Kristen Caven, an OUSD parent, volunteer, and author of Perfectly Revolting: My Glamorous Cartooning Career, tells us about a festival that’s become an institution in Oakland. The final competition is March 18 and 19.
Do you want to see the best of Oakland? Come to any round of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Oratorical Fest, at any school, now in its 32nd year. Private, public and charter school students perform famous or original speeches, poetry, and songs about peace, freedom, justice, beauty, human rights, personal struggle, and triumph, or just being a good and authentic person.
I attended the regional competition for middle and high schools on a lark today, helping out an English newcomers teacher, Ms. Colt, who’d had two teachers and three parents call in sick, and could not otherwise take her the 21 kids from our school. But my sacrifice was not entirely altruistic. I’ve often gone out of my way to attend the festival at my son’s elementary school, always a memorable, many-tissue day filled with poetry, inspiring words, and adorable, brave kids.
Today an audience of participants, parents and teachers got to hear the poetry of a hundred children who expressed various perspectives with power, passion, polish and pain. We heard words by Tracy Chapman, Langston Hughes, W.E.B. DuBois, and even Roald Dahl. There were two Phenomenal Womans, a steady beat of works by and about King, and one impressive channeling of Junior Senator Barack Obama’s 2004 DNC “we are not a black America or a white America” speech. Each student displayed a thoughtfulness that every citizen of this city should be proud of.
Every performer did a wonderful job of expressing their personal concerns through a slice of literature, written by themselves or someone else. All enjoyed their hard-earned hoots and hollers, and some managed to evoke “the ‘tingle’ factor: An Oakland Tech student asking, “What if the tea party was black?” in an original speech that won him a medal. A Montera girl explaining the true meaning of education in a piece by Oakland poet Kameron Moore-Mitchell. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Drum Major” speech about contemplating his funeral, complete with snazzy choreography, by five red-sweatered sixth-graders from Dr. Herbert Guice Christian Academy.
Raymen Justice, the 17-year-old student who lost his life last fall, was present as well. When a Claremont student read “Justice,” a poem about him by her cousin, Oakland poet/activist Lucas Brekke-Meisner, a boy from Castlemont Leadership Prep got up and left the room. Some wondered… was he being rude and taking a break? Was he making a protest? The student apologized when it was his turn to take the stage; he’d been overcome with emotion. He delivered an original poem, “Rise,” which he’d written for his brother Raymen as a eulogy. Over the course of the event, the great words spoken transformed audience members from competing schools to community members with connected hearts.
When Ms. Colt’s students took the stage to recite a poem about King, a hush fell over the room. Her middle school students, recent arrivals to the United States, spoke at a second-grade level, but there was no judgment. They spoke about peace, but their faces and clothing told the quintessential American story: I just came from another country… where there is war.
The Final Competition Dates or the Oratorical Fest will be:
6-12 (Laney College): Friday, March 18 from 1:00 – 3:30 p.m.
K-5 (Acts Full Gospel Church of God In Christ): Saturday, March 19 from 6:30 – 8:30 p.m.