Because most people are unaware of the long history of debate in the black community, when Harvard brought 400 high schoolers to the university to compete in its prestigious debate competition, the group of black teens from Atlanta was probably considered a long shot.
After all, most of the Atlanta students were inexperienced debaters. This was also the first year for the Harvard Debate Council Diversity Project—an Atlanta-based effort spearheaded by Brendon Fleming, an assistant debate coach at Harvard who started the project, after noticing the lack of African Americans in the summer program.
The 25 students from 16 Atlanta high schools were excited to complete a residency at one of the globe’s most distinguished academic institutions and to compete against 400 students from around the world including Asia, Europe and Russia. The residency and competition also included some of America’s most exclusive and expensive preparatory schools, whose students, I would safely assume, also suffered humiliating defeats at the hands of the Atlanta contingent in the dormitory Spades contests.
But after the program kicked off its heralded single-elimination debate tournament, people began to notice that the Atlanta students were dominating the competition. Ten of the 12 Atlanta teams advanced to the round of 16, six progressed to the quarter-finals and two continued to the semi-finals.
In the end, Jordan Thomas, a rising senior at Atlanta’s Grady High School won the entire competition.
“I was determined to represent my city and my story,” Thomas said in a press release. “I wanted people to see where I came from and how I could keep up with them.”
“To bring the championship back to Atlanta was the most satisfying feeling, and to walk onto the campus of one of the most elite universities in the world and meet personal and council goals, brings a unique and new satisfaction that I’ve never experienced,” he added.
While I partially attribute the success to many of the students living amongst some of the greatest debaters in world culture—black mothers—the transcripts of the debates show that none of the Atlanta students used “because I said so,” as a rebuttal during the competition.
Fleming and the Diversity Project team pared a group of about 150 applicants down to 25 and spent months preparing the students by teaching analysis, critical thinking, public speaking, leadership and culture. The Harvard Debate Council Diversity Project also raised over $100,000 to pay for travel, tuition and room and board for the students.
Although I would like for this to be true, I could not find any clips playing the Rocky theme song as Fleming took his team to black barbershops to simulate the intense debates they would encounter at Harvard. The students sacrificed their Saturdays in the intensive program that Fleming hopes will become a “pipeline that would recruit, train and send students of color to Harvard on a full scholarship.”
“Being a young, middle class, black, public school student from the South created a stigma that automatically set me back in comparison to the competition, most of who were international students or from preparatory schools in the Northeast,” explained Jordan, who, unlike his city’s football team, did not blow a 25 point lead in the second half of the championship.
Although the program succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest expectation, very few of the Atlanta students have reported winning an argument against their mother about why they didn’t take the chicken out of the freezer.