Speech and Debate

Halfway through sixth grade, my family moved from Roselle, a diverse working-class neighborhood, to Freehold, New Jersey, an upper-middle class predominantly white living. Thus began the year of silence.

Out of protest, sadness, depression, and puberty I vowed to my parents that I would never ever speak to them again. I later apologized for it, as it was said out of frustration more than anything, but the behavior remained. I wouldn’t speak over a certain volume. I wouldn’t make eye contact when I spoke. I wouldn’t speak unless addressed. My teachers called it selective mutism; my parents called it stubborn; and now they call it ironic. I didn’t have the words to call it anything. I didn’t know that I’d never be more grateful. If Roselle stayed home, I would have never found speech.

Five years later, high school theatre didn’t work out so I followed my best friend to the speech and debate room for the first meeting of the year. According to Mr. Drummond, my first ever coach, there were three fundamental tracks to the art of speech: limited preparation (LP), public address (PA), & interpretation events (IE). Limited preparation events deal with extemporaneous and impromptu speaking. Public address events deal with researching, writing, memorizing and performing informative, communicative, humorous, and persuasive speeches. Interpretation events deal with dramatic and humorous acting events. They showed all three at the Welcome Back Showcase. The president of the team performed a poetry interpretation program, and the power he exuded was enviable. Thirty people in one room stopped and listened in complete silence with full attention for ten minutes to one man. He held the entire room hostage. I had never seen that before. At fourteen years old, I thought, to be a part of a distinguished league of high school speakers, leaders, and influencers (which included Josh Gad, Zac Efron, Oprah, Brad Pitt, Kal Penn, and even more) would have been an honor—one I wasn’t sure I deserved, so ninth grade was a silent year regardless.

I started to compete more regularly in forensics (also known as speech, debate, 4n6, often confused with football or dead bodies) in the tenth grade, doing humorous interpretation and improvisational acting. Improvisational acting was the event that made me. Improv taught me everything about interpretation, everything about acting, everything about self-determination, everything about speaking as a cognitive process and everything about heart. The first time I finaled at a tournament I brought home a tiny fifth-place motorcycle trophy for something I never thought I could do, which was make people laugh with the sound of my voice, and I cried.

Soft voices never really harden, they just get heard.

I got serious about speech after that. I spent hours in the library reading books, suggesting them to all of the novices who had trouble finding literature to perform for competition. The next year, I took on the challenge of teaching the novices the rules and conventions of speech, which meant I had to learn them. Begging my parents to attend the George Mason Institute of Forensics (GMIF), a summer camp for speech kids taught by collegiate performers, definitely turned the tide. I studied and watched the final rounds of the National Tournament every year in someone’s New Jersey basement. Me and my friends who also were serious studied elocution, differing philosophies of acting, the principles of minstrelsy & oratorical education. We held house practices in people’s basements. We practiced monologues over and over for each other, recorded them for ourselves and played them back. We choreographed ourselves. We recorded ourselves. We read each and every ballot after each tournament in a McDonald’s booth. I bought two obnoxiously bright green speech suits and wore them with pride. I read literature, considered the themes I wanted to pick out of the author’s words and what method of interpretation I could take every week. Something that would effectively break walls but not make too many waves. I spent countless nights memorizing and perfecting and trying to get better.

One day, my voice just crystallized in front of me and I realized that the silence was over. No one could ever get me to shut up now. Not even myself. Even if I wanted to. My coach once told me, if you want to be able to change the way you speak, you have to change the way you breathe. Well at point, I’d went from choking to gasping. That’s where the art comes in. The body’s oral system works hard for those ten minutes. The more you are able to control your nose, your mouth, your lungs, your brain…the more you are able to become an extension of yourself.

