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50/50: Being an Influential

By Kathy Y. Wilson · March 5th, 2003 · Your Negro Tour Guide
Slightly tardy, baseball legend Dave Parker and basketball great Oscar Robertson ambled in and took their places during the pre-gala class photo.

Marjorie B. Parham, publisher emeritus of The Cincinnati Herald, complained of a disobedient leg and needed a little help negotiating the steps. Relatives of the late boxer Ezzard Charles and Funk bassist William "Bootsy" Collins came on their behalf. Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, former Cincinnati Mayor Dwight Tillery, former State Rep. William L. Mallory Sr. and the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth were there.

My idol, Nikki Giovanni, didn't show up.

But there I was awash in greatness, among legends, heroes, do-gooders, artists, under-rowers and a few no-names who've stepped out on shaky limbs to fortify their communities. They all left pieces of themselves.

WCIN-AM, the little station that could and the country's second-oldest black radio station, is celebrating its 50th anniversary. On Friday the station kicked off its anniversary with the program, "The 50 Most Influential Blacks in Cincinnati in the Past 50 Years."

This list wasn't a popularity contest. Nor was it rife with the usual colored suspects of big business leaders, deep pocket contributors or flashy types used to making the grade and then depositing the results on their résumés. Get your hands on a program and you'll see some serious thought went into composing this chapter of history.

During the class photo I stood beside Charles Fold, the Grammy-winning Gospel godfather. We joked and casually put our arms around one another. I was close to tears. I hid my emotions beneath the brim of my fur Kangol fedora.

But there I was chumming it up with a Gospel legend. I used to watch Charles Fold and his singers on Channel 9 in pre-dawn/pre-church Sunday hours with my mother. She waited for me at our table as I walked, starstruck, through the corridors of the Cincinnati Convention Center ballroom.

It took all night and all the preceding week for me to reconcile this: I was to be honored and recognized for what I do. This wasn't any "Aw, shucks" faux humility on my part. Try to understand that I take seriously the company I keep. I can tick off 30 people more deserving than I, and they're all names you'd agree with.

I'm a columnist by trade, but my columns are really more like 800-word tone poems, like flash points of truth and unrestrained I'm-saving-a-fortune-on-therapy yelps.

No one tells me what to write, how to write it or what favorites to play. Any mistakes have been my own. Any triumphs are because other people feel me. Almost hourly I am bathed in vibrancy and toweled off in courage through constant shout outs from across the street.

"Keep it up, Miss Wilson!" they shout. "Girl, you killin' 'em. I read you every week, and I just wanna say thank you."

Valentines come when my head, my confidence and my reserve of ideas are low. It's a cycle, and I get juiced up and there I go again.

I've not been at this very long. I got my first paid writing gig only 15 years ago, and I started in newspaper journalism a decade ago.

In July, this column will be three years old. I'm not yet 40. I have spent (some say wasted) more than two-thirds of my life inside my own head, figuring out who I am, my mission and how to propel it forward.

I do it all for my family. I'm representin'. Everything else -- the awards, invitations to Harvard, back slaps, book contracts and radio gigs -- is superfluous. When I die, it'll make good copy in the bulletin. Funeral home patriarch Donald Jordan (another honoree) can make me look good.

On Friday night as I pimped -- that's right, pimped -- to the stage to get my award from WCIN General Manager John Thomas, I knew I was where I belonged.

All my anxieties, questioning, doubts and demureness diminished. The award means acceptance. I sometimes come off as a hard-ass who doesn't care what people think. But really I do. I care what my people think.

When black folks revile you, you know you've been dissed. But when black folks love, respect and accept you, you know you've been welcomed home. Sometimes I wonder if black folks get this or get me, but then I have to move on.

I know this column carries Influence. Awards won't validate that. I like Influence over power. Influence is subtle, yet strong. Influence says, "I'm speaking," but it doesn't yell. When Influence enters the room, people take notice, but they're not disrupted. They whisper in the company of Influence. Finally, Influence is restrained, graceful, honest and talented. And Influence knows it.

Making my way from the stage back through the crowd, award in hand, my brother, Kenny, stood and applauded me. I got to my mother and kissed her.

Doled out alphabetically, I was the last to get the award. And I can't think of a better way to put a period behind Influence.

Hear Kathy's commentaries on National Public Radio's All Things Considered.


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