OAKLAND — Nia Warren clutched the microphone and looked out into the audience, her willowy 11-year-old frame wrapped in a satin cocktail dress.
"Take a good look at me," she began. "You will see that my hair is nappy, my lips are thick, and my skin is chocolate brown. ... Me, I was never a slave. I never picked cotton, or nothing like that."
Nia wrote the poem one day at lunch, but she spent much longer refining her delivery. Stage presence, pronunciation and expression is what took Nia and the other contestants to the final round of Oakland's 30th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Oratorical Fest.
One after another, young orators between the ages of 5 and 18 stepped onto the stage Friday night at Acts Full Gospel Church. Like Nia, many delivered speeches and poems — famous and original — about identity and race, equality and discrimination, progress and struggle.
About 5,000 youths participated in this year's competition, but by Friday night, only 50 contestants remained. Some of the performers caused the audience to jump to its feet.
While undoubtedly nerve-racking for some participants, others said they cherished those few minutes in the spotlight.
"I felt like I was at home," Nia said afterward. "I felt like I was at peace with the whole world."
Her friend Chayla Fisher agreed. The 11-year-old Thornhill Elementary School student's poem "What Color Am I?" also dealt with racial identity, but from a different perspective — Chayla is white.
"It just brings me to who I really am," Chayla said.
Andrea Nobles, who directs the event, said it was a memorable year. The high school participation, though still relatively small, nearly tripled from the previous year, she said, from 16 to more than 40. She thinks it must have something to do with the popularity of President Barack Obama, who is known for his soaring oratory.
It appears that for a growing number of teenagers, Nobles said, "it's all right to be articulate, to be able to express your words creatively."
Victor McElhaney, an eighth-grader at Berkely Maynard Academy, said he wasn't the least bit nervous about facing the audience to read the poem he wrote last year titled "I am."
"I love people seeing me do what I do," he said.
This year, Nobles said, she noticed that students of various ethnic backgrounds spoke out, loud and clear, on the subject of race.
"That was the theme, it really was, and it jumped out at you," she said. "The kids are still feeling the racial discrimination."
All of the contestants won first, second or third place.
Natassija Jordan, a 10th-grade poet at College Preparatory Academy, said the event gives youths a rare chance to express their views to a mostly adult audience.
"Coming to these events, we're able to get our own messages across, even if we're speaking through someone else's words," she said.
It's a powerful experience, Natassija added. "It shows that even the younger generation understands what's happening in the world, and what needs to be done to fix it."