My first dramatic interpretation (DI) in speech was of the book Warriors Don’t Cry by Melba Pattillo Beals my senior year of high school. Performing the words of that piece allowed me to fall in love with prose again. Warriors Don’t Cry is a compilation of Beals’ high school diary, a sixteen-year-old girl who was part of the Little Rock Nine in Arkansas surrounding the civil rights fight for desegregation. It told the story of a girl trying to make it to seventeen. Approaching my senior year as one of the few Haitian-Americans in a predominantly white school and neighborhood, I was just trying to get to seventeen too. Beals spends pages and pages going through her tumultuous year in Little Rock, holding no parts of herself and the experiences of her classmates back. The themes of hopelessness and the titular advice got me through my senior year of high school. I only semifinaled at our district tournament, meaning I never qualified for high school nationals. But according to Melba, warriors didn’t cry. In the face of injustice, the warrior spirit is flexible. The strength to leave home, go to George Mason, and pursue collegiate forensics competitive success would have been lost on me without Melba. She allowed me to exist outside self.

It was the first time I had ever heard it from my own tongue and the love of prose overwhelms me still. And this love now consumes a community. I’ve met some of my closest friends in speech. People meet their soulmates in this activity. Watching someone bleed for you will always leave tiny scars. We, as a community, heal with constant love.

In 2017, me and my duo partner won the American Forensics Association National Individual Events Tournament in Duo Interpretation, performing a programmatic ten-minute piece about modern day lynching in America. We dedicated our performance to lynching victims around the country and the Memorial of Peace and Justice newly erected in Alabama dedicated to these victims as well. We worked hard to include all sorts of groups and accentuate the details of this performance out of respect for ourselves, the literature, and the activity. Using my voice to speak for groups I can adequately represent allows survivors of injustice to tell their stories and live on. Using my body as their vessel has been one of my greatest honors. Here is where I developed the ideology that we are all walking this Earth considering each other, and that the inside matters more than we will ever know but the outside matters because it protects what’s inside. We would not survive without shelter, and the body we inhabit is shelter. Identity is always grabbing at our bones. So we stand up when we can. I do believe that those who are truly and inherently neutral comply to the system and therefore aid systems of oppression. Along this vein, those who do speech are the ones consistently disrupting the status quo.

I’m currently a rising senior at George Mason University, majoring in Public Administration. There are a lot of reasons I love GMU but I can definitely say that I picked and attended my college for speech. Graduating high school, I knew hell was a place without speech. Hell was a world where that could get taken away in an instant. After I graduated high school, our coach and our program stepped down. After my sophomore year in college, our Assistant Director of Forensics stepped down too. This year, after the Director of Forensics for our team left, I don’t think our team knew how to breathe. We were already walking around with open wounds. I have been doing speech and debate for seven years. Seven years ago, I didn’t have something that I knew would never give up on me, ever, as long as I never gave up on it. Speech has been the greatest love of my life. I have never practiced unconditional love before. But after the year our team has had, speech was the world’s most beautiful rose, with dried blood on the thorns, accepting the community’s flaws as necessary evils. Out of love for my art, I have lost sleep, lost job opportunities, lost focus in school, lost money, lost people, and almost lost my mind.

The biggest nightmare about speech is that it is such a diverse and beautiful community full of gorgeous and talented people who spend their weekends laying at the feet of a panel of men. They bare their soul and ask for a fair rank and are given back sexism, racism, classism, and problematic rhetoric time and time again. Microaggressions within the community began to creep on me. Judges and coaches in our community have always held all the power. They are the ones who decide who advances and keeps speaking. They’re usually older, straight, white males. To appease speech traditionalists, droves of us have been made to wear pantyhose, heels, full makeup, forbidden to wear pantsuits, and made to alter our bodies in sometimes unhealthy ways. Coaches have told me to smile wider to appear likeable even at my breaking points. It has made me stretch parts of myself for the amusement of those in power. Some have belittled the stories of survivors, pitted traumas against each other, criticized appearance on ballots more times than I can count, said things that they would never say to anyone’s face about things they would never be able to understand. Being judged on how beautiful I can make struggle, how appealing I can make my suffering, how pretty I can make myself cry for the benefit of an audience whose integrity has shifted has made me question the art of competitive public speaking recently. Highlighting the voices of people who didn’t have this platform was the most rewarding thing, not the trophy. Speech has made me who I am today but I have to recognize the hurt it has caused me as a young black woman. As the next generation of competitors rolls onto a field of so much potential, we have no choice but to leave it better than when we found it.

