The 2011 honorees of The Root 100 were celebrated Saturday night at an elegant, upbeat dinner and dance party at Washington, D.C.'s Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium. Gathered were elected officials, activists, entertainers, media professionals and authors, all renewing acquaintances, comparing notes, telling stories and basking in the momentary recognition of being America's most influential young black leaders.
"You are the all-stars of our community," said Donna L. Byrd, publisher of The Root, in opening remarks to dozens of current honorees of The Root 100 who came to accept their awards, as well as the past honorees and guests in attendance.
But this was a serious crowd. Even the speechifying was low on traditional Beltway self-congratulation and high on encouragement to aim higher and to do even better.
NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous urged the celebrants to nurture their idealism and their capacity for outrage. "It's tough not to get jaded," he acknowledged. But The Root 100 and their admirers have a mission, he admonished. "Let us remember the responsibility we all have to speak for those who have no voice," he said, citing the sad fate of death row inmate Troy Davis, who was executed in September despite questionable evidence in his murder trial.
Joshua DuBois, director of the White House's Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, spoke of the strength of black families and a tradition of exemplary fatherhood. "We come from a long line of great fathers … Pullman porters, stonemasons, activists," he said. It's a strength that must be maintained to ensure the next generation of extraordinary leaders, said DuBois. "Every 12-year-old in Detroit or Anacostia or the Mississippi Delta has within him the seeds of greatness."
And Beverly Bond, executive producer of BET's Black Girls Rock! Awards show, noted that the African-American community still faces a depressing array of crises. "We need social action to be a contagion," she said. "As the most influential of our generation, we must be the frontrunners for change."
During the proceedings, Donna Byrd revealed that The Root's managing editor, Joel Dreyfuss, would be leaving the site after two years at the helm and moving to Paris to work on a book about Haiti's history and the lives of his Haitian ancestors. He will be succeeded by the site's current deputy editor, Sheryl Huggins Salomon.
Then the honorees who attended the dinner assembled on the meeting hall's proscenium for picture taking. For the moment, they were an ebullient, high-spirited group, exchanging jokes and beaming for the cameras.
It's gatherings like these that can energize the change makers, said Atlanta's celebrated mayor Kasim Reed afterward.
"These jobs can get very lonely," Reed said. "Meeting other people of my generation who are doing the same thing — that can empower you."
Edmund Newton is a freelance journalist based in the Washington area.