The Speech Heard Around the World: Jesse Williams, Hollywood, and Race

Eljeer Hawkins I Race & Ethnicity I Commentary I July 12th, 2016

"This award, this is not for me. This is for the real organizers all over the country. The activists, the civil rights attorneys, the struggling parents, the families, the teachers, the students, that are realizing that a system built to divide and impoverish and destroy us cannot stand if we do."

- Jesse Williams, Black Entertainment Television (BET) Awards, humanitarian award acceptance speech, June 26, 2016.

Black Hollywood and BLM (Black Lives Matter)

The annual BET Awards is a star-studded affair as African-American movers and shakers congratulate one another for a successful year in music, filmmaking, sports, and other genres related to Hollywood.

This year's awards were punctuated by a resounding tribute to the iconic musician and artist, Prince, throughout the night, highlighted by an earthshaking tribute by Shiela E. and former Prince collaborators over the course of his legendary career.

The night witnessed the premiere of a new collaboration by two of the most famous artists in this current moment, Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar. The song 'Freedom,' an assertive anthem during this current phase of the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM), which has heightened attention to racial oppression, right-wing populism, and law enforcement terror. Quite surprisingly, 'Freedom' opened with an excerpt from Dr. Martin Luther King's, August 28, 1963, March on Washington speech, "I Have A Dream," which added to its message and sense of urgency.

This years' recipient of the BET Humanitarian Award was "Grey's Anatomy" star actor, BLM activist, and former history teacher in Philadelphia, Jesse Williams. In a speech that lasted 5 minutes, and 500 words, Williams not only stole the show but provided a much needed historical reframing of the birth of the nation and its history. What is remarkable is that Jesse's speech takes place on a television station (BET) with a grotesque history and record of depicting black folks and culture at the lowest common denominator throughout the ownership of black billionaire, Robert Johnson. Today, BET is owned by multi-media conglomerate, Viacom.

The Political Climate That Produced The Speech

This year's political climate, around the world and the US, is rooted in a deep global crisis of capitalism; although, individual capitalists are doing quite well -- mainly the sixty-two billionaires that can fit on one London, England bus. The working class, poor, and most oppressed from France, South Africa, Brazil, and Britain are rising. Through the methods of strikes, mass demonstrations, and protest, a total mistrust and rejection of the agenda of global capitalism and its parties of poverty, war, and violence have been the dominant features of this combustible period. In the US, this has been expressed following the Occupy Wall Street moment in 2011, the mass workers' battle in Wisconsin, the struggle for a 15 dollar minimum wage, BLM, and various student and youth protests against student debt, environmental destruction, and rape culture. The presidential elections have showcased the rise of both left-wing and right-wing populism, as both parties (Democrats and Republicans) find themselves in a crisis of legitimacy and support for workers, youth, and the most oppressed. The left-wing resurgence has been based in a search for an alternative to budget cuts, xenophobia, racism, and environmental extinction.

The rebellions in 2014 following the deaths of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray (in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland, ten months apart during the second term of President Obama) provided clear evidence that the post-racial paradigm was nothing more than a corporate market-driven brand for international consumption. Poverty, mass prison incarceration, mass unemployment, crumbling schools, dilapidated infrastructure, and black unarmed civilian deaths at the hands of law enforcement have all increased at an alarming rate. It is within this context that black workers and youth across the country and world raised the banner, Black Lives Matter.

Staying Woke In America

The anatomy of the speech on June 26 encompasses the long and vital history of the black freedom movement in the US. Williams is a graduate of Temple University, a campus located in black North Philadelphia within an impoverished community and ground zero of the gentrifying force invading the city. Jesse double majored in African American Studies and Film and Media Arts, earning degrees in both fields. For many, this is not his first rodeo in the public sphere raising deeper questions about race in America and state of black America, particularly following Ferguson, as he has graced various talk and radio programs. Jesse invoked the memory of those killed by law enforcement, like Sandra Bland and Tamir Rice on what would have been his fourteenth birthday. He heightened the role and sacrifice of black women in what would quickly become the ultimate "Say her name" moment. Jesse proclaimed with surgical-like precision, "So what's going to happen is we are going to have equal rights and justice in our own country or we will restructure their function and ours."

He also focused on the well-healed and successful black artists and their social and political responsibility to the movement and moment. Entertainers with a platform can play an ancillary role in our struggle for freedom; but it is ultimately the potential power of a united working-class movement that is vitally needed to overturn the system and create something unique in our interest in the U S and globally. It is clear that, without a doubt, Williams understands that from his opening words to the speech. However, he is correct in his critical examination and challenge to Black Hollywood: "Now the thing is though, all of us in here getting money, that alone isn't going to stop this. Alright? Now dedicating our lives to get money just to give right back for someone's brand on our body, when we spent centuries praying with brands on our bodies and now we pray to get paid for brands on our bodies."

Jesse pointedly admonished the critics of BLM: "The burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander. That's not our job, alright, stop with all that. If you have 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. Sit down."

