Over at the Internet Movie Database, redneck trolls are saddling up their cyber posse to go night riding on the message boards against Denzel Washington and "The Great Debaters." All of which is a good thing if you like to see relevance in contemporary art. Because deep down, "The Great Debaters" is a film about how to grow yourself into a real person despite the needlers, taunters, and brutes who dominate the space around you — and who dominate it, still.
Passion, poetry, learning, and love. These are the things you must keep working at. "The Great Debaters" is about never being deterred. In art, thank goodness, we are graced to craft images of humanity into beauties that last. And the beauty of Professor Melvin B. Tolson in "The Great Debaters" is heroic as it should be.
Okay, so the actual Wiley College debate team from Marshall, Texas didn’t actually debate the actual Harvard College debate team in or about the actual year of 1935, as the actual movie shows. But what Tolson and his students did achieve was just as beautiful as the film portrays. The students and scholars of the most unlikely little community in NorthEast Texas embodied the Harlem Renaissance. They breathed in the mighty poetry and aspirations that had converged upon Lenox Avenue, and they gave back to the world tiny seedlings of a civil rights movement that would make history, yes, upon brand new roots. And they were great debaters.
If "The Great Debaters" has not been able to satisfy internet demand for documentary accuracy, that’s a good thing again; because now there is opportunity to nourish that appetite. The more you get to know the actual beauties of these folk and their work, the less the film will appear like exaggeration. The more you’ll see that the film did the best it could do in two hours’ time to share with you the force of spirit that was distilled among the children and grandchildren of slaves.
Pecking through the internet, I’m locating a handful of seeds to get you started on your East Texas victory garden. The University of Illinois has a good starter page on <a href="http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/s_z/tolson/tolson.htm" target="_blank">Melvin B. Tolson</a>. There you will notice that many of Tolson’s poems did not make it into print during his lifetime.
The Center for East Texas Studies has a good starter collection of materials about <a href="http://www.cets.sfasu.edu/Harrison/Farmer/marker.htm" target="_blank">James Leonard Farmer, Sr.</a> I have linked to the "historical marker" page, but if you navigate to the Farmer root directory, you’ll find a nice collection of texts and pictures. For example, I like what the Bostonia file says about the sermons of Farmer Senior:
"No printed copies of those sermons have been uncovered, but poet Melvin Tolson, on the Wiley faculty during the 1930’s, offered another glimpse in his Washington Tribune column, ‘Caviar and Cabbage,’ describing Farmer’s Mother’s Day 1938 sermon: ‘I was thrilled,’ Tolson wrote, ‘by this vivid picture of Jesus the young rebel,’ who dearly loved his mother while battling the convention of his time."
Notice on the big screen how much smiling goes on between Tolson and Farmer Senior when the subject of Jesus comes up. Glimpse the game they play within a close intellectual relationship. In fact, Farmer Senior was a great scholar of the Gospels, which is another story altogether. A clip of the film scene, featuring the two academy award winning actors Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker, is widely available on the internet.
The autobiography of civil rights activist James Farmer, Jr. is rich with early memories of black college campuses, not only in Marshall, Texas. Here’s a link to the publisher’s page for Lay Bare the Heart.
During the 1930s, a federal work program collected slave narratives in Texas, which have been typed up and stored at the Library of Congress. Here’s a link to the index of that collection. Could it be the case that so many former slaves of Harrison County Texas actually had the failing memories they reported to federal writers?
And Salatheia Bryant of the Houston Chronicle offers a fine writeup on the "real" woman debater of Wiley College, Henrietta Bell Wells. Of the film says Ms. Wells: "I hope I live up to the ideals in it."
So please don’t bother believing what the bigots tell you about this film, not even the trolls who claim to have Harvard degrees. You don’t have to be Black to feel beautifully about Denzel Washington’s fine new film, "The Great Debaters." The "message" of this film is for anyone who still desires the capacity to dream higher than what you already are.
GREG MOSES is editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review and author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence. His chapter on civil rights under Clinton and Bush appears in Dime’s Worth of Difference, edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.