There was nothing apprehensive about the teenage New Yorkers as they swaggered into the Ramsey Gymnasium in Siler City to the blaring backdrop of hip-hop music. Though it was a foreign environment--the first time in the South for most--it didn't seem to matter. They appeared as loose as the hanging T-shirts that draped their adolescent anatomies. They came to ball.
But they also came to learn. The First Annual Youth Conference for the junior chapter of the West Chatham NAACP was designed to bridge gaps of cultural understanding between North and South. And before challenging on the court, the Carolina contingency and their New York counterparts would first grab a spot on the bleachers and challenge their perceptions of each other.
"We were interested in how we could get young people from different places together to talk about images, differences and stereotypes," says co-organizer Thabiti Boone, head of the New York delegation. The Brooklyn-based Boone is the founder of FIST (Fighting Ignorance, Spreading Truth), a program geared at empowering youth through community involvement, social awareness and activism. After pointing out that a number of his youth had trouble in school or with the law prior to joining FIST, Boone stresses that this experience "has to tie in to how they can affect their own behaviors and perceptions of themselves versus what others may think of them."
From the podium on the gym floor, Boone pulls two volunteers from the audience--one from Pittsboro, the other from Brooklyn. "Do all Southerners raise chickens, talk slow and love pork?" asks Boone, prompting an outburst of laughter from the young crowd. "Do all New Yorkers live in the projects, shoot each other and hang out with rap stars? And if not, what do you really want to know about each other?"
After much egging, the cautious North Carolinian takes the mic and asks, "Are there a lot of gangstas up there?" The New Yorker responds, "It's not all like that." In the ensuing discussion, representatives from both sides offer their feelings on a variety of relevant issues including school, violence, rap video images, misogyny and religion. In the process, they acknowledge their differences, while recognizing their similarities. Both sides enjoy basketball and hip-hop culture, and are committed to rising above the negative pressures they face on a daily basis.
"It's good to know other people and what the differences are," says 14-year-old Christopher Currie. The Brooklynite suggests that such experiences broaden perspectives and, by doing so, "help kids stay away from drugs" and other negative forces.
Fifteen-year-old Mario Burgess agrees. The Pittsboro resident feels that "doing something constructive like this" keeps kids focused on goals and "away from getting into trouble."
At the discussion's end, NAACP Youth director and lead organizer Donald Matthews grabs the mic and tells three random members of the audience to stand up. Pointing at them one-by-one, he says, "You can be a lawyer, you, a doctor and you, a Supreme Court Justice." Citing negative images often promoted by mainstream media and commercial rap music, Matthews insists that "one thing you all need to know is that you are not what they say you are." The audience erupts into an ovation before a number of them take the court for a pre-game warm-up. Soon, all in the gym are consumed by the pounding orange ball and squeaking sneakers that repeatedly race the court's length.
"It's nice to see the two sides come together, play sports and learn from each other," says 14-year-old Daniel Cepin, cheering his New York teammates from the sideline. However, Cepin admits that North Carolina is "nothing like I expected it would be."
But Currie is less impressed by the cultural differences. "It's fun," he offers, matter-of-factly. "And that's what I expected."