The night Ruth was in the same room as P. Diddy: a report from the frontlines

This weekend, our very own Ruth Simmons was given an award at the BET honors — an event that included walking the red carpet and taking the stage at a star-studded awards ceremony in DC. The show won’t be airing until February 1, but Post-‘s intrepid reporter, Rachel Lamb, managed to get into the event. After the jump, Queen Latifah, Stevie Wonder, and Ruth’s “sexy black dress.”

The BET Honors promise to show “what extraordinary looks like,” and this year, it looks like our esteemed leader Ruth Simmons, receiving the Education award, along with Dr. Keith Black (Public Service), Queen Latifah (Media), Whitney Houston (Entertainment), and Sean “Diddy” Combs (Entrepreneurship). These five honorees were celebrated on January 16th in an evening of performances and celebrity presentations in the Warner Theatre in Washington, D.C.

I — an average schlumpy Brown student and DC native tapped to cover the event — was determined to share in that extraordinary myself. And so at 3:30 on a Saturday, I find myself stumbling off the subway in my subdued, yet mildly extraordinary outfit: black jeans, the suit jacket I wore for my bat mitzvah, and heels that put me a head or two taller than everyone around me. Teetering over to the barricades that blocked off an entire block of 13th street, I let a limousine cut in front of me and then nervously flash my press credentials at the nearest security guard. After meeting up with another Herald reporter, Michael, I squeeze myself onto the press line in the middle of People magazine, BET news, and the DC government cable channel. Struggling to muscle a cameraman out of the way to get to the velvet rope and feeling the first blisters start to form on my feet, I am feeling distinctly unglamorous.

A deep voice announces the first arrivals, largely the lower-tier VIPs, who look happy just to parade by in their sumptuous gowns and velvet suits, getting a few shots taken by bored photographers. Then come the vaguely recognizable celebrities, whose agents have to walk before them to remind us who they are and why we should care: Miss District of Columbia, that supporting actress from “Love and Basketball”, that football player from the Redskins. We’re impatient, wondering when Ruth will show up.

Suddenly the cameras snap into action like never before and we know the first bigshot has arrived. We see Gabrielle Union, the host of the show, inch her way down the carpet in a dress that’s too tight for her to walk unassisted. She’s so close we can see sweat start to drip down her cheeks before an aide wipes it away. India.Arie, a good pal of Ruth’s who will be performing in her honor, stops to chat with us (with US!) and I am momentarily lost in the sound of her voice, as seductively smoky in person as on her albums. Diddy (aka Sean Combs aka Puff Daddy aka Puff or Puffy aka P. Diddy, in case you’re unclear) keeps his sunglasses on for the cameras (no, it is not sunny, and yes, we are indoors, but he radiates enough cool that he almost doesn’t look like a douche . . . almost), removing them to grant the BET News people an interview. I press as close as I can and suddenly we’re breathing the same air. I similarly attend to Mary J. Blige until I’m distracted by the back of Queen Latifah’s head as her aides rush her past. I don’t have time to feel extraordinary; my neck is starting to ache from the amount of times I’ve turned my head.

And then, of course there is Ruth – educator, leader, cult figure, and T-shirt centerpiece extraordinaire. Looking absolutely radiant in a stunning and sexy black dress (64 and sexy? You show ’em, Ruth!), she comes to talk to us not once, but twice, the second time dragging along her son Khari, who will be performing with India.Arie. She jokes that she’s “a little worried” because the performers have refused to tell her what song they’ll be doing. “I was talking to India last night,” she complains, “but I couldn’t get it out of her.” Yes, our president is on a first-name basis with India.Arie. She also brings over Debra Lee, Chairman and CEO of BET, and also a Brown alum, who expresses her delight and surprise that the BDH has come so far to cover the event. BET President of Programming Stephen Hill, who did not make it to the red carpet, is also a Brown alum. To paraphrase Jay-Z, Brown runs this town.

After the red carpet, we discover that we’ve snagged tickets to both the taping and the afterparty. Excited, and just a little bit late at this point, we make our way up seemingly infinite flights of stairs (I think there were two but my heels multiply every step by about a million) and find our way to our seats in the second-to-last row of the theatre. The figures on stage may be tiny dots, but whatever: the best of the biz are brought out to pay tribute to the honorees. Stevie Wonder is a smooth, silky delight, performing first with Take 6 and later with Trey Songz and India.Arie. In her other performance, Arie does Ruth proud, singing “Beautiful Flowers” with Khari on bass and ELEW on piano. Then, of course, there are the divalicious Jasmine Sullivan, Patti LaBelle, Kim Burrell, and Mary J. Blige, whose sassy, soulful songs get everyone up and dancing. The award for best performance of the night, however, goes to Jennifer Hudson, whose rendition of “I Will Always Love You,” in honor of Whitney Houston, is so powerful that for a second I’m worried the theatre will come crashing down on top of us. In between performances, various actors and entertainers come out to introduce the honorees, with the help of short films highlighting their achievements. We see Ruth’s humble beginnings, Queen Latifah’s days as an MC, Whitney before she was a legend, Black operating on animals as a child, and Diddy back when he was but a Puff. The honorees all come up and thank the important people in their lives that helped them reach this point. Their speeches touch on black pride, black beauty, and the need to support Haiti.

For Michael and I, of course, it’s all about Ruth. Victoria Brown introduces our “revolutionary leader”, lauding her for her efforts to significantly increase scholarships and bridge the educational divide. But no one does Ruth justice like Ruth herself. Her speech is, in my only slightly biased opinion, the best of the evening. After mentioning the importance of not only helping the Haitians, but believing in them, she turns to the significance of education “to enable me to live a worthwhile life.”  She goes on to thank the Brown community for taking the “boldly independent step” in appointing her and “for believing that one can lead ably from difference.” Describing how humbled and “intimidat[ed]” she is by the other honorees, Ruth admits, “I’m a little out of my element here.” Indeed, when she uses the phrase “It is imperative”, the audience laughs and she quips “I can say that! I have to impress my students!” Job well done, Ruth; we are, as ever, impressed. And the celebrity honorees seem impressed as well – Diddy takes her hand as she walks up to the stage during the final ceremony, and Queen Latifah and Whitney Houston both embrace her warmly.

That is what the world will see when the show is broadcast on February 1st to kick off Black History Month. What I saw in addition were the long pauses, awkward jokes, and presenter flubs that won’t make it to camera: Stevie Wonder performing the same song twice, either to fill space or to fix a bad recording. Chris Tucker stumbling repeatedly over the name of the honoree he is presenting, referring to Black as “Mr. Dr. Keith Black” (On the third time, they give up and just roll with it.) Gabrielle Union walking out with an assistant still attached to her hair extensions. I’m suddenly an insider, peeking behind the glitzy curtain of the televised ceremony.

When the show is over, Michael and I slide past Mya walking down the stairs and make our way to the afterparty at the Ronald Reagan Center. Sipping expensive champagne and schmoozing with Debra Lee, we scan the crowd hoping for a glimpse of Ruth. She doesn’t show. I guess we all, esteemed college presidents and schlumpy students alike, have to return to ordinary life eventually. For Ruth, however, ordinary now includes a very heavy and impressive-looking BET award to weigh down her mantlepiece, a visual reminder that extraordinary can look just like her.

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