‘I’m Going to Say It From the Heart.’ America’s Reckoning on Race Has Come to High School Speech and Debate

Bintou Baysmore outside her school in Brooklyn, New York on December 10, 2020. Credit - Makeda Sandford for TIME
On the night of June 7th, the second Sunday after the assassination of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Bintou Baysmore stood among hundreds of protesters in the square outside the Barclays Center arena in Brooklyn, NY. The 17-year-old wasn't planning to speak at the rally. But when one of the organizers offered the microphone, she took it.
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In the middle of a weekday, about a year earlier, she told the crowd she was walking with a friend in Crown Heights, a largely black neighborhood in Brooklyn, when a police car pulled up to the curb and a white policewoman told the girl that they would go out to lunch, which their school allowed, but the officer insisted. Police took the girls back to school, but Baysmore was stunned by the incident. Speaking to TIME, Baysmore recalls: "I kept thinking: what if this is it for me?"
It was a spontaneous speech, but Baysmore was far from a beginner. She is president of the speech and debate team for Achievement First Brooklyn High School, specializing in an event called the Original Oratory where students write and deliver their own speeches. Baysmore's story was familiar to the crowd at the Barclays Center, his messenger a reflection of themselves, but - until recently at least - their address was not the kind of address often heard in competition.
Now, however, Baysmore and her teammates are pioneering a change within the activity. It is a change in the faces that appear on the stage, as well as in the view of what topics should be discussed and under what conditions. The once predictable high school oratorio is gradually reflecting a wider shift in the way Americans talk about race, gender, and power distribution in the United States - even though not everyone wants to hear what these young speakers have to say.
For the team's first tournament of the school year, held practically in January by Emory University (high school debates tournaments are usually hosted by colleges), Baysmore is preparing to try out their daring speech yet. The teenager plans to talk about how black women are often excluded from the conversation in terms of mental health. “I am an African American woman. Look at me, ”she says in one version of the speech she is rehearsing. "When you see me up here ... what do you think? Strong. Independently. Gold digger. Poor. Insane?"
Read more: America's long overdue awakening to systemic racism
This is not typical stuff for oratorio meetings, where even speeches on the most important subjects are diligently mild. "A lot of the speeches I hear are good, but they don't seem real," says Baysmore. "If I want to say something, I'll say it from the bottom of my heart. If I'm the only black woman in this room, what I say matters."
This could be the overall idea for the Achievement First speaking team. Crown Heights Charter High School is 90% black and nearly 80% of its students are eligible for free or discounted lunches, making its mostly female teammates often outliers in their language categories. Her first-person reports have an immediacy that is unusual in speeches at national meetings, where competitors coined in summer debate camps tend to approach their subjects with analytical distance.
"A few years ago there were talks among nationals about how not to hesitate or about cats," says K.M. DiColandrea, who debated at Stuyvesant High School in New York and coached the Achievement First Brooklyn team from 2011 to 2019. “That is starting to change. You have children in the debate telling cases of racism. You have interpretive language children reading poetry about Black Lives Matter. You got children in the oratory to write about their undocumented parents. Our kids aren't afraid to tell their truth about what's going on. "
One way or another, the country's reckoning with systemic racism would have reached the world of speech and debate. In June, the board of the National Speech & Debate Association (NSDA), which has organized national competitions since 1931, issued a statement regarding the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. The board called on its community to "model and promote the importance of listening to perspectives marginalized by racism".
Raani Olanlege, Esmeralda Reyes and Sasha Bogan at the national championship tournament in Omaha, Neb., In May 2019.K.M. DiColandrea
This is what Achievement First students have been pushing for for years. And they have had some success. The speaking team that DiColandrea added to the program in 2014 had their breakthrough just four years later, in 2018, when then-team member Aliyah Mayers won first place at the Columbia University tournament as part of the declamation event for which students interpret published speeches documented her delivery of Alicia Garza's "Why Black Lives Matter". The next year, Raani Olanlege won at the Original Oratory at Harvard with a speech on racism in education. And in spring 2019, Sasha Bogan was a semi-finalist at the NSDA Nationals with an original speech about living with cerebral palsy.
