Every single time I’ve gone to the ESSENCE Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon, I’ve floated away from it. No, I don’t walk away from there. I glide on clouds because that room is nothing short of spell-binding. It puts you in a high that you can’t come down from for at least a day. It is a room without ego, because everybody in there is doing epic things. It is a room without limits because the people in the chairs have shattered ceilings. And it is a room without doubt because the lives of the women in it testify to the power of believing that you belong.
There are very few other places where you can walk up to Thandie Newton and in a couple of minutes, you’re chatting like old friends, talking about your love of Chimamanda Adichie’s work and bonding about your proud African-ness.
I attend a lot of events but ESSENCE’s BWIH is a favorite, because it is produced by, created for and honors the magic of Black women. It dedicates a day to celebrating us in all our power, encourages our vulnerability and encourages our sisterhood to stay strong. It is the opposite of #OscarssoWhite. #ESSENCEsoBlack. Especially in the Blackest Black History Month ever? YES, PLEASE.
Also, I usually have at least one moment that happens with a celebrity I love that lays me clean out. CLEAN OUT, I SAID. Like last year’s event, when Lupita Nyong’o thanked me for the love letter I wrote her. And the year before then when I witnessed a love fest between Samira Wiley and Brandy. This time, it was my conversation with Shonda Rhimes that TRULY lifted me up in the heavens. I’ll get to that later, doe.
I took to the red carpet to check out the celebrity arrivals (and take selfies and geek out).
As always, I bring y’all along on the action so I was posting pics on social media (especially on Instagram). I took more than I could post, though. What’s cool about the ESSENCE red carpet is how excited celebrities are to see each other, and they are not shy about showing each other love. They will stop an interview to give each other a quick hug and I’m the creep that watches all of it with a GOOFASS grin on my face.
I talked to and took selfies with so many dope people including Tia Mowry, Amber P. Riley, Lorraine Toussaint, Margaret Avery, Lena Waithe, Yvette Nicole Brown (loved her ankara dress), Nate Parker (hey boo heyyyyyyy).
I met Anika Noni Rose for the first time, even though we’ve been following each other for a bit and we both squealed. I love her and she is just as adorable, glow-y and awesome as you imagined. Her smile is my favorite!
I interviewed my girl Issa Rae and we plotted on how we can make the month even Blacker. I put a 15 second video of her solution on Instagram. Any time the two of us are together, it is good times.
When red carpet wrapped, the good times rolled for real. This was the most lit BWIH too, because people refused to sit down. Everyone was so excited that I’m pretty sure very few people ate every course in the meal. When all that dopeness is around you, all you wanna do is revel in it. I got a pic with some of the OGs in this blogging game: Natasha Eubanks of The YBF, Demetria Lucas D’Oyley of A Belle in Brooklyn (now See Some World), Claire Sulmers of The Fashion Bomb and Necole Kane of XONecole (Formerly Necole Bitchie). Whoever says women don’t cheer each other on is a bombastic idiot. There is nothing but respect between us and these ladies deserve all the good things.
Then the event began, and Mother Oprah Winfrey kicked it off. This is one event SHE doesn’t miss either, year after year. Interestingly enough, she’s the one major celebrity I haven’t met there. I’ve been in the room with her at least 7 times in my life, though. That’s another story for another day. But me and Oprah will shake hands one day and she will say “Hi Luvvie” and I’ll lay out right there.
The first person to receive an award was Thais Francis, and she was ESSENCE’s short film contest winner. Thais is an all-around creative (actor, dancer, writer) from Trinidad and Tobago and her film “Late Expectations” was crowned winner. We might not have known who Thais was when she stepped on that stage, but by the time she got off, folks in the room wanted to make sure they knew her. Her speech was excellent. She even threw in a “come through, ancestors.” Clearly, she’s my type of winner.
“I thank God for filling me with the audacity that I could tell a story… The mere fact that we are in this room is a testament to the fact that not only will we continue to tell our stories, we will celebrate our stories. Because it is a privilege to be a storyteller. It is a blessing to be an artist and as I stand before you right now, it is an honor to be a Black woman in Hollywood.” – Thais Francis
ABC Entertainment’s President Channing Dungey and Nick Cannon then presented the Power Award to Nina Shaw. You might not have heard of the name “Nina Shaw” and that’s because real Gs like her move in silence like gnats. She’s THE entertainment lawyer of Hollywood. She is the person who has represented most of your faves for decades, brokering their deals and ensuring that their contracts are legit. She IS power, and she used her speech to encourage folks to reach back and pull up.
