune and cut a controversial silhouette for socialist leanings manifested in labor activism.

Tolson taught his students the art of elocution and fostered within them the ability to think — intellectually — on their feet. By 1935, Wiley College, humble in library space and short on ivy, defeated the reigning national debate champions, the University of Southern California. For a race long deemed inferior, Wiley’s victory reinforced that intellectual capacity transcends skin color.

The film had one grisly scene: A black man suspended from a tree, his body mutilated by a mob of vigilante whites. This, I figured, accounted for the movie’s PG-13 rating. Sex and drug use on screen would have concerned me more. Seeing a depiction of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man here in America seemed a highly appropriate lesson to teach. The girls learned a new vocabulary word: lynch.

We passed on popcorn and opted for a trip to Friendly’s on Shelburne Road across from the theater to discuss the movie over ice cream. I asked the girls their impressions of the film. Lynching came up immediately. I tried to explain that a black man who was thought to step out of line in a culture that demeaned him — whether by committing a petty crime or for a real or perceived advance towards a white woman — might fall victim to vigilante violence. I tried to explain it was a terror tactic, designed to make an example of someone, to perpetuate fear (and compliance) among the masses.

I invited the girls’ observations of the techniques used by the debaters over sundae cups filled with mint-chocolate chip and vanilla ice cream doused with hot fudge. I sipped decaf while helping them tease out distinct strategies. Substantiate arguments with concrete examples. Enunciate and infuse words with passion. Tap the podium to emphasize a point. Make eye contact with the audience — and your opponent — sprinkling in humor, when appropriate, to forge a connection. Prepare well-formulated responses in rapid-fire succession. Debate is theater, with a heavy dose of research and enthusiasm. I wanted the girls to really understand the techniques — these skills transfer to numerous life situations.

Reflecting on the recent presidential debates, candidates who fared best appeared at the podium with confidence and responded with razor sharp precision. Debates have historically influenced the electorate, tipping the scales in favor of one candidate over the other. The Nixon-Kennedy debate comes to mind, but also the Bush-Clinton debates left incumbent President George H. W. Bush appearing out-worded by his younger competitor.

On Tuesday at noon, as President Barack Obama issues his inaugural address, I’ll be watching and listening. It’s his opportunity to start a conversation — a four-year conversation with his advocates and detractors — to engender support, collaboration and hope for a better tomorrow.

Henrietta Bell Wells, recruited to the Wiley College Debate Team as its first woman in 1930, died on Feb. 27, 2008, following a career as an educator and social worker. She had to quit the team after one year when juggling a full academic load with three part-time jobs and debate practice proved untenable. Wells, in one of her final interviews, offered the following advice to today’s youth: “Learn to speak well and express yourself effectively.” Point taken.

Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston. Reader comments are welcome at or