Black female debaters make history


Fresno State students (left to right) Nadia Lewis and Jamila Ahmed won first and second speaker at the Henry Clay Invitational Debates on Oct. 7. Photo illustration Roe Borunda

Two Fresno State students, Nadia Lewis and Jamila Ahmed, were the first African-American women to win first-and second-place speakers in the 42 years of the Henry Clay Invitational Debates held at the University of Kentucky.

The competition was established in 1971 and is one of the oldest and largest U.S. policy, varsity debate tournaments in America.  This year, the Fresno State debate team competed against 286 speakers from 30 schools.

Despite it being her first semester in debate, Lewis won first place among individual speakers. She is now ranked 29th in the nation. Ahmed is in her second year in debate and won second place and is now ranked 16th in the nation.

“This is the first time in the history of the Henry Clay Debates at the University of Kentucky that two African-American women have been awarded the top two speaker positions,” said Dr. Shanara Reid-Brinkley, director of debate at University of Pittsburgh. “I do believe it is also the first time in the history of national debate competition that two African-American women have won the top two speakers at any national tournament.”

Reid-Brinkley said in the 1990s she was the most successful African-American female debater in national policy debate history, but the Fresno State debaters represent a new wave of talent.

“Nadia Lewis and Jamila Ahmed have accomplished a feat that many debaters around the country can only dream of achieving,” Reid-Brinkley said. “And, it is important to note that they did so as virtual novices competing in the varsity level division. Their competitors are likely to have five to eight more years of debate experience than these young women.”

In U.S. policy debate, a topic is chosen by the Cross Examination Debate Association (CEDA) and is voted on by all university debate members. After a topic is chosen, four resolutions are then drafted by CEDA.

These resolutions then can be used by the teams during their debates.

This year’s topic was: “The U.S. Federal Government should substantially increase statutory and/or judicial restrictions on the war powers authority of the president of the United States in one or more of the following areas: cyber operations, indefinite detention, targeted killing such as drones, and deploying the armed forces into hostile places.”

Lewis and Ahmed are non-traditional debaters, which means they read poetry, sing, draw metaphors to the topic and criticize the structure of debate as it exists today. They also have a constant theme of the oppression of  African-American women throughout their debates.

“We take a metaphorical approach to the resolution,” Ahmed said. “One of the topics was targeted killing; we talk about how black women are targeted every day in society. It’s not the same as using a drone, but we would use a metaphorical drone and examples in history or the world to further our argument. We discuss the oppressive structures that black women deal within our daily lives and despite these obstacles, we can still affirm ourselves through song and poetry and our resilience as phenomenal black women.”

Non-traditional debate style has only been prominent for a little more than a decade and is not fully accepted by everyone in the debate community.

“Non-traditional style began about 12 years ago when speakers started to bring philosophical topics into their arguments,” said Deven Cooper, director of debate at Fresno State. “Then people began to actually do what the philosophies were saying and it has grown into what it is today. It’s not really fully accepted by everyone because some people like to look at traditional policy debate as the most legitimate style, because it’s been argued that particular style creates better critical thinking, better advocacy and better policy making skills.”

Both Lewis and Ahmed use their life background to validate their argument in their speeches. In their opinion, it’s important to be a non-traditional team in debate because it reveals who they are on a personal level.

“We’re using our black aesthetics and our experiences as black women in society,” Lewis explained.  “We bring that into our [debate] round through our music and poetry. We express how we feel and the struggles that we go through and the oppression through [our speeches]. When people leave [the debate] rounds, they know who we are, they know our struggles, and who we are as black women in this society.”

Lewis and Ahmed said they want to use debate as an opportunity to make a difference in the debate community and inspire young girls.

“That’s why I think it’s important for debate [to be non-traditional], because a lot of the people [in debate] want to be policy makers,” Ahmed said.  “I think that’s why what we do is so essential, because if you’re going to be making policies that are going to affect the people, then you need to know the people. That’s why we think that it’s so important to bring out your subjectivity and not have this distant way of debating. That’s what’s kind of wrong with our society and our policy makers now because they don’t realize actual people that are suffering.”

“I want to be able to leave debate knowing that what we’re doing made a difference, because it’s more than just an academic sport for me,” Lewis added. “The topics we debate, Jamila and I are truly passionate about. I want to create a change that, after we leave, other black women and girls that are younger can join this activity and it can be something that’s educational for them.”

The Fresno State debate team has attended three debates so far, including the junior varsity University of Missouri-Kansas Debate in which Lewis and Ahmed took first place as a team. Fresno State will attend two more debates this semester, including the Las Vegas Invitational at University of Nevada-Las Vegas today.

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