When he was presenting her with the award, Nick Cannon said she’s been his lawyer since he was 16. It’s clear that her clients see her as a mentor, a guidance counselor and a friend. She was even on Lupita’s trip home to Kenya last year. She is a FORCE, and when you hear her speak, you see why she prospers. She is committed to leading by example and she challenged people to do the same.
“If you are a woman who wants to be empowered, then empower other women. You are a much more forceful advocate against gender bias and wage inequality if you actually hire women. If you are a white man who advocates for change, then hire someone other than a white man as an example of that change.” – Nina Shaw
Tracee Ellis Ross gave an incredible speech that had some thug tears falling. She wasn’t sure she was even going to make the ceremony that day because she was sick and had lost her voice the week before. But she chugged through to accept the Fierce & Fearless Award, presented to her by her sister Rhonda Ross and Zendaya. The woman is HILARIOUS without trying, and her speech was touching, funny, personal and just right.
My favorite line from it was: “For all the women that are swimming upstream in our culture of expectation, inequality, sexism and racism – my hope is that we will gloriously allow ourselves to be ourselves and to become limitless.” – Tracee Ellis Ross
Then Shonda Rhimes presented Debbie Allen received the Legend Award and gave us an amazing speech that had the room going “YOU BETTER PREACH” the entire time. Auntie Debbie got on that stage and dropped so many gems, the room musta been shining extra. I especially loved when she said: “Every man living should pledge allegiance to the birth canal.” – Debbie Allen
MAN, LISTEN. Tell them Miss Debbie! Let these people know!
But let me tell y’all about my favorite moment of the event. Last year, I met Shonda Rhimes there, and she gave me a huge hug and told me she was happy to meet me because she loves my tweets. She made my month. This year, though? She made my life.
I walked up to her at her table, and I introduced myself again. I ain’t the one to assume folks know what I look like. She recognized me! And she greets me and then introduces me to her sister, Dolores, as someone who is “so smart and so funny.” I immediately recognized that name, because that is the sister who challenged her to her Year of YES, which produced my favorite book of 2015. I thanked Shonda for writing that book and for pouring her heart into it. She in turn goes “Wait. Isn’t your book coming out soon?”
WHY, YES IT IS, SHONDA!!! YES. IT. IS. And we talked briefly about how good it feels to finish writing a book (because I just turned in my final final manuscript). She then told me she can’t wait to read it.
And then she pulled out her phone and says we should take a selfie. And I bouta died right there. We take it on her phone and then we take one on mine. We hug and I am floating on cloud 9. Me and Shonda totally go together, man.
LEMME TELL YOU SOMETHING. You can’t tell me SHIT. Shonda Rhimes asked ME about my book. What is air, Lawd?? WHAT IS AIR?? And to top it off, she tweeted and Instagrammed the picture we took before I even had a chance to post my version.
— shonda rhimes (@shondarhimes) February 26, 2016
Chile… lemme lay here. You’d think I woulda stopped being so HYPE about the fact that she knows who I am by now. BUT I AM NOT STOPPING. I am so geeked about it!!!
“Your gift makes room for you and brings you before great men.” That is my testimony, that is my journey and that is my life. This is what I think about when I’m at ESSENCE’s Black Women in Hollywood event. I am acutely aware of how important it is to be in that space, breathing in that oxygen. The week before I was at the White House, man. WHEW. My gifts have opened that door for me, and they will continue to put me amongst the greats.
What the people at that event have in common is that they’ve found their gifts and have dedicated their lives to using them. I am perpetually inspired and it is beyond an honor to be able to witness what it looks like to follow your purpose.
Thank you to ESSENCE for creating that space and for affirming Black women in such great ways constantly. Next year is the 10th one, so it’s about to be off the chain, I’m sure. A decade of this greatness is worth celebrating. I might go rocking a gele, because I’m Nigerian and we like to do too much constantly.