A Letter to Coaches: On Black History

David Asafu-Adjaye | Jul 28, 2021
6 min read

The Opinions Expressed In This Blog Post Are Solely Those of the Author And Not Necessarily Those Of DebateDrills

I am a huge fan of debate. I appreciate the details that go into constructing a full position from detailed critiques to counterplans that begin in the AC as just a text without a solvency advocate. There is something to be learned from any and every position. That being said, I believe the inverse is true that there is therefore something to be learned from engaging every position. This is all to say that debate has been the most educational activity of my life and I hope that I’m not the only one. It’s worth noting, however, that in many respects, students can also be done a disservice in terms of the extent we teach students certain things. Coaches make decisions about what to teach students based on perceived values and limited constraints. It’s near impossible to correct for the second. Coaches and students only have a limited amount of time together and the goal is to accomplish as much as possible in that time, so tradeoffs are considered and decisions are made about what subjects are worth spending time on and what subjects are not. Nonetheless, I find one subject too important to be excluded from the curriculum currently is Black History! I want to make the case that black history should be an integral part of how we teach debate.

Regarding Utility
Let’s begin with a basic premise. People like to win debates and they invest resources into doing so. The truth of this as a universal statement does not matter for this example. If competitive incentives matter in directing what decisions students make about how and what to research, why are we not instrumentalizing this phenomenon to teach them something that the education system has deemed unnecessary? While you would not like to believe that it does, it looks terrible when your students can produce a full dossier with 10 distinct theoretical justifications to say that consequences matter but can’t name a single Black Panther Party member. It makes debate as an institution look out of touch when top debaters are masters at telling people to not wear nice shoes but can’t speak about the Freedom Rides. Maybe we cut out a day of Kantian logic in order to learn about the Civil Rights Movement. I think it would be of extreme value to students especially given that the social context demands this form of knowledge now more than ever.

Improving our Coaching
In addition, I think it could be a great opportunity for adults too. Let’s be honest with ourselves. Part of the reason why we impart the wisdom that we do to our students is that that knowledge is constructed based on our niche. It is extremely comfortable to teach what we know instead of exploring a massive subject base to learn and then subsequently teach. However, the categories of student and teacher are not static. Coaches have students too often learning so much from the world around them, as well as the other students in debates, which is why so many judges are willing to bump up speaker points for innovative strategies that enhance the way that we think. If we have the capacity to realize and reward students for teaching us things, we implicitly concede in the process that we have a lot to learn, which should be the impetus for us to think about integrating Black History into our curriculums as opposed to a burden on our time.

Improving our Debating
Lastly, it would definitely enhance debates where black history is a focal point. I am willing to bet that this is the point everyone will be most excited to think about. The “how does it make debate better” point. Most Afropessimism debates vs a plan are now predictable to the tee. A “LARP” debater (whatever this means) sees on the pairing that they are debating someone who might read the K. They justifiably shorten their advantage or read a soft left advantage and a ton of state good cards in an underview. The negative reads the K with an overarching thesis about the uselessness of progress narratives. The 1AR responds with a ton of arguments about the future being unpredictable and incomplete, a fatalism argument, a cornucopia of historical examples that prove progress is possible and a permutation. The 2NR extends their ontological thesis and attempts to turn the direction of the fatalism argument into a cruel optimism argument. The 2AR collapses to ontology untrue and picks a direction centered around the most under-covered piece of Gordon evidence. The predictability of this strategy isn’t bad. If the front end of the coin is that it is formulaic and predictable, the back end is that it’s practiced and refined. However, this is one of the few times when practice doesn’t make perfect because what students are practicing is shallow. If I have to hear another child tell me that a law that made it legal for me to marry a white woman is proof that anti-blackness is not structural, I’m going to lose it. Black history is so expansive that it’s absurd that the same examples are being recycled in these blocks. I’m genuinely starting to think that the reason why is either because nobody has other examples in the bag, or they are not incentivized to use them because any old example works when your opponent won’t challenge them. Regardless of which one is true, they both show that our understanding of the role of Black History in debates where said history is at the heart of the debate is terrible.

Black History matters. It’s important to realize that it is always around us and always influencing the present as well as the concept of a future (if such a thing truly exists). As a result it is important that students realize that they are always involved in the process of Black History and as such should be learning it actively. It is not a subject for February, and students should know more than the 13th Amendment, the peanut guy, the bus lady and Martin Luther King Jr. It means too much to debate in particular. I would be remiss to exclude the numerous ways in which black people have and continue to construct history in debate. All of these should and will become factors in a debate somewhere, someday, and it is better to be safe than sorry. Our understanding of Black history deserves to be more than just limited and insular. I want coaches to take this as a directive, especially if you have black students. You owe it to yourself and them to make their realities and history a focal point of the knowledge you impart. Black History requires no justification. It is only a question of the scale by which we teach it and the scale right now is simply insufficient. We owe it to everybody to make this a prevalent subject. No child should know about Rawlsian ethics if they cannot also talk about the Dred Scott decision. Let’s add some (not-so) new things to the priority list.

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