The speech community allows one to be able to participate in the facilitation of emerging action in this era. Entering a defining period of this world, the importance of voice has never been more compromised. Being part of something that bolsters an era of change, the words behind a revolutionary thing, has been integral to our heart. These messages deserve a home and an eternal story. Leaders, icons, competitors, coaches, and speakers like the ones I have gotten the privilege to compete against do the real dirty work under the grassroots in my head. Speech has provided a place for us as artists, creators, makers, and influences of great societal innovation. Language has always been a gift worth regifting. Every summer, working GMIF turns me into witness as young people grasp the power of voice and advocacy through words, their own and others, as a tool for social innovation and cultural change. The kids there keep something beyond themselves going and they haven’t even opened their mouths yet.

Time to start listening.

top photo courtesy Mernine Ameris

Nicola Yoon’s “Everything, Everything” Is Everything

Nicola Yoon's "Everything, Everything" Is Everything

As a teen, I had a soft spot for contemporary YA romance. I especially enjoyed the romance in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series by Ann Brashares.

I liked these books because the female characters showed me that even if you had personal issues, you could still find love. However, at some point, I found myself asking, “Why can’t black girls have a YA romance?”

Carmen Lowell, a half Puerto Rican character from the Traveling Pants series, was one of the few women of color I read in YA romance. I enjoyed reading about her because she was caring toward her family and friends and pursued a romantic relationship despite her confidence issues. However, by the end of the final book, Sisterhood Everlasting, she is the only one not in a relationship. Although she is very satisfied with her life, it bothered me that she couldn’t be married or dating someone when she is the only lead of color.

I found myself asking, “Why can’t black girls have a YA romance?”

In addition to being one of the few women of color in YA romance, Carmen Lowell was the only female character of color I read who had happy romances. Other books like Sharon M. Draper’s Romiette and Julio and Jacqueline Woodson’s If You Come Softly had black female romantic leads, but their relationships also involved social issues. Both Romiette and Julio and If You Come Softly dealt with the racism that came with being in interracial relationships. While I was impressed by both authors’ takes on this important issue, part of me also wanted a book with a romance free of social tension.

Last year, I discovered Nicola Yoon’s Everything, Everything when it became a New York Times bestseller. After doing some research, I discovered that this book not only had black female lead but was also written by a black author. After waiting several months, I borrowed a copy from my local library to read and was totally enamored by the book. If this book were food, it would be cotton candy, filled with fluffy, sugary sweet moments that melted on my heart.

If this book were food, it would be cotton candy, filled with fluffy, sugary sweet moments that melted on my heart.

One of the things I enjoyed most about the book is the main character, Madeline Whittler. Even though she is isolated from the world, she isn’t portrayed in a negative light. Instead, she is a quirky young girl who loves books and board games and yearns to experience life more fully. She spoke to my teen self, the me that had a hard time fitting in. In addition, Maddie being African American and Japanese gave me the long awaited representation I wanted as a black and Vietnamese person. As someone who rarely saw biracial characters who were black and Asian, this was very validating.

In addition to enjoying Maddie’s character, I liked that her romance happened gradually. Maddie Whittler can’t touch anyone or go outside the house because she has a rare disease that makes her allergic to everything. As a result, she has to communicate with Olly online and through each other’s windows. (They use mirror writing.) For a time, she is also allowed to have quarantined visits from him as long as they don’t touch each other. This makes the moments when they can interact in person all the more precious.

Black YA leads in films are just as rare as black YA romance leads, and people have been craving this.

Out of all my favorite moments between Maddie and Ollie, my favorite is when they kiss for the very first time. At this point, they’ve only touched once before without anyone knowing. Maddie and Ollie’s feelings for each other have grown to the point where they can’t keep it to themselves anymore. They need to touch each other and express their feelings to validate them. The kiss is so beautiful and special, and Maddy savors it.

