To say last night’s Black Entertainment Television Awards show was historic is probably a gross understatement. The night was lit by the expected artist performances and appearances. But what made it historic was not only the surprise stunning Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar set, the epic tribute to Prince, or the dedication to Muhammad Ali.
Last night’s award show was capped off by the speech given by Jesse Williams after receiving BET’s Humanitarian of the Year award. Williams hijacked the BET Awards with his nearly 5 minute long speech addressing racism, bigotry, and cultural appropriation.
After expressing his gratitude for the honor and thanking the countless activists that join him in the fight for equality, Williams highlighted incidents of police brutality “Yesterday would’ve been young Tamir Rice’s 14th birthday, so I don’t want to hear anymore about how far we’ve come when paid public servants can pull a drive-by on a 12-year-old playing alone in a park in broad daylight, killing him on television and then going home to make a sandwich. Tell Rekia Boyd how it’s so much better to live in 2012 than 1612 or 1712. Tell that to Eric Garner. Tell that to Sandra Bland. Tell that to Darrien Hunt.”
“Now, freedom is always coming in the hereafter.” Williams said, addressing the long held idea of freedom African Americans have aspired to since days of slavery. “But, you know what though? The hereafter is a hustle. We want it now.”
Williams then addressed the many critics of the various civil rights and social justice movements. “The burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander. That’s not our job, all right, stop with all that. If you have a critique for the resistance, for our resistance, then you better have an established record of critique of our oppression. If you have no interest in equal rights for black people then do not make suggestions to those who do.”
Williams continues his speech with a brief view of cultural exploitation and appropriation Black Americans have endured throughout American history. “We’ve been floating this country on credit for centuries…and we’re done watching and waiting while this invention called whiteness uses and abuses us, burying black people out of sight and out of mind, while extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment like oil, black gold. Ghettoizing and demeaning our creations then stealing them, gentrifying our genius and then trying us on like costumes before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit.” Williams says, highlighting Strange Fruit, 1939 Billie Holiday song of the same name about the frequent and brutal practice of lynching.
Williams finished with a mention of the often attacked notion of #BlackGirlMagic, saying “The thing is…that just because we’re magic, doesn’t mean we’re not real.”
Jesse Williams may have been speaking at the Black Entertainment Television awards show, but, unlike what writer Katie Hodges says in her New York Times Article when she says “he delivered a speech that spoke solely to black Americans“, Williams’ words were not merely for Black Americans, but for Americans as a whole. Americans that for too long have elevated the atrocities of other ethnic and religious groups, and yet to this day, refuses to come to terms with the unjust and inhumane treatment and continues to fail in tangible it has often met with its own brutalized kidnapped child known as the African American.
And yet, through all of the institutionalized oppression, the African American continues to rise. Despite imbedded ideologies, the African American continues to excel. And In spite of those who would continue to oppress and suppress movements and developments, the African American will continue to excel, not to anyone’s credit but their own. They will receive justice, they will claim their blackness and be proud, their stories will be told, their lives do matter, and they will be heard.
This is the message of Jesse Williams. And its for all of us.