When I was in high school in Lexington, Kentucky, my mom would look for competitions for me. Anything that had to do with science, essay writing, or speech making. She believed I could win anything the way only a mom could believe. It turned out I could win a lot of the time. I had pretty good smarts. My parents gave me more encouragement, financial support, and guidance than any other parents I knew of. While most kids from my school worked behind grocery store counters after class, I was at a table with a calculus tutor or pipetting DNA samples into a PCR machine at a laboratory or reading Tolstoy. The other reason I won so much was that sometimes only one or two other students showed up to the competition. You start to recognize the five other kids in the state with parents like yours. If you show up enough, you’re going to win something. A certificate, a plaque, a trophy, two hundred dollars, a trip to Pittsburgh.
With this one extemporaneous speech competition, it seemed like there was nothing to lose but a couple of hours of our time. No preparation needed, it’s off the top of your head. My mom and I drove to the location – an American Legion Post not far from our house. I hadn’t really thought much about it beforehand. I spent my whole life in the South. I was almost always the only Indian in the room. Almost always the only person of color wherever I went. So even when I walked into the hall and saw that it was full of old white men, I didn’t blink. Only one other student – a white male – showed up to the competition. Like I said, if you go to enough of these things, your odds are pretty good. I was ready. Ready to extemporize.
The hall really filled up with veterans. We’re talking World War II GIs. The greatest generation. Children of the Great Depression, victors over the Nazis. A man gave me and the other student a piece of paper with the topic spelled out. It said – the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution. My first reaction was relief that I knew all the amendments to the constitution. And the thirteenth amendment – that’s a really important one, the first of the three post-Civil War amendments to free American slaves. I was thinking, at least I have a grasp of what the topic is. But after that second of relief, I really felt my brown skin sticking to my skinny body. What was I to say about slavery to old white men in Lexington, Kentucky, a city that sided with the Confederates, a city that was Jim Crow when these men were kids?
There was a coin toss. Or maybe it was by alphabetical order. The other student had to speak first. I was sent off to a back room so I would not be able to hear and have an advantage by being able to respond. Even so, I could hear little bits of what the other student said. He clearly did not know what the thirteenth amendment was. He never mentioned slavery. Never mentioned the Civil War. He was just ranting about Bill Clinton. He said Clinton was a Nazi.
When they called me out, I stood silently for a few seconds and looked at the audience. The stony-faced aged warriors staring back at me! Then I gave the speech of my life. I will never be that good again. I said, the United States has a stain on its history. I said, slavery was a travesty of justice. I said, inequality and oppression were enshrined in the founding document of our nation. That we should feel shame that the founding fathers, who spoke out against tyranny and created the great institutions of democracy that we still benefit from, failed to stop slavery. That they agreed to count slaves as three-fifths of a human being. That the injustices slaves faced were of the very worst kind. So bad that we might ask if it is possible to rise above that past.
With a few minutes left in the allotted time, I shifted tack and said that the thirteenth amendment was perhaps the most important of all the amendments. The greatness of our constitution, I said, and the greatness of our country is the capacity to change. Even though that amendment alone was not the end of discrimination and inequality, I said we should celebrate the incredible sacrifice that went into changing the law of the land and abolishing slavery. The very ability of this country to rise out of its slave-holding past, I said, was proof that we could rise above any challenge. That was what I said. I didn’t realize how much hope I had until I spoke about it to those old white men.
The MC who had run the competition said we should wait for the results. There were three judges at a table and they needed to confer. Well, we waited. And waited. More than thirty minutes passed. Finally, the MC announced that the other student won. My face got hot. I wanted to go home, but my mom – I think it was her not me – wanted to find out what happened. So she kept asking the MC questions until he gave us the actual results from the three judges. It turned out the competition was designed for a multitude of contestants, not just two. Each judge gave a score out of 100 for each speech. Two of the judges gave me the higher score. The third judge gave me a zero and the other student a 100. When they added the scores up, the other student came out on top.
I went home thinking about the irony of the whole damn thing. I was asked to speak about the end of slavery and what I got in return was mathematical proof for the continued existence of hate and discrimination. My mom and I talked about appealing. We could write letters to the national headquarters of the American Legion, but we gave that idea up.
This whole memory was buried away for years. A blip in my comfortable life. With the Obama campaign, it started to resurface. I heard that belief in hope expressed with stunning eloquence in his Iowa victory speech. And again when he conceded the New Hampshire defeat. MaGreen and I saw Obama with 20,000 other people in an arena when he came to Houston. And I thought, the country has changed. It is ready for the Hope Speech. Ready for a consensus about the grave injustices of our past and ready for the possibilities that come of reconciliation. But when the Wright videos surfaced and the TV people heaped scorn on Obama, I remembered the American Legion experience the way it happened. That judge, the one judge.
The consolation I speak to myself is that if the winner of that extemporaneous speech competition had been chosen by an up-or-down vote, I would have won. Won, you hear. As in the bigots would have gone home crying. I say to myself, the not-so-great of the greatest generation are almost all dead along with the great ones. I hear Will.I.Am singing in my head, singing yes we can.
MaGreen and GreenDaddy are Houston writers who have chronicled their attempts at becoming “greener” since 2005, on their blog, Green Parenting.