By the time I had finished the book, I had been thoroughly entertained and even taught a few lessons. The most important lesson is summed up in the quote, “Love is worth everything, everything.” This book shows that whether it is romantic love or familial love, it is worth experiencing and fighting for. It is a simple yet relatable message that makes the book memorable.

In addition to being ecstatic about the book itself, I am also excited for the movie adaptation, which will star Amandla Sternberg and Nick Robinson. When I heard this news, I was so thankful. Black YA leads in films are just as rare as black YA romance leads, and people have been craving this. Last year, Twitter user Mariah started the hashtag #WOCforAlaskaYoung in response to the casting call for the YA film Looking for Alaska. She and many others tweeted that they wanted Alaska to be played by a woman of color. Even John Green, the author of the book being adapted, stated that he supported the campaign.

Everything, Everything is everything I always wanted in a YA romance, and that is amazing.

Nicola Yoon’s Everything, Everything shows that black girls can have a happy young adult romance. It provides some much-needed representation on the page and tells a beautiful story of love. If the movie is as successful as the book, then hopefully we can get more books and movies with black female leads. Right now, Everything, Everything is everything I always wanted in a YA romance, and that is amazing.


The Afro YA promotes black young adult authors and YA books with black characters, especially those that influence Pennington, an aspiring YA author who believes that black YA readers need diverse books, creators, and stories so that they don’t have to search for their experiences like she did.

Latonya Pennington is a poet and freelance pop culture critic. Their freelance work can also be found at PRIDE, Wear Your Voice magazine, and Black Sci-fi. As a poet, they have been published in Fiyah Lit magazine, Scribes of Nyota, and Argot magazine among others.

top photo by Jenn Evelyn-Ann on Unsplash


Black Girls in White Spaces

Although I don’t remember much about 1996, I do remember the Summer Olympics. I didn’t have much interest in Swimming or Track and Field. Rather, I was transfixed by the Women’s Gymnastic Team.

The Magnificent Seven, as they were dubbed, consisted of Kerri Strug, Dominique Dawes, Amanda Borden, Amy Chow, Dominique Moceanu, Jaycie Phelps, and Shannon Miller. I was in awe of their discipline, strength, and endurance. The ability to twist and contort the human body was more than a sport; it seemed like an elite artform, magic powers for only the chosen few.

To an eight-year-old black girl, Dominique Dawes was a revelation. The whole team was an inspiration, but nineteen-year-old Dawes provided a reflection of myself. Black girls could not only do gymnastics, but they could make it to the Olympics. Writer Morgan Jerkins noted on ESPN that Dawes “showed them, as well as the rest of the world, how black women could move and excel in traditionally white spaces, even if they had to take flight to do so.”

Critics hid their racism behind euphemisms. A 1995 LA Times article reported that people worried that Dawes didn’t have the “right look,” that her legs were “bowed,” her knees were too “knobby,” and her “hair was too askew.” In other words, Dawes was too Black.

Naturally, critics hid their racism behind euphemisms. A 1995 LA Times article reported that people worried that Dawes didn’t have the “right look,” that her legs were “bowed,” her knees were too “knobby,” and her “hair was too askew.” In other words, Dawes was too Black. Fortunately, Dawes defied her critics and made Olympic history. She was the first Black woman to win a gold medal.

There have been other gymnasts that have broken barriers since Dawes, namely Gabby Douglas and Simone Biles. Douglas became the first Black woman to win gold in the individual all-around category. Watching her in 2012 brought back memories of the fascination and pride cultivated while watching the 1996 games. Unfortunately, Douglas was not spared from racism and discrimination. In a Vanity Fair profile, her mother, Natalie Douglas, is unflinching about the racially motivated hostility and vitriol that has followed her daughter’s luminous athletic career. She told the magazine that the parents of other gymnasts were unwelcoming and that they “looked at her as a pariah, an alien, a single black bank employee making around $45,000 a year in the midst of affluent white families headed by doctors and lawyers.”

