Political Theory

Never Meant to Survive the Debate: Sapphire Reclaims Her Performance

By Korey Johnson

“And when we speak we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
nor welcomed
but when we are silent
we are still afraid
so it is better speak
we were never meant to survive.”
-Audre Lorde, The Black Unicorn: Poems

I write this article in fear
As my fingers hit the keyboard
I cringe at the bigots who will read
My words
Dissect my language
Extract my essence from my initial intended anecdote

I am always afraid
Of living, speaking, believing, and hoping
And despite the gravity of those fears
I live, speak, believe, and hope
Despite death resting comfortably by my side
Likewise, as I have done with all of my horrors
I will participate in the subversiveness of my fear
As I take these deep breaths
I know
The show must still go on

But to be clear
I know there are no coins on the ground
I know the brief case has nothing I need or want
I’m just circling the ring
Gazing at you spectators
Despite the fear in my spirit
Because I know your fear,
So I’ll say it without hoping that you’ll grasp it….
“Social Responsibility”

As all eleven judges’ decisions came in and the announcer prepared to declare the CEDA 2014 champions, I tapped his shoulder with hands that resembled the Atlantic ocean in texture and I whispered in his ear, “Can we wait for Shanara, I promise she’ll be here soon.” All I could think was that every single black woman in the debate community that had contributed to and paved the way for my success had to be there, whether we won or lost. After all, my partner and I had sacrificed so much to be there, for our black bright female bodies to be present in that auditorium. We had put in so much hard work, dedication, tears, sweat, and so much more into our debate careers. Finally after two years it seemed like the hard work was paying off, or at least we were making our hard work pay off. As two black women in a predominantly white activity, not only did we have to be great, we had to be exponentially better than our white counterparts in order to even achieve minimal success.

Towson assistant Coach Ignacio Evans (far left), Ameena Ruffin (left) Korey Johnson (right), and Head Coach Amber Kelsie (far right)

Towson assistant Coach Ignacio Evans (far left), Ameena Ruffin (left)
Korey Johnson (right), and Head Coach Amber Kelsie (far right)

Still, our beautiful yet strenuous struggle was worth it.

We won.

We were the first Black Women to ever win the CEDA Championship.

Now fast forward to the present, where I am currently overwhelmed and angered by the same CEDA championship that brought me so much pride just a few months ago.

I knew there would be backlash when we won CEDA 2014.

Anytime there is an epistemological shift away from hegemonic knowledge production and subjugated knowledges refuse to be hidden, there is always backlash.

However, the responses are worse than backlash. They reflect the intentional and unintentional targeting and killing of two Black women in an educational activity (but to be honest I don’t expect much of this academic machine). Audre Lorde said it perfectly, “the machine will try to grind you into dust anyway, whether or not we speak.”

So FINALLY, I am deciding to speak, despite my fear. After all, everyone else has been so busy giving their two cents on our performance during the round and the “his-stor(y)-ic” win with their terrible articles, uneducated comments, and endless tirades.

Even then I kept quiet. Watching while simultaneously feeling the whip of their spiteful words across my flesh. As Alexis Gumbs says, “The body is not spoken. It is also written…The danger of the words studied here is that they are bodily, they live, produce and disrupt.” You see, unlike some, my flesh does not have the pleasure or the privilege of merely being an untouched spectator watching scenes of violence at my leisure but rather I experience the gratuitous materiality of this unethical world.

The articles I have read over the last month and half have been both telling and confirming of the anti-black world that we all live in. It began with the “anti-racist” liberal responses that raved on and on about how “these little black debaters from the hood were taking over and forcing people to listen in the academy without even opening one single book!” One of these articles written by the Atlantic author Jessica Carew Kraft . says so perfectly, “ Many of their arguments, based on personal memoir and rap music, completely ignored the stated resolution, and instead asserted that the framework of collegiate debate has historically privileged straight, white, middle-class students”.

The next wave of articles came from the right winged political sector that claimed we were “primitive” beings that had absolutely no intellect and logic; they asserted that we were winning because white liberals were trying to assuage their white guilt and because they were literally afraid to say no to us. I refuse to even begin referencing those articles or authors because they do not deserve the time of day.

My experiences with these articles have truly opened my mind fully to what W.E. B refers to as Black double consciousness that guarantees and secures white double unconsciousness.

With this I will clarify a few things-


Let’s get this straight. We were NEGATIVE. Now for all those who are not within the debate community, this means that we are tasked with ANSWERING/RESPONDING to the affirmative. The affirmative stands with a political proposition-whatever that may be or whoever (Georgetown, Oklahoma, Emory, etc) that may be-and in order to win the debate we must prove why the affirmative’s political proposition is problematic whether that be holistically or methodologically or pedagogically or performatively (any of those options and/or combination of those is up to the discretion of the negative). Our only role is to decrease the desirability of the political proposal of the affirmative.

Oklahoma stood resolved that “War Powers should not be waged against niggas” and said that this proposition was a decrease in presidential war powers. Within their affirmative they flawlessly used songs by Lauryn Hill as well as poetry and Hip-Hop to not only performatively restrict presidential war powers but also to exemplify the violence that is caused by the “legitimate” use of war powers being waged against Black people. Furthermore, they highlighted the atrocities that happen to our communities through things like anti-blackness, racism, white supremacy, and police brutality. My words could never accurately sum up or even contain the essence of their performance.

