Bill Cosby entertains at gala

December 12, 2003|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

It's about time.

People were saying it at the reception that preceded last night's fund-raising gala for the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture. Comedian Bill Cosby said it from the stage at the Meyerhoff during his monologue. People such as Louis Grasmick, who has spent nearly a decade trying to realize the dream of a museum dedicated to African-American history, were saying it - and doubtless thinking it - throughout the evening.

This time next year, Baltimore should have its African-American history museum.

"That so many people are here reflects the fact that this is finally becoming a reality for people," state Schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said. "This is no longer a theoretical construct."

For Louis Grasmick, her husband and the museum's fund-raising chairman, last night's gala suggested all his hard work has been worth it. "I'm absolutely convinced," he said, "that this is right, and long overdue for this state."

Although enthusiasm for the museum and its stated goal of inspiring African-American children to strive for something better in their lives ran high, it was Cosby most of those in the audience were anxious to see. The veteran actor and comedian eschewed a standard comedy monologue in favor of a humor-laden inspirational message that had the crowd applauding as much as they were cheering.

After a curious opening in which he urged the Egyptian ambassador (who he said was in the audience) to restore the nose to the Sphinx -"Please put our Nubi sho-nuff nose back on the thing that Napoleon blew off," he implored - Cosby took to the comedic pulpit, urging black parents to take charge of their children's lives, black youngsters to love and respect their parents and African-Americans in general to stop settling for second-best.

Recalling an old joke about a trainer who levels with his boxer, "It's not what he's doing to you, it's what you're not doing to him," Cosby, who grew up in nearby Philadelphia, urged that people take steps to shape their own destiny, and not leave it up to others.

"We've got to look into ourselves," he told the crowd. "I'm telling you, it's what we're not doing."

While praising the city and state officials who are helping make the museum a reality, Cosby made a point of speculating on why it took so long. The reason, he suggested, is that people haven't been pushing for it hard enough. "We can only blame the foot soldiers in their solitude who walked around saying, `It can't happen.'"

For many who attended the sold-out gala, paying anywhere from $75 to $1,000 for the privilege, the mood seemed as much about relief as celebration.

"It's something that has been needed all these years," Phyllis Conaway of Baltimore said at the pre-gala reception, where guests munched on crab balls, spanakopita and other delicacies, "and finally it's coming to fruition."

"For the first time," added Joy Bramble, publisher of the Baltimore Times, "black children are going to see their history as recorded through black eyes. It's long overdue."

A crowd of some 2,400 packed the symphony hall to help raise money for the museum, which when it opens next year will be the second-largest facility devoted to African-American history in the country. Among those present were Carolyn Fugett and Loida Lewis, mother and wife, respectively, of Reginald F. Lewis, the late Baltimore-born philanthropist and Fortune 500 businessman whose foundation has pledged $5 million to the project.

In addition to Cosby, who came at the request of Mrs. Lewis, the on-stage talent included actor James Earl Jones, Baltimore native and talk show host Montel Williams and singer Nnenna Freelon, as well as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the Morgan State University Choir and the Sandtown Children of Praise.

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