Marissa Hayes urged a crowd at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African-American History & Culture on Sunday to reconsider the notion of adversity — not as a difficulty to be endured, but as a challenge to be overcome.
The 14-year-old South River High School freshman from Crofton won WJZ’s 2019 Black History Oratory Competition with an eloquent, inspirational speech invoking the names of civil rights leader Rosa Parks, Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman and Alexander Twilight, the first African-American man to earn a bachelor’s degree.
“These people broke down barriers, and if they had one thing in common, it was their ability to take the challenges they were up against and turn them into opportunities,” Marissa said. “They utilized the hatred that was thrown at them daily and transformed it into a reason to strive for greater heights. They all worked towards trying to change a seemingly incorrigible society into one where everyone is treated equally.
“The next time you feel the need to give up because of an obstacle ahead of you, don’t,” she added. “Instead, ask yourself questions such as “How can I overcome this?’ and ‘What can I take away from this experience?’ ”
Joseph Griffin II and Chloe McGeehan, classmates at River Hill High School in Clarksville, took second and third place in the competition, out of 20 semifinalists from 11 Baltimore-area schools.
WJZ anchor Nicole Baker emceed the competition; Toyota Financial Services and the Enoch Pratt Free Library sponsored scholarship prizes, along with the museum and the news station.
The teenage contestants wrote and delivered speeches about one of three quotations:
Hall-of-Fame Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis: “Wins and losses come a dime a dozen. But effort? Nobody can judge that, because effort is between you and you.”
Former first lady Michelle Obama: “You should never view your challenges as a disadvantage. Instead, it’s important for you to understand that your experience facing and overcoming adversity is actually one of your biggest advantages.”
Distinguished African-American artist Romare Bearden: “Art is the soul of a people.”
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The semi-finalists delivered a marathon of well-rehearsed oratory, sharing their perspectives on each of the quotations. All three of the winners selected Obama’s.
Joseph, a 16-year-old sophomore from Columbia, asked the audience to close their eyes and place themselves in the shoes of the civil rights protesters who marched in Selma, Ala., in 1965, despite seeing the police in the distance, waiting for them.
“Your hands tremble as sweat begins to form on your brow,” he said. “You grab the hand of your neighbor and take a step forward, inching toward the imminent threat. You want to run, you want to hide from the danger, but you understand that running won’t solve the problem.
“Michelle Obama tells us to experience our challenges and understand that getting over the worst parts in our life can actually improve it,” he added. “In order to do so, you must have a process, patience, and, most importantly, a belief in yourself.”
Chloe, a 15-year-old freshman from Ellicott City, spoke about being the eldest of eight children with two working parents, an experience she said has taught her self-reliance and patience, learning to be proactive about doing her homework and chores and tutoring her younger siblings.
“I found myself connecting [Obama’s] powerful insight on the tension between misfortune and strength to the struggles and lessons learned in my family,” she said. “Battling the challenges of having a large family has ultimately enriched my life by instilling independence, cooperation and strength into my character and choices today.”
“The advantages that become apparent in the real world come from disadvantages and misfortunes that require true character to overcome,” Chloe said.