Five highlights from the 2017 Kennedy Center Honors Stevie Wonder, Meryl Streep and ‘Mama Said Knock You Out’: You won’t want to miss these moments when the Honors are broadcast

Sometimes you need a bit of black tie glam to remember there’s beauty in the world, and that it’s worth celebrating.

Thank goodness for the Kennedy Center Honors.

On Sunday, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., held its 40th Honors ceremony to fete contributions to American culture. This year’s Honors were a celebration of Gloria Estefan, Norman Lear (at 95, the oldest person to be honored), LL Cool J (at 49, the youngest), Carmen de Lavallade and Lionel Richie. LL Cool J was also the first rapper to be recognized.

Certainly there’s plenty of darkness these days. Have you read a newspaper? Sunday, as journalists and spectators huddled around velvet ropes for a word with the night’s VIPs, CBS chairman Les Moonves and his wife, Julie Chen, quickly swooshed by and managed to avoid being harangued about the firing of CBS This Morning host Charlie Rose over allegations of sexual misconduct. Rapper Darryl McDaniels, better known as D.M.C. of Run-D.M.C., and LL Cool J were confronted about multiple allegations of sexual assault leveled against Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons. LL Cool J declined to discuss the allegations, while D.M.C. condemned Simmons’ actions. Both rappers were key players in the success of Def Jam, the record label Simmons founded.

But the Honors reminded us that the performing arts aren’t just a distraction from the serious, gloomy issues of the day but rather the thing that makes us able to persist through them.

Here are five magical highlights from the evening that you can see Dec. 26 at 9 p.m. EST on CBS.

Meryl Streep’s salute to Carmen de Lavallade

Carmen de Lavallade, one of the 2017 honorees, walks the red carpet at the Kennedy Center Honors at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 3, 2017.

Gabriella Demczuk for The Undefeated

Meryl Streep is always fun to watch during awards shows. There’s a reason that her reactions turn into viral GIFs. She was on the list of expected guests for Sunday evening, as a former honoree, but it was a pleasant surprise to see her take the stage.

Streep was a student of de Lavallade’s at Yale School of Drama, and she lovingly described her dance teacher’s soft-spoken methods and teaching philosophies. Streep affected de Lavallade’s famous hand motions, which she’s executed for decades with an enviable and flawless seeming grace and natural ease, as she spoke about her admiration for de Lavallade as a role model and dance pioneer.

Replicating de Lavallade’s soft-spoken manner, she cooed, “No one is late on the second day of class.”

The musical tribute to LL Cool J

In person, the Honors can be a bit of a staid Washington event. Its attendees are not known for taking chances with fashion, and it’s the one night of the year there’s probably enough brocade in the building to make curtains for the center’s many windows. But this was the first time in the history of the event that a rapper was being honored.

The tribute to LL Cool J was loud, boisterous and funky, and some of the younger audience members, namely Becky G, a young singer who performed earlier in the evening for Estefan, could be seen bobbing their heads and rapping along to “Mama Said Knock You Out.” This wasn’t polite hip-hop, toned down for the opera house. This was the real deal, and the audience was treated to footage of an oiled-up, shirtless LL Cool J as Queen Latifah extolled his position as “rap’s first sex symbol.”

The elephant not in the room

Norman Lear, one of the 2017 honorees, walks the red carpet at the Kennedy Center Honors at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 3, 2017.

Gabriella Demczuk for The Undefeated

Months ago, the president and first lady announced they would not be attending the ceremony. Richie, Lear and de Lavallade said they would boycott the annual White House reception that’s part of the weekend’s celebrations.

But the president’s absence was noticeable, especially during the tribute to Lear. You can argue that all art is political, but few make it as obvious as the storied television producer. In expressing gratitude for Lear’s cultural contributions, the video short about him focused on his decision in 2001 to buy one of the last remaining original copies of the Declaration of Independence, which he sent on tour around the country so Americans could see it up close.

Dave Chappelle was on hand for Lear’s tribute, and after expressing surprise that a copy of the country’s founding document could simply be purchased with enough money, he dropped the hammer: “I’m sure we’ll fetch a lot of rubles for that.”

Then, the U.S. Air Force band performed “America the Beautiful” while Lear’s copy of the Declaration sat center stage.

A surprise appearance by Stevie Wonder

The honorees have no idea who will be performing their work until they see them on stage, but those who keep an eye on the red carpet can guess. Leona Lewis, D.M.C., MC Lyte, Questlove, Kenya Barris, Anthony Anderson and Rachel Bloom were among the glitterati spotted in the center’s Hall of States early in the evening.

But the real magic takes place when the Kennedy Center sneaks in some unexpected cultural royalty, and Sunday it was Stevie Wonder. There was an audible gasp in the audience when he turned up on stage to honor Richie by singing “Hello,” one of Richie’s many solo hits.