The racism didn’t stop as Douglas dove into her training at Excalibur Gymnastics in Virginia Beach. Douglas said that other gymnasts stole her clothes out of the locker room and made derogatory comments, such as calling her a “slave.” She was teased about her nose. A gym staff member criticized the “flatness” of her nose and advised Douglas to get a nose job.

When [Gabby Douglas] competed at the Olympics in 2012, social media was buzzing not just about her incredible talent, but her hair.

When she competed at the Olympics in 2012, social media was buzzing not just about her incredible talent, but her hair. For Black girls and women, natural hair is more than a sore spot. It’s not “just hair.” If we are as “colorblind” as we are to believe, why is Black hair such a source of derision? Even those who claimed to support her weren’t without strong words of disapproval for Douglas’s seemingly “unstyled” hair. Speaking to The Daily Beast, twenty-two-year-old Latisha Jenkins said, “I love how she’s doing her thing and winning. But I just hate the way her hair looks with all those pins and gel. I wish someone could have helped her make it look better since she’s being seen all over the world. She representing for black women everywhere.”

Assuming that Jenkins is a Black woman, I understand her point about Douglas acting as an official representative. On the other hand, I find it extremely disappointing and frustrating that any time a Black woman is the first in her field and/or the only Black woman in her field, she’s forced to take on the role of spokesperson of her race. Even achieving something as extraordinary as Olympic gold is not enough to cause her athleticism to be judged solely on her skills. Instead, something that should be minor, such as her hair, becomes the basis for how she performs a display of acceptable, complimentary blackness.

As a Black woman who took cheerleading and gymnastics for years, I didn’t find any fault in Douglas’s gelled and pinned ponytail. When you’re flipping your body around the floor and attempting to land difficult tricks, you don’t want to be worrying about your hair. You want all of it out of your face. Making sure that your ponytail is pretty is the last thing on your mind.

White bodies in gymnastics may be nit-picked and harshly appraised. However, many people regard them as the standard, regulating Black bodies to the undesirable Other.

Douglas’s 2016 teammate, powerhouse Simone Biles, has recently faced the same sort of admiration and backlash as Douglas. Biles is the first female gymnast to win three straight World Championships. In a New Yorker profile, writer Reeves Wiedeman echoed the sentiments of Biles believers, confessing, “I felt as if Isaac Newton had written a different set of laws on her behalf. She flew higher, spun faster, and landed more firmly than anyone else.”

Yet in a sport such as gymnastics, it seems that there is no real way to “transcend” race, to borrow a well-loved phrase from white supremacy apologists and naive fools alike. Last year in Belgium, Biles became “the first woman of color to win an all-around title at world championships.” Most likely motivated by bitterness, jealousy, and racism, an Italian gymnast vented her frustrations to the Italian media. Eighteen-year-old Carlotta Ferlito said, “I told Vanessa [teammate Vanessa Ferrari] that next time we should also paint our skin black, so then we could win too.” It’s not hard to read between the lines. Ferlito’s ignorant remarks remind me of white people who complain that affirmative action is racist against white people. Yet by attacking Biles, Ferlito only exposed her own racism and, by extension, the racism within the sport. White bodies in gymnastics may be nit-picked and harshly appraised. However, many people regard them as the standard, regulating Black bodies to the undesirable Other.

Being exposed to Dominique Dawes at a young age encouraged a subconscious appreciation for the beauty of my body. With enough practice and patience, maybe I could bend gravity to my will.

Whether it’s books or movies or sports, representation matters. Being exposed to Dominique Dawes at a young age encouraged a subconscious appreciation for the beauty of my body. With enough practice and patience, maybe I could bend gravity to my will. Like Dawes, maybe I could grasp such athletic glory, to defy the expectations attached to my short stature and compact build. It’s disheartening to see Douglas and Biles make headlines for instances of racism, but their presence is important, providing a beam of hope and light for all the Black and brown girls watching them take the world by storm.

top photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash