In March 2017, most of the Malcolm X Debate team was in rural Kansas to compete in a debate tournament. Team member Savannah Jeanne Walker, a novice who was new to both the team and the activity, remained behind in Louisville to support her father and brother after the loss of her mother. On March 19, the team learned that Savannah, affectionately known as Van, had been killed when she was struck by a stray bullet while attending a performance.
“In the moment when we learned of Savannah’s death, our team was broken, ripped apart,” said Tiffany Dillard-Knox, the team’s coordinator. “As a competitive debate team, we’ve experienced our share of losses, so to speak, but this loss was by far the greatest and most painful to fathom. We had just met. We were just getting started.”
Van and Junior Chinnel Williams, another novice who was her debate partner, were just beginning to carve out their place in an activity they had already grown to love, one that had allowed them to find their voice as advocates for Black girls everywhere, Dillard-Knox explains.
After Van’s death, the team wanted to honor her and her passion for debate. Collectively, they decided to dedicate the 2017-2018 debate season to Van, letting her spirit guide them as they developed and advanced arguments based in Black Feminist literature. The team’s vow was to make a run at a national championship.
Williams was especially committed to the goal of competing in a national tournament. She had competed in only five tournaments with Van, so she dedicated herself to learning the game of debate. To be successful, Chinnel — whom Dillard-Knox calls a brilliant scholar and focused student — needed a new partner who could match her intellect and provide the knowledge of and background in debate. That person was Deontrey Yeargin, a freshman from Baltimore.
“The competitive chemistry between the two was immediately apparent. It was as if Van had sent him to us,” said Dillard-Knox.
Both Chinnel and Deontrey read Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ dissertation, We Can Learn to Mother Ourselves: The Queer Survival of Black Feminism 1968-1996. They would also study the works of Black feminist authors such as June Jordan, Audre Lorde, Hortense Spillers, Viviane Saleh-Hanna and many others. This collection of scholars became the foundation for their arguments, laying the groundwork for a season to remember. Highlights are included below.
- Georgia State University: In a pool of 220 speakers, Yeargin is ranked 25th.
- Wake Forest University: A preliminary round record of 6-2 earns Williams/Yeargin (WY) a place as 14th seed; after elimination rounds, they finish the tournament in the top 32 teams. Yeargin is ranked as 36th speaker and Williams is 38th, out of 266 speakers.
- Cal-Berkeley Part 1: WY finish prelim rounds as 3rd seed, thanks to a 6-0 record, and wrap up the tournament in the top 8 teams. Out of 162 speakers, Williams is ranked 16th and Yeargin is 17th.
- Cal-Berkeley Part 2: Winning 4 of their 6 prelim rounds places WY as 13th seed; they end the tournament as one of the top 8 teams. Yeargin is recognized as 5th speaker, with Williams as 14th, out of 160 speakers.
- UT-Austin: WY come out of prelims with a 6-2 record to enter elims as the 12th seed; they finish up as one of the top 32 teams. Yeargin is 20th out of 204 speakers, and Williams is 26th.
- West Georgia University (District tournament): WY win the entire tournament as the #1 team. Yeargin picks up the top speaker award, and Williams is 4th.
- CEDA Nationals: WY are 5th seed, with a 6-2 prelim record; their elim success places them in the top 16 teams. In a pool of 150 speakers, Williams is 4th and Yeargin is 14th.
Each year, debaters all over the country compete to earn an invitation to the prestigious National Debate Tournament (NDT); only the top 78 teams in the country make the cut. WY qualifies for the tournament, which is bittersweet for Chinnel, as it means a return to Kansas almost one year to the day since she learned of Van’s death. But the tournament is also a culmination of the squad’s hard work, and the fulfillment of their vow to Van.
- At the NDT, WY end the prelim rounds with a 6-2 record and a 10th seed position. They end the tournament and season on a high note as one of the top 8 teams in the country. When ranked against 156 speakers, Yeargin is 19th and Williams is 28th.
- Yeargin and Williams are named to the All-American debate team; Williams is named an All-American Debate Scholar
- Williams is named Varsity Debater of the Year for the Cross Examination Debate Association Southeast Region
In addition to her debate success, Williams is also Fulbright Scholarship semifinalist
Editor’s note: Tiffany Dillard-Knox was also named the Scholar of the year for the Cross Examination Debate Association Southeast Region.