Paquito D’Rivera’s national anthem

Gloria Estefan, one of the 2017 honorees, walks the red carpet at the Kennedy Center Honors at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 3, 2017.

Gabriella Demczuk for The Undefeated

With Estefan in the mix, this year’s class of honorees included a Cuban immigrant who made Latin pop part of the fabric of the country. The Kennedy Center quietly thumbed its nose at nativism with the inclusion of Paquito D’Rivera, who got the evening started with a jazz saxophone rendition of the national anthem. He even worked in a couple of bars of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” in the middle of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s wedding is a good thing, right? A black feminist argues with herself about the impending royal nuptials

Rachel Meghan Markle and Henry Charles Albert David Mountbatten-Windsor (better known as Meghan Markle and Prince Harry) are getting married next spring. Upon official confirmation of this news, I immediately began vacillating between feelings of OMG … SO EXCITING … ROYAL WEDDING … BLACK PRINCESS … HARRY PUT A RING ON IT and Dear Lord, I hope someone has taught Prince Philip to stop saying racist stuff in public.

Markle is the biracial American actress who played Rachel Zane on Suits and helmed a popular lifestyle site called The Tig. Now, she’s vaulted to an entirely new stratosphere of fame, thanks to months of speculation about her relationship with Prince Harry.

I’m conflicted. I abhor our culture’s fixation with all things pink and fluffy and princessy because of the way they reinforce narrowly defined gender roles and limit the possibilities that girls imagine for themselves. It’s why, when my niece was born, one of my first gifts to her was a copy of The Paper Bag Princess. There are more important things in life than bagging a man, and doing so is no guarantee that one will live happily ever after. Just ask Charlene of Monaco. Besides, “happily ever after” is just a concept invented by men like Don Draper to sell nylons.

But I’m not immune to princess fever. The Windsors are the weak inheritors of my obsession with the Tudors, which was fed by a steady childhood diet of Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench movies. But the thing that turns my princess fever practically rheumatic is The Princess Bride. I loved that movie so much I named my cat after the title character. Then I rewatched it this year and found myself cringing at Princess Buttercup’s (Robin Wright) general inability to save herself or even recognize the voice of the supposed love of her life.

Still, my ambivalence about the gender politics of one of my favorite movies didn’t stop me from having a conversation with myself as Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) about Markle and her betrothed, Prince Harry:

On the one hand
Aren’t we supposed to be trying to upend the colonialist, imperialist, racist patriarchal system, not marry into it?

On the other hand
This will definitely piss off actual Nazis, especially the ghosts of Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII.

On the one hand
Harry dressed up like a Nazi that one time.

On the other hand
We get to watch neurons short-circuit in real time on Fox News the first time Meghan says, “Happy Christmas” in public.

On the one hand
Our obsession with princess crap is bad and we should be trying to KILL IT WITH FIRE.

On the other hand
You definitely rewatched Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella on Freeform over the holiday and couldn’t tear yourself away, hypocrite.

On the one hand
You grew up obsessed with Elizabeth I and you turned out fine.

On the other hand
Yes, but I was obsessed with her speech-giving and political acumen and the way she navigated power as a woman (and also her relationship with the Earl of Leicester).

On the one hand
Poor Meghan’s going to have some seriously racist in-laws.

On the other hand
Stars, they’re just like us!

On the one hand
Didn’t we fight a whole war so we wouldn’t have to bow to white people who think they’re ordained by God to rule the world? I mean, Longfellow wrote a whole poem commemorating its start.

On the other hand
I hope the wedding dress is Alexander McQueen. (Sarah Burton for McQueen, yes, but McQueen all the same.) Everyone loves an impossibly expensive, pretty dress. Even me.

On the one hand
But Harry dressed up LIKE A NAZI.

On the other hand
We can fantasize about them reading the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning to each other. (You know Elizabeth was black, right? Robert used to call her “My Little Portuguese.” Don’t @ me about how Creole ain’t black. It’s just fancy black. Hush.)

On the one hand
I hope she’s not miserable like Diana and Fergie. I mean, I’m named after a woman who wrote a book called Palace of Solitude after marrying the Shah of Iran.

On the other hand
As far as we know, Harry is Wesley, not Prince Humperdinck. After all, Harry is probably the Obamas’ favorite royal.

On the one hand
Meghan had a website and a career, and now she’s already had to swear off all of that.

On the other hand
Amandla Stenberg can play her in The Crown.

On the one hand
Their kids won’t have a remotely normal life, and everything they do will be scrutinized.

On the other hand
BLACK ASHY BABIES ALL UP IN THE PALACE OF WHITEHALL (*briefly assumes Wendy Raquel Robinson’s role in Something New, whispering, “Nedra! Don’t be so crass!”*)