"A lot of the speeches I hear are good, but they don't seem real."
It wasn't easy for either of them. Black Lives Matter signs are a staple on suburban turf today, but in 2018, Mayers was warned by teammates not to utter words during competitions. "Why Black Lives Matter," a reprimand of white supremacy and police enforcement, seemed to say everything she felt at the time - but sometimes, in the middle of the speech, she wished she'd taken her teammates with her. Advice. “I saw my eyes roll, people turned away and I just wanted to stop and sit down,” she recalls. “I thought I might have given the speech wrong. Maybe it was my fault. "
Oil plant explains it differently. "For many rounds, I'm the only black woman there, the only colored person there, period," she says.
There's no official count of students and color coaches in the speech and debate world, but "We know it doesn't feel enough," said J. Scott Wunn, executive director of NSDA.
Even before its declaration on racism, the NSDA had made efforts to promote diversity. For the past six years, she has held a “coach caucus” at the national competition to encourage discussions about race and implicit bias. In recent years, steps have also been taken to increase the diversity of judges in national competition, Wunn says, and the NSDA is working with organizations such as the National Association of Urban Debate Leagues to promote debate education in urban public schools and introduce new formats that are more accessible to unusual students and coaches.
But when it comes to the words spoken in the competition, much of what has changed comes from young people themselves. Wunn said he had a speech at the 2015 Nationals in Dallas, where Kenon Brinkley of Andover High School in Kansas was speaking on racism and victim shame took first place in the original Oratory, noticed for the first time a shift towards "powerful" speeches. Then, in February 2018, student protests following the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida showed the NSDA how the political landscape had changed. Children who were not old enough to vote addressed the public and politics directly through the media. "The lessons we've learned about the power of your voice over the past few years, regardless of your age, just hit us on the head," says Wunn. "Of course, it is a key requirement of the organization to encourage this."
Getting it right is an existential matter for the NSDA. Ultimately, language and debate are designed to teach young people how to approach issues of public concern with reason and courtesy. But what good is the public debate if it excludes a large part of the public?
The Finals at the Original Oratory is a major event for nationals. It's the final just before the awards ceremony. Everyone who competes in the finals, around 2,000 people in a typical year, hears valiant performances at regional gatherings for months.
In recent years, the winners of the Original Oratory Color have been students from prep schools or suburban high schools. In a way, the speeches are as different from each other as their speakers. You start with a Bollywood style song and dance; Another illustrates a point related to rapper Cardi B. However, they have tended to base their arguments on similar issues, focusing on how over-simplification affects American political discourse, particularly when it comes to race and identity - false narratives, false equivalences reductive thinking.
A key component of these speeches is firsthand testimony to the pain of being the target of racism. In 2017, J.J. Kapur, who is a Sikh, remembered mistaking the picture of an Osama bin Laden with a turban lying over the falling twin towers for his father. The next year, Halima Badri evoked the pain she felt when a classmate commenting on her hijab said, "It really brings out your inner terrorist." In 2019, Haris described Hosseini, who is a Muslim, as "one of the good guys" and asked himself, "Were the 50 Muslims slaughtered in a New Zealand mosque three months ago, good or bad?"
Read more: President Trump announces decades of battles over US history classrooms and announces a push for “patriotic education”.
These speeches are technically brilliant and counter the bad faith of the current political debate with logic and humanity. They also have something in common: they each offer solutions - not simple, but solutions that trust the audience to accept their challenges “together”, as Kapur says at the end. It's easy to see why these speeches win.
Bintou Baysmore in St. Marks Park in Brooklyn, NY on December 10, 2020 by Makeda Sandford for TIME
The Achievement First speeches are different. Attend Sasha Bogan's semifinal speech to Nationals. She sets out to unsettle her audience by asking about the decision not to give a subway seat to a disabled person. Nigerian and Sudanese Olanlege followed a similar strategy in her winning speech at Harvard, challenging her audience directly to the uninformed questions she receives about Africa. These oratorios draw clear boundaries between speaker and audience, and their solutions do not always require easy agreement. When Mayers focuses on police violence against blacks and Olanlege calls on white teachers to avoid discussions about race, each one of them says to their audience, who are mostly white, "You are the problem."
