William Albert “Bill” Stokes died last week. My deepest condolences to his family and friends.
Seven years ago, he taught me one of the most enlightening, compassionate lessons of my life at a moment when I was way out of my comfort zone.
The day after he and I co-hosted a mostly improvisational show in front of an African American audience, I wrote this blog post. It was truly one of the greatest experiences of my life.
BACK IN BLACK
I have always had an affinity for African American people. Their music always moved me more than the bland songs sung by white performers. Their distinctly different clothing choices made me want to be colorful like them instead of rigid and uniform like all of the white kids.
In high school in the 70s I had a crush on Clemmie, a pretty black girl who never gave me the time of day. After school, I worked in the kitchen at the old Baptist Hospital and was treated like a brother by the mostly black staff.
Even as a young kid, I envied African Americans for their spiritual freedom. I felt like people of color seemed to have more animated, joyous reactions to things that, given the same material, would elicit barely more than a whimper out of the white folks.
We were stuffy. They were cool.
It wasn’t until January 17, 2011 that I really felt totally accepted by the African American community.
Months earlier I was asked to co-host the Dr Martin Luther King celebration at St. Stephen Baptist Church, Louisville’s largest African American congregation. My co-host was church associate Bill Stokes, a gadfly with a deep voice and mischief in his happy smile. He told me that our job was to crack a few jokes while introducing choral groups and various luminaries who would speak about Dr. Martin Luther King’s mission of peace and progress for African Americans.
When he invited me, I informed St. Stephen pastor Dr. Kevin Cosby that I would be a bit late since his program began at 7 just as my radio show ended. He said that was fine because Mr. Stokes would just get the program going and I could join him whenever I arrived.
Somehow I had it in my mind that Mr. Stokes and I would at least spend a few minutes backstage during a musical segment where we could decide what we’d do on stage.
I arrived at 7:16 where an idling police cruiser saved a parking space just for me. The policeman directed me to a different back door than I was originally told to enter. Jogging through the rain, I rapped on the door and a member of the governor’s security detail opened it and said, “They’re waiting for you.” He directed me down a hallway and through a door past other security agents.
When I opened the door, I saw that I was actually on the side of the stage. A church sound man handed me a microphone and said, “You’re on.”
Well now. That’s a hot cup of coffee in the lap. I walked in out of the rain and into the bright lights with no clue what was going on.
The crowd of over one thousand people was 99% African American and they began to laugh as I walked across the stage toward Mr. Stokes, who had apparently just finished playing a funny song on the piano.
With only a scant few white faces in the large crowd, Stokes introduced me: “Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to the funniest negro in Louisville, Terry Meiners.” The crowd laughed and cheered.
Jumping into the tenor of the moment, I replied, “Yes I am the funniest negro in Louisville, and it’s quite an honor.” The crowd laughed as I went on: “Is this the part where we sing Ebony and Ivory? I’ll be Stevie Wonder.”
My brain was churning at a thousand miles an hour to try and figure out where we were going next without being disrespectful to the celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy. I was clearly in someone else’s comfort zone.
Mr. Stokes and I both had the stage instincts to do the next best thing, crack jokes about the prominent men in attendance. Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear was right up front and is a good sport about hearing his southern accent mimicked. New Louisville mayor Greg Fischer (“Just like Oprah, he could reward everyone in the audience… ‘You get an ice machine! You get an ice machine!, But unlike Oprah, ‘You pay the taxes.’ You pay the taxes.'”), former mayor Jerry Abramson (“He asked Madeline…’What are these?’… ‘They’re keys, honey. You have to start driving yourself everywhere now.'”) each got a little love.
Sen. Rand Paul sat quietly over to the side, but his vision of austerity did not escape the monologue. I promised that someone in the crowd would win a pay-your-own-way to Washington vacation where “you get to stay in that tiny apartment with Rand Paul and his daddy,” whose television is turned up to nursing home levels.
Despite the riveting moments of the evening where the Pastor Cosby or U of L president James Ramsey spoke about inequality and suffering in the beleaguered black community, or overhead screens showed images of black men hanged from trees in the 1930s, Stokes knew how to bring his audience back to humor. And he included me in the mirth just to make it appear that we had rehearsed our jokes.
We faked arguing about who got to speak next. We declared that we were brothers from different mothers, separated only by the pitches of our voices or the nine extra hairs still clinging to Stokes’ head. We were just making it up as we went along.
And Stokes was able to make jokes that only a man of color would dare to try in such a setting. He demanded of the white University of Louisville president to answer why the only black singer in the Cardinals chorus “also got to play the piano.”
Stokes noted that all the tickets for the evening had been distributed, but the reason there were some empty seats on the second level is because at yesterday’s church service at St Stephen, he told the assemblage that “the police was gonna be here.”
The crowd roared.
Had I told a joke like that, I’d have been run out of town, and rightfully so. A white person’s frame of reference on the black experience is devoid of the emotional infrastructure necessary to see the entire picture. And vice versa.
But Stokes was masterful in pulling me into the black family at St. Stephen and making me feel like a brother from another mother. Dr. Cosby invited me to return as co-host next year, although I was more of a sidekick for Stokes’ comedic leadership.
The entire evening was billed “Education is King,” meaning that Martin Luther King would’ve continued to stress that education is the only way out of poverty. All-black Simmons College formed a partnership with U of L to solidify its position in the community and that was the major theme of the evening.
Dr. Cosby said that Sen. Paul “came to meet with me” and that they’d found common ground in helping each other understand the needs for carefully screened government education grants tailored for African Americans.
After the event, I had a brief conversation with the freshman senator Rand Paul, a lightning rod who represents the Tea Party conservatives who’d recently made big strides in elections. Sen. Paul had cancelled multiple telephone interviews on my radio show, causing me to taunt him on the air with claims that he was “a-scared of me.”
After we exchanged pleasantries at St. Stephen, our first face-to-face meeting, Sen. Paul exclaimed, “You’re not as intimidating in person as you are on the air.”
Let me assure you, senator, you don’t know intimidation until you walk in out of the rain and onto a stage at a racially energized memorial where you’re the outcast and a gentle old soul helps you hide the fact that you are literally wet behind the ears.
Now that’s intimidating.
Posted 19th January 2011 by Terry Meiners