EMPORIA, KAN. - To anyone who was there, it sure looked like Ryan Wash was in full grip of his moment in history.
The graduate of Kansas City’s Central High School had six minutes left in a two-hour debate to help his Emporia State University debate team do what had never been done before.
Two black students, bringing a fiercely personal style honed in urban debate leagues, were on the brink of winning the National Debate Tournament policy debate championship.
No all-black team had ever won that title before.
The duo, Wash and Elijah Smith, just days before had won the Cross Examination Debate Association championship.
They became the first team — black, white, urban, suburban, private-schooled or public-schooled — to pull off that feat.
“We are bringing debate home!” Wash shouted as he launched into the final rebuttal last week at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah.
He was a fighter, smacking his fist into his palm. He ripped at his shirt. He pounded the table. Their competitors in the final, from Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., “want us to separate our theory from our flesh!” he screamed.
The Northwestern team had challenged the Emporia team’s whole approach, saying Wash and Smith were moving “dangerously” off the debate’s prescribed platform, energy production.
For years, urban debate teams have been radically testing the boundaries in a debate culture that they say rewards the status quo, the middle class and the elite.
Just as they might wade into research on environmental justice or global warming, the topic “energy production” could also spawn an argument against the debating process itself.
At the Cross Examination championship at Idaho State, Wash had summoned the tragic loss of his mother when he was 11, and his complacency in the face of alcoholism.
Only through debate had he found his voice, he said. That was his energy.
Many times over the years judges rejected such radical themes. To some, the idea of personalizing debates, even incorporating poetry and rap, made a sham of it.
But here they were, Wash and Smith, showing just how far the dogged debaters from inner cities have come. The moment was at hand when an urban-born team could be the first to win both titles.
“Today is the day we can unite the crowns!” he shouted. “We can connect to the elitest tournament of all!”