The first thing you notice is they don't look or seem like the stereotypical images of young African-American men. Even the young man with the gold grill -- he also wore a collegiate-looking sweater. Another young man wearing the now infamous hoodie was thoughtful and sincere.
Of course, that's the point of The Griots of Oakland: Voices from the African American Oral History Project, an exhibit and book. The oral history project set out to let young African-American men in Oakland speak for and represent themselves, outside of the preconceived views of adults and the media. (Griot is defined as "An African storyteller who perpetuates the oral tradition and history of a village or family.")
It's a joint project of Alameda County's Center for Healthy Schools and Communities, the Oakland school district's Office of African American Male Achievement, Story For All, a nonprofit organization that uses storytelling to educate and heal communities, and the African American Museum and Library at Oakland.
Story For All trained five African-American male high school students in oral history, interviewing and videography. In 2012, they interviewed 100 young men and boys, ranging in age from 6 to 24 at several locations, including schools, a youth center, bus stops, a health fair and a music festival. Fifty-three of the interviews have been included in the exhibit.
In the interviews, the young men and boys are hopeful and positive -- 100 percent said they plan to go to college -- even as they talk about the violence and poverty in their neighborhoods. The older ones are well aware of how others stereotype them, yet they have no doubt about who they are. We see their strengths and resilience, in spite of the overwhelmingly negative images of them. Most of all, the interviews restore them as individuals, our children and young men.
The first question: "What did you have for breakfast this morning?"
You have the adorable students at Parker Elementary School in East Oakland. When asked the first three words that come to mind when he thinks of African-American men, Yeheshuah Salam, then a fifth-grader, says, "smart, intelligent and respectful." Alonzo Holmes answered, "strong, fun and kind." For 19-year-old DeAndre Johnson, the wordswere "hyphy and out of control." A student at the College of Alameda gives a dual answer: "A lot of killings. The good things -- inventions, the struggle."
Their fondest childhood memories ranged from trips to Disneyland to a trip to the beach with family members. Scariest experiences included getting lost in the mall, thinking a cellphone was lost, and being shot at and missed at point-blank range by an acquaintance who was gunning for someone nearby.
Family and community are very important. Family is what they say gives them support and hope. Community is a place for people to come together and enjoy each other.
Among the things they would change: the name-calling at school, teach the Mexican neighbors English so they can communicate with one another.
"It was inspiring to hear their wisdom and clarity," said Angela Zusman, executive director of Story for All. "They have an understanding about the positives and negatives of life and they are very articulate in describing them. I was struck by the funny things and heartbreaking things they said. I learned so much from them about what it means to be an African-American man in Oakland."
Zusman attributes their openness to the fact they were being interviewed by their peers.
The idea originated with Tracey Schear, director of the Center for Healthy Schools and Communities. Frustrated by the negative images of young African-American men, she thought an oral history project would give them the opportunity to tell their own stories.
"These young men are so vibrant and energetic with so much hope for the future, all the while having lived and experienced real struggles," said Hilary Crowley, media consultant for the center. "It's a classic story of the human spirit that will thrive. They are normal kids living in extraordinary circumstances."
Johnson, the young man in the hoodie (and the one who was missed by a shot at point-blank range), talks about his own transformation.
"Growing up in the hood, living the gangster, thug lifestyle, nothing good can come out of it. I lived it. I started thugging at 12," he says. "I've been to jail three times. The third time, I had a moment; I understood I needed to grow up. It clicked. You have to believe in yourself. In the hood, there aren't a lot of people who will support you. You have to support yourself, have a plan, set goals."
The opening reception for the exhibit and the book release is Saturday, Nov. 16, 4 to 7 p.m. at African American Museum and Library at Oakland, 659 14th St., Oakland. The exhibit runs through March 1.