Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The Great Debaters

Photo of James Farmer Jr., who as a youth was one of the Great Debaters.

As I mentioned in the previous post, I went to see the film, "The Great Debaters" on New Years Day (Gregorian that is). For those who have not seen it, the summary goes like this: In 1935 a group of students at a Black College in Texas form a debate team under the guidance of a Professor Tolsom, a black poet of great distinction who was also involved in organizing unions among rural workers at that time. The group of four students are trained with near martial arts vigor in the "blood sport" of debate and go on to defeat every black college they are matched with (save Howard) and are then invited to debate at Harvard (historically it was UCLA) and of course triumph over the best debate team in the country to loud acclaim. On this journey they face not only the challenges of 1930's Jim crow racial terror (including a graphic scene of a lynching) but teenage angst, crushes, raging harmones, and substance abuse. Watching this film was like eating a bowl of oatmeal, warm, wholesome and predictable (save the lynching which was disturbing on many levels). Given the resurgence of the "noose" as a form of intimidation (if not yet homicide), including that scene was both timely and necessary. By the way, I encourage you to check out a recent Bill Moyers interview with Black theologian James Cone about the Cross and the Lynching Tree. You're gonna love it. My favorite part of this film was seeing a celebration of black intellect rather than artistic or athletic abilities which are what is often celebrated in the popular culture where blacks are concerned. Yes, we can rhyme, dance and dunk with near god-like abilities but we can also "think". This movie is even more meaningful at this precise moment when the time honored game of questioning black intelligence is making a comeback just like the noose. What a coincidence, right? It reminds me of the great emphasis in the Baha'i Writings placed on the power of the mind:

"The intelligence of man, his reasoning powers, his knowledge, his scientific achievements, all these being manifestations of the spirit, partake of the inevitable law of spiritual progress and are, therefore, of necessity, immortal. My hope for you is that you will progress in the world of spirit, as well as in the world of matter; that your intelligence will develop, your knowledge will augment, and your understanding be widened. You must ever press forward, never standing still; avoid stagnation, the first step to a backward movement, to decay."
(Abdu'l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 90)

"'What is the purpose of our lives?' 'Abdu'l-Bahá. -- 'To acquire virtues. We come from the earth; why were we transferred from the mineral to the vegetable kingdom -- from the plant to the animal kingdom? So that we may attain perfection in each of these kingdoms, that we may possess the best qualities of the mineral, that we may acquire the power of growing as in the plant, that we may be adorned with the instincts of the animal and possess the faculties of sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste, until from the animal kingdom we step into the world of humanity and are gifted with reason, the power of invention, and the forces of the spirit.'"
(Abdu'l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 177)

"O thou whose years are few, yet whose mental gifts are many! How many a child, though young in years, is yet mature and sound in judgement! How many an aged person is ignorant and confused! For growth and development depend on one's powers of intellect and reason, not on one's age or length of days."
(Abdu'l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu'l-Baha, p. 142)

"The investigating mind is attentive, alive; the callous and indifferent mind is deaf and dead. A scientific man is a true index and representative of humanity, for through processes of inductive reasoning and research he is informed of all that appertains to humanity, its status, conditions and happenings. He studies the human body politic, understands social problems and weaves the web and texture of civilization. In fact, science may be likened to a mirror wherein the infinite forms and images of existing things are revealed and reflected. It is the very foundation of all individual and national development. Without this basis of investigation, development is impossible. Therefore, seek with diligent endeavor the knowledge and attainment of all that lies within the power of this wonderful bestowal."
(Abdu'l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 50)

"The principles of the Teachings of Bahá'u'lláh should be carefully studied, one by one, until they are realized and understood by mind and heart -- so will you become strong followers of the light, truly spiritual, heavenly soldiers of God, acquiring and spreading the true civilization..."
(Abdu'l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 22)

"Praise and thanksgiving be unto Providence that out of all the realities in existence He has chosen the reality of man and has honored it with intellect and wisdom, the two most luminous lights in either world. Through the agency of this great endowment, He has in every epoch cast on the mirror of creation new and wonderful configurations. If we look objectively upon the world of being, it will become apparent that from age to age, the temple of existence has continually been embellished with a fresh grace, and distinguished with an ever-varying splendor, deriving from wisdom and the power of thought. This supreme emblem of God stands first in the order of creation and first in rank, taking precedence over all created things. Witness to it is the Holy Tradition, "Before all else, God created the mind." From the dawn of creation, it was made to be revealed in the temple of man."
(Abdu'l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 1)