07 January 2008

The Great Debaters

I'm driving myself crazy from not being able (or willing?) to write a brief, concise post. I'm always, it seems, lapsing into logorrhea, and even if some of you find that interesting, I suspect it's pretty off-putting to the average person who stumbles across this site.

I'm going to try once more to deliver a simple message unencumbered by the usual verbiage, but first I have to mention (see, I'm already doing it again!) just how nice it's been to be in New York City these past two days. No, it's not exactly spring just yet (last night I remarked to a friend, "Well, winter's almost over anyway," to which he, aghast, replied, "Over? It's just getting started!"), but after a couple icy days, temperatures have at least made it up to what I'd expect in a London winter, which has made for very nice walking-around weather.

I've clocked up about 10 or 15 miles this weekend wandering the streets of Manhattan with an occasional stop for coffee or newspaper and book-reading (I used to think that one of the advantages of living in New York would be having the Times for my local paper, but yesterday was only the second time I've bought it since I've officially lived here; apparently digital downloading is killing the printing industry as well). By this afternoon my sore foot (yes, that one again) had had enough, and rather than flop down in another Starbucks, I decided to see a movie.

The only thing showing at the time was something called The Great Debaters, about which I knew very little except that it involved Denzel Washington and was about a debating team from a small African-American college in Texas.

I wasn't even aware when it was set (1935, as it turns out) or that it was based on a true story (one of its principals was a 14 year-old James Farmer, Jr., who went on to co-found the Congress Of Racial Equality (CORE) in the 1940s. As it turns out, The Great Debaters is an outstanding movie, and i don't think I was alone in that view: as the last scene faded to black, a spontaneous round of applause rose up from what there was of a crowd, not something you encounter too often in seen-it-all New York City.

The film could have played to cheap sentiment, but didn't, and could also have pandered to the woe-is-me victimology that so often crops up in modern treatments of racial issues. Maybe I'm a sucker for paeans to the power of education, but I was far from the only one with tears in his eyes with the young students from the segregated backwoods of Texas stepped as equals onto the debating stage at Harvard University. The wide-eyed wonder they displayed at what must have been as alien and exotic a journey for them as traveling to Mars would be for us today just melted my heart; although my own personal journey was not a fraction as arduous or fraught as theirs, I felt a bit of that same awestruck wonder when I got the letter telling me I'd been admitted to study at Berkeley.

Another thing I really liked about the film - and which saddened me as well - was its portrayal of courage and devotion in the face of unspeakable hardship and repression. Despite living a precarious existence which could be upended or simply ended by racist cops and unrestrained lynch mobs, African-Americans went about pursuing the best education they could get, preparing themselves for the day they could take their rightful place in society.

Even if it was an idyllic portrait, the neatly-dressed, well-spoken and behaved students of cash-strapped little Wiley College can't help but cause one to question why today, with nearly every barrier to education and equality having been stripped away, so many young African-Americans spurn the opportunities their forbears won for them in favor of a surly, thuggish contempt for all things academic. To me it provides a damning indictment of affirmative action: the young scholars of Wiley College knew that they had to be not just as good as, but twice as good as their white counterparts if they hoped to get anywhere in life; today, almost any desultory effort is accepted on the grounds that, "They're oppressed, you know."

A graphic illustration was provided by one of the trailers that preceded The Great Debaters, for something called How She Move (produced by MTV Films; one can almost hear the nice white folks at MTV saying, "Better give it an illiterate-sounding title if we want the black kids to come see it"). (That being said, the music and dancing made it look pretty exciting, and I may well go see it myself.)

70 years ago, even 30 or 40 years ago, there would have been outrage on the part of African-American educators at white movie executives portraying young black people as incapable of using standard English; they probably would still more shocked to see the film's ludicrous premise: a young black woman has to enter a dirty-dancing contest to get money for - wait for it - medical school. And when the girl's long-suffering, proper-talking mama asks, "Why are you associating with those people?" the young lady responds with, "It's what I got to do to get out of here," "here" meaning the ghetto, the substandard public school, etc.

As the Virginia Slim people used to say when making a mockery of the women's movement, "You've come a long way, baby." From dirt-poor Texas sharecroppers' children studying their way out of oppression unimaginable to anyone living in America today to the present day's sullen, defeatist mindset that excuses, almost enshrines failure as the legacy of injustice from decades or even centuries past and scorns education itself as "selling out" or "acting white." I can only hope this movie gains the mass audience it so richly deserves; it could go a long way toward dispelling that crippling delusion.

1 comment:

DK said...

Larry, a sizable portion of the country holds a surly, thuggish contempt for all things academic. Anti-intellectualism is not limited by racial or even class boundaries, as proven by Bill O'Reilly's pointless vendetta against college professors.

As for your second point, "the day they could take their rightful place in society" took too long to arrive for many blacks, and it's not hard for me to understand why some portions of the black community want nothing to do with a mostly white power structure that has, historically, done everything it could to fuck them over.

Plus, recent sociological studies of young blacks and latinos suggests that "acting white" isn't an anti-intellectual slur anymore, if indeed it ever was. It's used to define people in those communities who stray from certain cultural norms (styles of dress, music, etc.), but not people who are smart or well-educated. If I can find the name of the book I read about this, I'll post it here in a separate comment.