WASHINGTON — Chatting politely with Diddy. Clasping hands with Queen Latifah. Receiving a bear hug from Whitney Houston. And delivering a speech that may reach a television audience of millions.
It was all in a glamorous night's work for President Ruth Simmons, who accepted an award for her accomplishments as an educator Jan. 16, at the 2010 BET Honors in downtown's Warner Theater.
Simmons, Latifah, Houston, renowned neurosurgeon Keith Black and Sean "Diddy" Combs were the honorees at the third-annual awards show, which recognizes the lifetime achievements of high-profile black Americans and will be broadcast Feb. 1 on the cable network. In front of a decked-out crowd that included celebrities, athletes and prominent professionals, the quintet was feted with video tributes and musical performances by the likes of Mary J. Blige, Stevie Wonder and Jennifer Hudson.
"I'm a little bit out of my element here," Simmons said, taking the stage to accept her award in a floor-length black gown and a gold-and-pearl necklace. She spoke for about five minutes about the value of education, likening herself to "millions of children" worldwide who "walk every day along dusty roads and mean streets to places of learning."
"With the help of the teachers who pushed me beyond what I thought I could do," she said, "I came to understand the value of education, not just to enable me to make a living, but to enable us to make a worthwhile life."
Among those she thanked were the Corporation members who in 2001 made what she called the "boldly independent" decision to appoint her the Ivy League's first black president.
"I hope and pray that I've lived up to their confidence in my abilities," she told the crowd, adding, after a pause, "I'm sure I have."
Two top BET executives — President and CEO Debra Lee '76 and President of Music Programming and Specials Stephen Hill '84 — are Brown alums, and Lee said the president of her alma mater fit the spirit of the award perfectly.
"Being the first African-American Ivy League president is quite an accomplishment, and when you look at her full history of everything she's done for our young people in education, she's a natural," Lee, a member of Brown's Board of Trustees, told The Herald. "Hopefully it will impress upon young people that there are a lot of different professions. You don't have to be an entertainer or an athlete; you can be a university president."
Last year's BET Honors, which recognized luminaries including Blige and Magic Johnson, drew about 2.5 million television viewers, according to the network's Web site.
"Where (Simmons) came from and how much she has accomplished hopefully will inspire young people that you can do whatever you want," Lee added.
Simmons grew up during Jim Crow in Grapeland, Texas, as the youngest of 12 children in a family of limited means.
The tribute to Simmons included an introduction by actress Victoria Rowell, a brief video that recounted her life story and lauded her expansion of financial aid at Brown and a musical performance by the singer India.Arie and the pianist ELEW. Simmons' son, Khari, accompanied the pair on bass.
The setting revealed that Simmons is no complete stranger to the entertainment world.
Because her son regularly performs with Arie, she and Simmons are on a first-name basis, and Arie said Simmons specifically requested she perform at the event. That personal connection made honoring Simmons — whom she called a "longtime friend" — all the more special, Arie said.
"I kind of grew up around her," Arie told the Herald. "She's someone that I just admire and admire on a personal level, too."
Simmons has been known to break into song when she sees Arie, the singer revealed. "I have a song called ‘India's Song,' and every time I see her she goes, ‘India, India, India-a-a,'" she said.
Arie serenaded Simmons with her song "Beautiful Flower," whose refrain includes the lyrics "There's nothing in the world that you can't do / When you believe in you, who are beautiful."
The video tribute featured photos — many of which showed Simmons in her academic regalia — and interviews with Simmons and others. Many parts of the video drew loud applause from the audience, especially a part that showed Simmons telling the interviewer that a key moment in her life was when she realized that "I should not be grateful to be at Harvard," where she received her doctorate, "but they should be grateful to have me."
Rowell credited Simmons with a "commitment to helping build academic golden gates."
"Education is an equalizer, a way that those less fortunate can bridge the economic gap," Rowell said. "Tonight, we celebrate Dr. Ruth Simmons, a woman who crossed that bridge and is now dedicated to shepherding as many others across the divide as possible."
Simmons also used the occasion to express her sympathy for the people of earthquake-devastated Haiti.
"I hear everybody saying that Haiti has to overcome its history, and it annoys me," she said, to applause. "Haiti's a beautiful land, full of beautiful, brilliant people. It just is going to have to live up to its history."
Before the event, Simmons walked the red carpet with the likes of D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth of "The Apprentice" fame, singer Patti LaBelle and actress Gabrielle Union, the show's host.
The red carpet is "not quite like the normal thing that I do," Simmons laughed while shuttling from interview to interview. "It's always nerve-wracking," she said, stumbling briefly over her gown as she made her way through a gauntlet of reporters, photographers and television cameras. "You can see why."
Simmons told the crowd while accepting her award that she found the company humbling.
"I don't know why I'm here with them," she said. "I'm so impressed by what they do."
"It's intimidating, because I can get up and talk, but they can too," she added. "And I can't perform."
But despite the bright lights and heady atmosphere of the night, Simmons made sure to slip in at least one plug for Brown.
"It's imperative that I give a shout-out to the students, faculty and staff of Brown University," she said.
Drawing mid-sentence laughter from the audience for her use of slang, Simmons asked, "I can say that, can't I?"