BALTIMORE — At the 77th NAACP convention here Monday, hundreds of black teen-agers paraded across a stage as a speaker bellowed into a microphone, "These are not thugs! They're geniuses!" And, "Turn those television cameras on, the same way you do on the criminals!" Each time the proclamations brought thunderous applause.
The occasion was the awards ceremony of the Afro-Academic Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics, known as ACT-SO, which give brainy young blacks a chance to compete and receive recognition in a manner that usually is bestowed only upon athletes in the young black community.
A Shift of Focus
The National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and other black organizations have long lamented the fact that the only attention given young blacks seems to be concentrated on athletes, drug-users, criminals and other problem-plagued youths.
"Everyone knows there are 13-year-old girls getting pregnant. But I'm not," said 18-year-old Saundra Quarterman, a recent graduate of Beverly Hills High School who won a silver medal for second place in the drama category.
"The whole race is not going to hell," Quarterman said. "For every 13-year-old pregnant girl there are more who are striving to do something more."
Added Lamar Faulkner, a 17-year-old graduate of Dominguez High School in Compton, Calif., who gave a rousing speech on space exploration, "We have been stereotyped as hanging out on the corner with a radio on our shoulder. But there are many gifted blacks."
More than 50 high school students from the greater Los Angeles area competed in ACT-SO, an idea conceived 10 years ago by Chicago Times columnist Vernon Jarrett, the shouting man at the microphone.
Jarrett echoed the sentiments of many successful blacks who believe that too many youths are wasting their time trying to become basketball star Julius (Dr. J) Erving, when they "might become Dr. Claude Organ, the famous surgeon who is here," said Jarrett, referring to the first black chairman of the American Board of Surgery.
While some athletes, like Erving, make fine role models, youths often don't understand that of 8.9 million black adult men in America, fewer than 4,000 currently earn their livings as professional athletes--a minuscule percentage. The chances of anyone growing up to be Dr. J are extremely remote, and many youths shun educational opportunities to chase what turns into an illusive dream. Left disillusioned, some can be tempted to turn to the other get-rich-quick profession they see thriving in the ghetto: drug pushing.
Further fueling the controversy in the black community of over-emphasis on athletics are the recent deaths of All-American basketball star Len Bias and football standout Don Rogers, both felled by cocaine at the prime of their lives.
"There is a new kind of segregation of blacks," Jarrett said, "that athletes, a handful of entertainers and street gang leaders are the only ones who make the news. There is a great blackout of blacks who show mental ability."
Jarrett turned on the lights at the NAACP convention as winners of 411 local competitions came to compete in 22 academic and cultural categories.
Sabrina Johnson, a 17-year-old graduate of Compton High School, won a gold medal in the musical vocal category singing Vissi d'Amore from the opera "Tosca" by Puccini.
"You feel like you're performing for your life," said Johnson, a soprano who plans to attend USC in the fall. "This has been a very rewarding experience for me. It's allowed me to see the other young, ambitious artists, who are struggling as I am. I think it helps raise the morality of young people."
Johnson said that ambitious young blacks "are kind of outcasts," a view echoed by Faulkner, who said some of his peers think he is "weird" because of his dedication to religion and the straight-and-narrow path.
"ACT-SO has helped me to utilize the gift I have," Faulkner said, "and on a racial basis, it lets me know that I'm not the only black young man with a talent."
Added dancer Darryl Moch, a senior at Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, "I've always been considered different. I've always had peer problems, because I'm talented and intelligent. This (competition) has helped me because I'm with hundreds and hundreds who are just as bright as I am."
Vincent Jackson, a gold medal winner in architecture from Reseda High School, said the "purpose (of ACT-SO) is to give black people a chance to do something other than participate in sports. There is too much emphasis on sports." His award-winning blueprints were of a 7,275-square-foot house. "I made the rooms very large," he said.
Jahnna Biddle, a 17-year-old junior from Van Nuys High School, said she got chills when she heard one speaker talk about how blacks get put down, and that it's time blacks stand up for themselves.
"This gives young black people an opportunity to show what they have, instead of always being put down for drugs or whatever," said Biddle, who competed in dance. "Many of us aren't like that. Many of us are striving to be the best."
Other California medal-winners included:
Byron Wilhite, Inglewood, first place poetry.
Rayfaord Johnson, Sacramento, first place photography.
Michael Duvernay, Fremont, second place architecture.
Shani Butler, Los Angeles, second place film video.
Lisa Hollins, Los Angeles, second place painting.
Pierre Guy White, Los Angeles, second place music vocal.
Genia Cheatwood, Altadena, second place play writing.
Joanna Leonard, Berkeley, third place dance.
Perrence Martin, Compton, third place architecture.
Scott Sudduth, Altadena, third place oratory.
Pammy Townsend, Los Angeles, third place music vocal.
Pamela Mshana, Ontario, third place play writing.