January 21, 2008
When Barak Obama stirred a national audience with a powerful sample of classic oratory, it stirred something in me to write a few lines in praise of the craft (oratory). The occasion was Obama’s victory in the first of the national contests – the Iowa Caucus. My lines churned up some fascinating comments… particularly from those who participate in the world of education where the arts must compete in an arena dominated by a utilitarian crowd who just can’t seem to quantify the value of such things as public speech to their satisfaction.
I never intended to take a political stance. Instead, I made an attempt to underscore the power of a seemingly lost art. Now with a week or two past in a rough and tumble national campaign in both parties, oratory takes a back seat to other dynamics. To date, assumptions surrounding any notion of a “presumptive nominee” of either the blue or red party have pretty well been set aside. The whole contest is up for grabs.
Melvin B. Tolson wrote an epic poem he called “Libretto for the Republic of Liberia” in 1953. For it, this young, unlikely African American college professor turned Mayor of a small southern town was named Liberia’s Poet Laureate. That, along with published works in such prestigious journals as Atlantic Monthly, would have opened many doors. But Tolson lived in relative obscurity. Until now.
Tolson died after a nasty cancer surgery in 1966. But study his influence, and you’ll find that Tolson’s students made a powerful mark in history. He was honest. Direct. Articulate. And he believed in oratory. You’ll find his work in the Harlem gallery. Back at Langsdon College, you’d find him directing the drama team at the Dust Bowl Theater. When he was at Wiley College, he coached the debate team to a dramatic, surprise victory.
He was an educator who transcended the ordinary expectations of a college professor. His passions embraced the unmasked expression of truth. Langston Hughes, another poet, said this: Tolson is “no highbrow. Students revere him and love him. Kids from the cotton fields like him. Cow punchers understand him … He’s a great talker.”
A great friend and mentor to Tolson was James L. Farmer, Ph.D. Dr. Farmer was the first African American from Texas to earn a doctorate (Boston University, 1918). Their friendship grew at Wiley as the debate team went off on an unprecedented winning streak.
It’s no surprise that Denzel Washington and Oprah Winfrey collaborated on a feature film based on the debate team’s ascent from the depression era small town where the tension of racism was a way of life to the high profile victory that stunned the academic community – and the watching world in 1935.
Critics give The Great Debaters high marks, in spite of the liberties taken by the film’s creators. The movie version strays from the facts on several levels. For example, the themes of the debates are contrived and the final contest took place at the University of Southern California, not Harvard. But the essence of Tolson’s persona his captured in a powerful performance by Denzel Washington. The same can be said of Forest Whitaker’s portrayal of Farmer, Sr. I can’t help but see a link between that discussion of oratory a couple weeks ago and the commanding message of “The Great Debaters.” Perhaps Obama has taken his oratory cues from Denzel Washington. And Forest Whitaker. And the others in this powerful cast.
“Debate is a blood sport,” proclaimed professor Tolson. Words… the use of words, the context of words, the delivery of words… have a powerful effect.
They can launch the civil rights movement. They can clean up corruption. They can challenge injustice. They can inspire what is best.
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Last Saturday morning, in a small town a few hours north of here, I followed a young Tolson protégé around a campus on the eastern slopes of the Sierras. He’s a high school teacher (with a doctorate) and the creator of a thing he calls Playhouse 395. They are mobilizing the town for a sizable production of The Music Man. (It’s a follow-up to their most recent highly acclaimed presentation of Annie.)
Tolson’s students went on to achieve enormous goals. Same with my new friend up north. His students have been introduced to a whole new level of achievement and possibilities.
On this Monday morning, you are a leader, too. Maybe more than you know, your influence touches lives. You inspire. You open doors. You paint a picture of what can be. You help them over the hurdles. You help put the past in proper perspective.
It’s your life. It’s your actions. It’s your initiative. It’s your words.
It’s your oratory.
Copyright, Kenneth E Kemp 2008