Identifying With Oprah’s Great Debater

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[On Debating]

BSN: Why do you think this movie has gotten so much attention?
Candace: Besides Oprah? (she laughs) The story is heroic and it gives moviegoers a chance to see words come to life, empower and move others. What Melvin B. Tolson and the debate team did is what the country is built upon. The debaters are a part of a legacy of orators. When you look at history, those who made a difference moved people with their  ords—moved nations. From Fredrick Douglass to Fannie Lou Hamer to Barack Obama. Words move people to act and that is powerful.
BSN: You were a "Great Debater” at Howard University how would you explain what the debate team is?
Candace: Schools have different names for it but when I was at Howard, I was on a team called the Martin Luther King,    Jr. Forensics Society. In fact the movie is about the Wiley Forensic Society. The forensics team I was on included “Debating” and “Individual Events” like poetry, prose and extemporaneous speaking, for example. The debate team was part of the MLK Forensics Society and competed in a more old English parliamentary style of arguing. What I did in “individual events” was select pieces and interpret them in competitions. I performed everything from Langston Hughes, who is one of my favorites, to The Last Poets, Nikki Giovanni and Haki Madhubuti.
BSN: In the movie, there are some tense relationships. Were there tense times on your debate team?
Candace: It got intense. We were in college, we were a competitive team and we were driven. I remember being between rounds at tournaments and trying to wake up a team member who had a rough night before because he was in the middle of pledging. And there were intense moments because everywhere we traveled, we piled up pretty tightly into this van that was on its last legs. We'd drive through the night to tournaments and 99 percent of the time when we got there we'd be the only Blacks when we showed up. And we almost always selected Black pieces to perform.
BSN: And how did people respond to you and your team's pieces?
Candace: A good piece of Black poetry is like a good piece of music, it's universal. We went from people looking AT us to people looking FOR us because we were baaaaaad. We would clean up the awards and we had such a small team--only but so many could fit on the van. We'd get there and get through preliminary rounds then they'd tally up the scores and we would see if we "broke" to the next round. Sometimes I would "double break" meaning I would go into the final round in two categories.
BSN: What do you think you got from being on the debate team that others may not have?
Candace: I remember we all had to write down our fears on a piece of paper and symbolically throw them away. Being on the team was a cleansing process. We weren't on a stage; we were up close in personal in mostly classroom settings because the tournaments happened on college campuses. Then you realize at some point that you have the ability to garner people's attention and give them a piece of yourself that you hope will make them think, make them better.
BSN: I understand that one of your coaches who trained you, died of AIDS? Can you tell me about that?
Candace: He lit a fire under us making us practice and practice and read newspapers. He made us watch Meet the Press. And I remember he performed in the category "original poetry" and team coaches could participate in this particular category. He did a piece he wrote that began with how the doctor told him that the "storm" had hit. The performance was so intense and personal and ended with him saying "Why me? Why me?" He may have been 30 years old and the poem penetrated all of my senses. I knew right away that he was dying and I immediately thought he was dying of AIDS. It was around 1990. I mentioned the poem to a teammate but the secret was bigger than us. About a year later, he died of AIDS. We all piled in that infamous van and went to his funeral and as we drove around the cemetery, we blasted house music, which was his favorite.
BSN: Wow. That is powerful. Do you talk about it with your former teammates?
Candace: No. We really don't talk about it, but talking about it now is like lifting the shame off his memory.
BSN: I see you on NY1 News, and you spend a great deal of time in front of the camera—what do you do? And did your teammates also go into professions where how they spoke was important? 
Candace: I anchor a show on PBS and I report for NY1 News. I also teach television classes at Rowan University. There are two reporters, four professors, a couple of us stayed in acting and performing and two went into law. So we all ended up in front of people.
BSN: What advice do you have for someone who wants to do what you did and what the Great Debaters did?
Candace: Compete in high school. I fell into this by chance. I decided to go to a competition in high school with a friend who participated in it for extra credit. Since I was going with her, I decided to compete and I got 5th Place with a Langston Hughes piece and it stuck. When I got to Howard I was asked to be on a team after winning a competition. I won 50 dollars. I made it go a long way. There are so many amazing pieces to choose from. It's a great time for poetry, prose and all types of genres especially with this movie making it so popular. Our team's motto was “Say It With Distinction" and if you're on any debate team-- you always will.

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