Last year, I wrote a previous essay identifying issues the Black conscious community needs to resolve.
One of the issues I highlighted was the inappropriate way we conduct formal debates in our communities. Because this is such an important and continuing issue, I’m dedicating this entire essay to the topic. I will begin with an excerpt from that article:
We waste precious time debating issues that have already been resolved, or once resolved, push us no closer to meeting an important objective. Unless we’re trying to challenge patriarchy, what is the sense of debating if the Black woman is God? Unless we’re challenging homophobia or sexuality-based oppression, what’s the sense of debating if homosexuality existed in ancient Africa?
Debating as a form of intellectual exercise or refinement is an excellent tool in academic or scholarly institutions. In my opinion, all Black folk should learn the proper way to structure, support or attack an argument and to detect logical flaws.
In the arena of organizing for community empowerment however, we don’t debate just to display our intelligence or scholarship. We engage real problems affecting real people who demand real solutions.
In this context, our goal is not to humiliate or intimidate an opponent, flaunt our knowledge or impress spectators. We seek to solve problems, create sound policies, clarify objectives, and refine and develop strategy and tactics.
As I see it, the most effective and relevant debates will occur within an organization. Once the debate concludes (depending on which side prevailed) the organization then creates policy, refines its objectives or priorities, or adopts strategy or tactics accordingly. In this manner, a debate leads to something relevant and functional.
In my hometown (NYC) and many others across the country, people host widely promoted debates between individuals in the conscious community for a fee. Some useful information comes out in these events. But many times they disintegrate into hostile shouting matches where profanity and insults dominate and spectators cheer wildly for the person in their particular camp.
It also appears that the two people insulting and attacking one another are in fact “debating” issues that were/are far better addressed by powerful Afrocentric intellectuals like Ben Yosef-Jochannon, John H. Clarke, Ivan Van Sertima, Chancellor Williams, Tony Browder, Ashra Kwesi, Phil Valentine, and brother Kaba Kamene. Most of these individuals have books, YouTube clips, and dvds available which explain the subject matter in greater detail and with more competence than do today’s debaters.
Additionally, many of these contemporary debates provide good sums of money for the promoters and participants, but little new or relevant information for the spectators, let alone any organized and consistent way to implement and utilize this information for community empowerment.
I humbly suggest that we refine these debates as outlined above. Also we might consider creating study groups as well. Study groups are more inclusive and participatory, and generate more focused and useful information and discussion involving the input of more than just two people.
I stand by these words. About 5 years ago, a brother whose name I do not recall, contacted me and asked if I was interested in making some money by debating. He apparently found me and my email through an Internet search or through mutual associates/friends. He mentioned that he planned to put two powerful speakers/scholars against each other at each event, and invite an audience to pay admission and watch the sparks fly.
I politely declined his offer. I was enrolled in a doctorate program that required nearly all of my time and energy. Secondly, the format sounded too much like a rap battle or verbal competition like that offered in the enormously popular “Smack” events. These events feature large cash prizes, celebrity Hip Hop personalities, and several rounds of personal attacks, where two people systematically seek to lyrically humiliate, embarrass and destroy each other.
Maybe this type of vibe is expected or acceptable in the urban entertainment industry where such behavior promotes huge followings and record sales. However in the world of serious Black political struggle, this is unacceptable and inappropriate. For example, a debate was arranged between Dr. Ray Hagins and Dr. Wesley Muhammad on the topic: “Is Islam an African Religion?” when it was Hagins’ turn to speak, he explained that he didn’t intend to insult or attack muhammad. He spoke of peace and harmony among fellow activists and the need to share knowledge without hostility. Noble and mature of him, right? But the event organizer was livid, and took to the stage to verbally attack the brother for not wanting to participate in a hostile and divisive discussion. Watch this for yourself below. Nagins begins his presentation at the 43-minute mark. The tirade comes afterwards…
These days, I see the conscious community mimicking the same hostility and gangsterism we’ve come to expect of “gangsta” Hip Hop. This must stop! These events arouse resentment, encourage cliques and facilitate actual and potential violence in the Black community.
I support serious and progressive intellectual discussion, but many of these debates I see on YouTube are promoted like prizefights, which further polarizes an already fragmented and conflicted Black community.
In conclusion, I urge us to utilize debates in an empowered and less immature fashion. We don’t need provocation to publically attack one another.. Nor can we afford time engaging in irrelevant topics or discussions that don’t lead to better analysis and progressive action plans, social justice or liberation. The existence of white supremacy mandates that we “Wake-up up clean up and stand up!” I believe:
- We should stop promoting or attending/supporting these events altogether.
- Those people promoting these verbal slug fests should be exposed for being the opportunists and mischief makers they are. They gain monetary benefit at our intellectual and political expense, and promote too much confusion and conflict in the process.
- In place of these egocentric gladiator games disguised as “debates,” we should host progressive dialogues and study groups connected to Black organizations and programs who work to address and solve our problems.
- Such debates should either be free to the community or have nominal fees for the purpose of covering the cost of venue. Perhaps a higher prices ticket option could be made available to people, but this should come with a choice of book or DVD made by one of the speakers. True consciousness raising should not be exploitive.
As our great ancestor/historian John Henrik Clark reminded us, “Every single thing that touches your life whether it be religious, socially or politically must be an instrument for your liberation, or be thrown in the trashcan of history.”
Agyei Tyehimba is an educator, activist and author from Harlem, N.Y. Agyei is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. In 2013, he wrote The Blueprint: A BSU Handbook, teaching Black student activists how to organize and lead. In April of 2014, he released Truth for our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Currently, Agyei is a member of the Black Power Cypher, five Black Nationalist men with organizing backgrounds, who host a monthly internet show addressing issues and proposing solutions. He runs his own business publishing books, public speaking, and teaching Black people how to organize and fight for empowerment.
Agyei earned his Bachelor’s Degree in sociology from Syracuse University, his Master’s Degree in Africana Studies from Cornell University, and his Master’s Degree in Afro-American Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.