Young orators in spotlight at convention

Teens shine in sciences, arts at national finals of NAACP competition

Naacp 2000

July 09, 2000|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

The judges admitted they weren't sure what to expect from Ashley Wilkerson, a 17-year-old with eyes of coal and braids that sprout every which way. But as soon as she spoke yesterday, they sat transfixed.

Five minutes later, her giant hoop earrings swaying, the Dallas girl with a raspy twang hit her peak on the stage inside the Baltimore Convention Center meeting room.

"I know that I'm beautiful," she proclaimed, her rising voice echoing faintly off the walls. "I know I am worthy of the very best. I know I am in control of my own destiny and dreams."

The crowd of more than 100 jumped to its feet, and some whooped. Wilkerson beamed as she gave way to the next contestant in a daylong high school oratory contest at the NAACP's 91st annual convention.

The competition was part of ACT-SO - the Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological & Scientific Olympics. Its aim is to highlight academic and artistic achievement among African-American high school students.

All over the convention center, entrants danced and sang and played musical instruments. Others displayed science projects or architectural designs. Having won preliminary contests at their local branches of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, they were squaring off in the nationals. Winners in 19 categories will be announced today.

In Room 327, site of the oratory competition, participants brought just themselves and their voices. Working without notes, some 50 teen-agers took turns doing their best to captivate, inspire, enlighten and, in some cases, amuse with words and theatrics.

The themes, contained in mostly original compositions, ran the gamut. Some pondered the black community's future; others dwelt on the frivolousness of teen-age romance. Many invoked African-American luminaries such as Martin Luther King Jr. and poet Maya Angelou, and all made sure to e-nun-ci-ate.

One of the day's lightest messages came from Cherice Anderson. The youth from Mesquite, Texas, sashayed on stage with a big smile before launching into "Wherefore Art Thou, Romeo?"

"Teen-age girls," she said, "seem to fall weak-kneed and desperate for every guy they meet." She likened the odds of finding a Romeo so young to being struck by lightning - twice.

Emily Hegmon of Jackson, Tenn., called her speech "America's Misconception of the Horizontal Dilemma," a critique of society's fixation with skinny women.

Raymond Lynn, 15, of Philadelphia, who draped a colorful African kente cloth over his pinstripe suit, spoke optimistically about turning "stumbling blocks into stepping stones."

He referred to residual "self-loathing" among some blacks resulting from slavery and said, "It is the kind of mental bondage we must work to eradicate."

Wilkerson echoed that call for individuals to make the most of opportunities and to assert themselves. "Why not sometimes strive to be in charge of this place we call the United States?" she said to applause.

Touching on black pride, she added, "We should feel proud because no other race has fully attained what we have intrinsically."

In one of the afternoon's livelier performances, 15-year-old Charisma Dixon of Houston put her hands on her hips and declared: "We are black; we are women; we are coming and we are here."

The three judges watched intently, grading each speaker on platform presence, projection, interpretation and delivery.

"The delivery has been fabulous," said E. Lyle Henderson, now in his third year of judging.

At 1 p.m. today, ACT-SO winners in all categories will be announced at a ceremony in the Convention Center Ballroom. Three budding orators will be handed medals, which come with a cash prize: $1,000 for gold, $750 for silver and $500 for bronze.

Wilkerson conceded that she could use some money. But that isn't what drives this self-described poet and actress.

"If you don't inspire anybody, it's irrelevant," she said. "The money doesn't matter."

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