is a psychologist based in Chicago
Movie trailers are great for sparking the imagination. Believe it or not, as I watched the trailer to
The Great Debaters,
a movie based on a true story of how a debate team from a small black college defeated a top-ranked white debate team, I found myself imagining the merger of debate and hip-hop. Yes, hip-hop.
The movie, released on Christmas, stars Denzel Washington as Melvin Tolson, a dynamic debate-team coach at Wiley College who takes his team to unchartered territory - a square-off with Harvard's debate team - and wins.
Some have hope that the movie will help revive Wiley College. I do, too, but I'm less interested in it having this kind of impact than how it might inspire black youth enamored by hip-hop culture to consider academic endeavors such as debate a worthy pursuit.
And why not? The spirit of debate is very much in accord with the braggadocios and confrontational spirit of hip-hop culture.
For instance, take how James Farmer Jr., a civil rights leader who was a member of the Wiley debate team, talked about his debate with Malcolm X during an interview: "I debated Malcolm X four times and beat him. I'd think, 'Come off it, Malcolm, you can't win. You didn't come up under Tolson.' "
Tell me that's not a display of the same kind of "This is why I'm hot" attitude you hear in hip-hop music today. Farmer's expression could easily be substituted with the language of hip-hop, "Come on son/dog/dude, you know you can't hang - I'm reppin' Tolson!"
At their extremes, are the sentiments expressed in debate and rap all that different? Similarities run all through the trailer as Denzel is for sure thuggin' it out. In his words as Tolson, "Debate is combat, but your weapons are words." And his more bellicose line, "Debate is blood sport! You must destroy your opponent - not only verbally but physically."
That's some gangsta debating if I've ever heard it. If you can look past the content of the two, hip-hop music and debate begin to seem quite similar.
Take the presidential primary debates as the best example of this parallel. The key elements: giving yourself major props, sending shout-outs to your people, and delivering smackdowns to your opponents. Even those who support Barack Obama's "let's all be friends" platform were calling for him to rough up Hillary Clinton. And don't be fooled - despite his complexion and stature, Dennis Kucinich is a bona fide O.G. (original gangsta).
How great would it be if the spirit of hip-hop merged with the academic rigor of formal debate? Indulge me, will you, while I dream?
I imagine black boys and girls on America's street corners debating the merits of Bill Cosby's and Michael Eric Dyson's views on the condition of blacks as much as they discuss who is tops in rap lyricism. I imagine black youth reppin' their worldview and philosophy as much as they do their 'hoods. I picture urban kids being able to recite passages from King's "I Have a Dream" speech just as easily as they do The Game's "Dreams."
OK, we're far off from that fantasy and this is just a movie, but a brother can dream, can't he? In reality, I mostly hope the movie at least lays a seed in youth or at best pushes just one kid past the tipping point toward academic excellence.
The overinvestment in and glamorization of hip-hop for some black youth certainly acts as one of the many impediments to this kind of excellence. However, rather than throwing hip-hop out the window, it makes more sense to capitalize and build on the value it does possess.
The real value in hip-hop is in the entrepreneurial, speak-your-mind and hold-your-own spirit, not its content. Take this main ingredient and mix it with the discipline, prestige and intellectualism of debate and you might just have a recipe for success. A very spicy dish it would be.