Now being as though we are two Black girls from Baltimore, our task seemed rather difficult (to negate the affirmative), after all we experience those same violences and threats to our existence on a day-to-day basis. So we took a very unique approach to their argument, pulling on literature from scholars such as David Marriot, Eve Tuck, K. Wayne Yang, and Alexis Gumbs. Our argument was that we should not present scenes of suffering within the academy (which is what we claimed the affirmative did) because the academic machine will become a spectator that merely feeds its libido by consuming pain narrations.(Tuck and Yang) Furthermore we said that when we tell narrations of pain and suffering to black youth as a means of survival, this inhibits their political imagination because they can only envision similar violences happens to them. Marriot says that this allows for the smooth functioning of whiteness because there is never a moment where we can envision ourselves existing despite the intentional targeting and killing of these communities that exist on the margins of society. We said instead we should mirror what Alexis Gumbs calls “a black utopian political imagination” or a “politics of survival” where we can envision ourselves living and existing in the world; where we can “challenge the gospel of individualism”. We said that instead of retelling narrations of pain, we should focus on a better future and that we should embrace futurity through telling narrations of survival.

So all of the various articles that said our argument “likened to police brutality” and how we argued “black communities are at war”, are INCORRECT and FALSE and I also do not think those simple summaries accurately depicts Oklahoma’s unique and complex argument.


Ameena Ruffin (Top middle), Korey Johnson (Top Right),  Rashid Campbell (Bottom left) and George lee (Bottom Right)

Ameena Ruffin (Top middle), Korey Johnson (Top Right),
Rashid Campbell (Bottom left) and George lee (Bottom Right)

While I have read these articles, it is telling how slowly but surely (or maybe I should say quickly and without hesitance) our performance within that CEDA final round was erased. So many people were “fascinated” with attacking, targeting, and over-determining George Lee’s and Rashid Campbell’s performance that our performance was literally ERASED.

I think this is telling for two reasons- it shows not only the distinction between Black men and Black women but it also shows that the violence experienced by both are equally traumatic.

This distinction was pretty simple and if it is not clear I will state it now-with George and Rashid being Black men they were made hyper visible by the media. Their performance was over calcified and their performance of their blackness was deafening for many whites that witnessed and/or watched the round; they then wrote articles based solely on their performance- such as how George said “Fuck the Time” or how they both rapped or how they both looked in appearance .The articles and authors not only degraded the Oklahoma men and misconstrued their performance but it also made their perceived (I say this intentionally) performance of their blackness fungible. They homogenized the perceived performance of George and Rashid to the point where they have envisioned all Black debaters performing exactly like them. They have even gone as far as to attribute our winning of CEDA to the fact that white liberals “fear us” because we are aggressive, mean, etc. This is all just FALSE. Black debaters represent all different styles of debate-some traditional, some critical, some performance.

In this specific debate, we read evidence. We did not rap, we did not read poetry, we did not sing in the CEDA 2014 final round. However those performances are literally etched onto our flesh. By no means do I intend to take away from the scholarliness of those modes of performance, which I honestly believe can and have been educational; I would never criminalize those pedagogies. Rather I am pointing out the violence that has and is currently being accrued to my body. Not only was our real performance made invisible (it’s almost as if we weren’t performatively present in the final round) but as that erasure happened George and Rashid’s misconstrued performance was simultaneously graphed onto our both Ameena’s and my body.


I have no desire in proving the academic and logical nature of the arguments I run and the scholarship that I produce. It is absolutely IMPOSSIBLE to create a list for what arguments/ideas are and are not logical. “What is logical” is not objective but it is rather subjective; that should be rather obvious. Secondly, these various notions of “logic” are steeped in a European tradition that have been historically violent to Black women from Sarah Baartman to Rekia Boyd to Laura Nelson to Anna Brown. No matter what Black women say, we are always framed as crazy, irrational, illogical Sapphires that can “never get with the program”. This call for logic is ultimately just a reproduction of the violence and the violent nature of the academy that produces a hierarchy of knowledge production that always already limits me out.

My credentials speak for themselves-I graduated from one of the best high schools in Baltimore (which was a blue ribbon school of excellence) within a track in engineering at 16 years of age. I am currently in the Honors College at Towson University with a double major in Political Science and Communication Studies and a minor in African American studies. At 17 years of age, not only did I debate and beat collegiate students that were well into their 20’s but I also finished in the top sixteen of the 2012-2013 collegiate debate year. At 18 I won the 2014 Cross-Examination Debate Association National Championship along with my partner and we were the first black female team to be ranked as one of the top 16 teams in the country during the 2013-2014 collegiate debate year.

So if at any point you are questioning my ability to make a logical argument, you can do one of three things
Revert back to my list of credentials-which should speak for themselves
Recognize that your idea of logic may be flawed
Realize that if I have chosen to make an “illogical” argument (by your “standards”) it is because I have CHOSEN to do so.

I will no longer be silent, even if I am sometimes afraid to speak.
silence will not protect me,
protection is not for the odd
not for the black
not for the odd awkward black girl that obsessively gazes back at you
I’m sure by the time you have read this article
You will have forgotten my name
As you have done the thousands of other black women
That I have found in the trashcans of this academy
And as your memory fades
The stench from my filthy unproductivity
Will be a menace to the clean society that you hope to create
We are here


10287152_572756759511448_707364879_nKorey Johnson is a 2nd year student in the Honors College at Towson University with a double major in Political Science and Communication Studies with a minor in African American studies. She is currently a member of the Towson University Debate Team.


6 thoughts on “Never Meant to Survive the Debate: Sapphire Reclaims Her Performance

  1. Can this excellent rebuttal be submitted to the Atlantic? I don’t want that poorly-written article posted on that site without a rebuttal like this posted alongside it.

  2. I spent many years in debate, but I’ve been out for over a decade. This was an informative read; thank you for putting it out there. I second the professor’s comment: “You have made the argument.” Nicely done.

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