In her red dress, 3-year-old Ashley Bothwell, stepped to the stage, reached up for the microphone on its stand, yanked it down to her height, and she shouted for all to hear.
“Hey black child!” she said, beginning the Maya Angelou poem. “Do you know who you are? Who you really are? Do you know you can be what you want to be?”
She won first place among preschoolers who gave memorized orations Saturday, as part of the 36th annual Black Heritage Festival at the Anniston Museum of Natural History. For the first two hours of the annual event celebrating African-American history and culture, people packed an auditorium to hear performances by kids as young as Bothwell and as old as high school seniors.
“When I was little, I was shy, and I didn’t want her to be like that,” said Bothwell’s mother, Andrela Bothwell. “This pushes them out of their shell. It gives them pride.”
Georgia Calhoun has seen it for 36 years now.
“It showcases our children and their talents,” she said of the festival she founded and continues to organize every February for Black History Month. “It gives them beautiful thoughts.”
Mikayla Osborne, a sixth-grader at C.E. Hanna Elementary School, had the crowd humming along with her performance. Some closed their eyes and swayed.
Osborne chose “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” the hymn sung by slaves.
“When I thought about black history,” she said later, “I thought about slaves.”
Eriyanna Arnold, 14, used her time on stage to address issues she sees today in black society. She recited a poem she wrote titled “Black Lives Matter,” which laments black-on-black violence.
“Two black lives gone, one dead, and one in jail,” she said on stage, her voice rising. “Father, can hear me? My people are self-destructing.”
Arnold, a student at Anniston Middle School, won first place among students in her age group.
“I wanted to voice what I felt,” she said. “I wanted that to be heard.”
Lanardo Talley, an Anniston High School student, recited Tupac’s “I Cry,” a poem about being alone.
“I’m like in a shell at school; I don’t talk much,” Talley said. “With a poem, I say a lot.”