As he closed out the speech, he raised the question of whiteness and the appropriation of black culture that has caused a fury on social media and the public sphere. As he correctly exclaims, " We've been floating this country on credit for centuries, yo, 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. The thing is, though, the thing is that just because we're magic, doesn't mean we're not real."

The Black Artist: Robeson, Belafonte, and Simone

Willams' activism, profile, and platform stand in the rich tradition of Paul Robeson, Harry Belafonte, Nina Simone, Lena Horne, and countless others. Historically, black artists have used their talent and energy moved by the historic moment; the struggle to end American southern apartheid, speaking out against fascism, organizing in the grassroots, and advocating for revolutionary change. Jesse's voice is amplified because of the power and influence of BLM, increases in social struggle, and the turn to the left and toward anti-corporate moods by workers, youth, and the most oppressed in our society. He has produced a documentary about BLM on BET that chronicles the rise of the banner and its activists. Since the speech, he has received scorn, attacks, and doubts of his blackness.

The Backlash: Postive and Negative

Since June 26th, the speech is the most trended topic on social media, television, newspapers, magazines, in households, and on the street. It has both inspired and infuriated many. The right-wing pundits and commentators have called the speech an anti-white speech, and an online petition is calling for Williams to be fired from "Grey's Anatomy" as he continues to receive death threats on Twitter. In response, literary giant and activist, Alice Walker, penned a beautiful poem to honor his voice and courage to speak out against racism and law enforcement terror.

Even pop star, Justin Timberlake, tweeted to his over fifty million followers how "inspired" he was by the speech, which led to an interesting query by black writer and social critic, Ernest Owens, on Twitter to Timberlake, "So does this mean you're going to stop appropriating our music and culture? And apologize to Janet too." The Janet Jackson reference stems from the 2004 Super Bowl halftime performance and wardrobe malfunction which caused a major controversy and debate. It resulted in Jackson being vilified in the press and Timberlake being unscathed by the event, even reaching new heights of celebrity after the incident. In subsequent Tweets, this led to a firestorm from the black Twitter world, posing the question to Timberlake on why he does not speak out on social issues, ans well as demands for him to stop appropriating black music and style. Timberlake would apologize and state he was being misunderstood.

In one of the most troubling aspects of the backlash against Williams are questions of his skin color, privilege, and platform. He is one of three sons; his mother is white Swedish, while his father is black with a history of activism. Both are former public school teachers. They both were at the BET Awards as he gave them a shout out for teaching him comprehension over career, while also thanking his black wife who is the mother of his two children.

Colorism (dark skin and light skin) has plagued black folks from the very beginning in this nation, dating back to chattel slavery. Many enslaved children were the byproducts of sexual violence against black women by the slave master or white authority figures on the plantation. It led to a schism and an instrument for the master class to divide and conquer the slaves along color lines, giving slaves with a lighter complexion certain tasks off the cotton fields and often in the master's home. The development of "privilege" under the plantation slave system was a valuable tool to maintain power and influence over all the slaves, regardless of skin color. This paradigm has been socialized and inscribed for the past four hundred years in all of the institutions like media, film, and sports under capitalism, with institutionalized racism affecting the cultural and social consciousness of black workers and youth actively. It has even led to many light-skin black people attempting to pass as white in order to lessen the blow, or run away from, the sting of racism in America.

Jesse has expressed and acknowledged that his status and bi-racial lineage affords him the opportunity to hear and speak to a multitude of people from family, friends, and movement people - both white and black.

To color shame Williams is to attempt to de-legitimize the power of his speech at the BET Awards, his activism, and his profile. It calls into question, who is "black enough" to speak about our struggle and plight under capitalism and racism? If a lighter skin shade automatically minimizes one's words, should we discount the political and cultural work of Dr. W.E.B. Dubois, Angela Davis, Malcolm X, George Jackson and many others who were of lighter skin complexion in the black freedom movement? The question should not be focused on the color of the person that is speaking truth to our movement and masses, but rather the measuring stick should be the content, character, and genuine activism of the person standing before us and raising their voice for liberation.

We Must Build Our Movement and Defend Jesse Williams!

As the BLM banner continues to mature and grow as a social movement we must broaden the struggle to push back against big busineess and law enforcement attacks on activists and organizers like Jasmine Richards. The vitriol and right-wing attack against Williams and BLM organizations should not be taken lightly by our movement and supporters.

In the 1940s and 50s, under Senator Joe McCarthy's "Red Scare" campaign coordinated by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), the FBI unleasshed a covert war against communist and socialist organizations. Within this war, one of the most famous international stars of the stage and screen of the 20th century and a political beacon against racism, colonialism, and capitalism, Paul Robeson, became public enemy number one.

Robeson was hounded and attacked for his stance and support for the Soviet Union, international workers' rights, anti-colonial struggle in the third world, and democracy at home and abroad. Robesons' passport was even confiscated, denying him the right to perform and make a living. This took an unconsciousable toll on Robeson's health, career, and political work. Robeson would pass away in 1976, and his name and history have been erased from mainstream history books.

To defend our movement and its most fearless advocates like Williams and Jasmine Richards, we must strengthen our solidarity with ideas, program, demands, and historical memory to truly stay politically woke and break free from capitalism and racism.