There are black celebrities, and then there are black history makers. At the BET Honors, held Saturday, Jan. 14, at Washington, D.C.’s Warner Theatre, it was the latter group that stole the show.
The red-carpet event delivered, as expected, appearances and performances by high-profile award show regulars: Jennifer Hudson, Kelly Rowland, Stevie Wonder and even Patti LaBelle took to the stage. But striking a tone appropriate for the celebratory but reflective mood of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, those who made substantive contributions to the black experience outside of Hollywood — Michelle Obama, Maya Angelou and surviving members of the Tuskegee Airmen — were the evening’s most celebrated guests. When it came to the first lady, the poet and the black trailblazers, the celebrities themselves were starstruck.
Obama was technically a presenter, but really a main attraction and honored guest. “We’re very excited,” BET President Debra Lee told The Root. “I invited her several times over the past year. She’d heard what a great event it was, and Dr. Sharon Malone, [Attorney General] Eric Holder’s wife, told her what a great event it was … So when I saw her at the White House for the Kennedy Center Honors, I said, ‘You know, you have to come to BET Honors,’ and she said, ‘Oh, I want to, I want to.’ “
Seasoned host Gabrielle Union, emceeing the event for the fifth consecutive year, joked that the first lady’s presence made her slightly nervous. “I’m excited that she’s here. I do feel a little pressure to tell more appropriate jokes, but we’ll see how that goes,” she told us preshow.
Willow Smith, Cicely Tyson, Queen Latifah and Jill Scott welcomed Obama with a recitation of Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman.” She received an extended standing ovation punctuated by audience shouts of “We love you, first lady!” when she took to the stage in a floor-length, one-shouldered crimson gown.
She was tasked with presenting the Literary Arts award to another audience favorite, Angelou. In highly personal remarks, she called the poet and author “my friend,” “one of my heroes” and “an iconic, otherworldly figure.” To honor Angelou, she said, “We must help others discover the greatness in themselves,” adding, “she reminds us that we belong here … that each of us has a place in this world.” Accepting her honor, the literary legend presented a poem.