The confrontational style has its risks. For some judges, confrontation with reasoned reasoning designed to reward the event is ruled out.
In 2017, Esther Reyes, then a senior at Achievement First, made it to the semifinals of the Emory University tournament with a speech called "The Other Race," which described the effects of implicit bias. Reyes said in her speech that racist assumptions about Mexicans led to her father's deportation.
Ian Turnipseed, a public speaking coach in Gulf Breeze, Florida, was the judge for that round. He says statements like Reyes' can turn out to be over-generalizations, or worse, slogan ringing - provided the audience agrees with the speaker and doesn't provide convincing evidence. "She had no onus to present," says Turnipseed. "I think that's sloppy."
Turnipseed adds that not only is it sloppy, but it can also be potentially offensive. You never know the politics of the people in the room. Many would agree that what happened to Reyes' father is not a good thing, Turnipseed says, but to take the stance that “anyone who disagrees with me is racist, wrong, stupid, bigoted "He says," is not sticking to the standard of the subject you are creating. "
Reyes, who is now a student at Yale, says she isn't surprised by these comments. “The original oratorio is supposed to deal with a subject that is very close to the heart of the speaker, and I remember being one of the few who gave a very personal one. I knew there would be judges who wouldn't like what I had to say. "
It's kind of an unspoken rule in oratorio that you have to share your heaviest memory
The speech Reyes defeated to advance to the finals was entitled "Competitive Victimhood". The speaker, Emma Warnecke, was a senior at Saint Mary's Hall, a private college prep school in San Antonio, Texas. Taking a self-reflective turn, she argued that the high school oratorio had become a race against individual competitors with increasingly terrifying personal stories.
"It's a kind of unspoken rule in the oratorio that you have to share your heaviest memory, the most difficult time you've been through, be it racism or sexual assault or some other kind of hardship," Warnecke told me in spring 2019.
Warnecke says she has rethought part of her position since then. "It's incredibly frustrating to go into the finals of a tournament and see five white judges stare at you as you pour out your hearts on issues that affect your particular community," she says. That speech was a long time ago, she adds. "As a 17-year-old I could never have imagined what my fellow students were going through."
Even so, Warnecke says she stands by the idea that talking has become too dependent on personal trauma and could harm potential teenagers. The view is not uncommon in public speaking and debating circles where there is concern that coaches might pressure students to reveal weaknesses in order to impress judges.
"She was right," says Turnipseed, recalling Warnecke's speech. "We use other people's pain to win."
However, for the students at Achievement First, winning isn't the main reason to speak up. DiColandrea says that while these stories are difficult to tell, the cost of keeping silent is even greater.
"The only thing I've learned is that if I don't have space to talk about traumatic things, it only gets worse," says the coach. With the Twin Towers only a few blocks from his high school, no one seemed interested in talking about it. It was speech and debate that gave it an outcome. "Our students have stories to tell," he says. "It's not about them finding their voice. This is about amplifying their voice."
Bogan was just tired of being ignored. "People don't take me seriously or don't want to talk to me," she said last year of her experience with cerebral palsy. The language allowed her to overcome this frustration. "It's like this fire inside of me that I've held back for so long. I can finally say it and you have no choice but to listen."
As for Baysmore, she says her public protest would never have happened without speech and debate. "I used to be afraid to speak up," she says. “Now it enables me. I'm not standing there thinking, "What if they start judging me because I'm black?" I think: "You are lucky enough to be in the room with me."
She is currently concentrating on preparing herself and her team for the tournament in Emory. At a recent Zoom practice session, she provided comments on the wording of her speeches, intonations, and gestures. She knows what it means for her teammates to speak her own words and what it feels like to finally be heard.
"It takes the pressure off, it takes the pain away a little," she says. "Everything you hid inside is now outside and you have to face it. And if you face it, you can overcome it."

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