Sunday night actor and activist Jesse Williams was the recipient of the Humanitarian Award at BET’s 16th annual awards show. In a speech that left the internet buzzing, Williams simultaneously uplifting the oft and maliciously neglected demographic of Black women, demanded white people do the work of dismantling the system of oppression designed and maintained for their exclusive benefit, addressed cultural appropriation of our arts and style, and called Black people to action. If you didn’t know who Jesse Williams was before last night, you knew after that speech.
I’ve been following Williams for a few years now. I was introduced to him via a brilliant CNN blog post he wrote critiquing Quentin Tarantino’s Django, which Williams calls a “lazy, oversimplified reduction of our history.” I became a fan when I watched him castigate a white America that emboldened Michael Dunn to murder 17-year-old Jordan Davis. I became a stan after watching his impromptu interview with a fan in Ferguson in which he minced no words discussing how America preys upon Black people. His ability to examine and deconstruct the complex and covert ways in which media representation shapes society’s perception and expectations of Blackness and willingness to potentially jeopardize his stable career by confronting the same white audience that loves him on Grey’s Anatomy about their silence over the routine state-sanctioned murder of unarmed Black people earned him my nearly impenetrable adoration.
So I was elated to watch my social media feeds filled with appreciation for Williams’ speech and activism. Many of my friends, Black women particularly, still reeling from the relative lack of media attention to and perceived callous from Black men toward the murder of 25-year-old Jessica Hampton, were moved by Williams’ promise to do better by Black women who “have spent their lifetimes nurturing everyone before themselves.” But for as much acclaim as the speech garnered, many noted Williams’ biracial identity and consequent non-threatening perception to white people as at least partial motivation behind all the adulation.
If I’m being candid, a fair-skinned, blue-eyed Jesse Williams haranguing America for its patently inhumane treatment of Black people is surely easier for white viewers to swallow than a brown-skinned Marc Lamont Hill with indisputably Black features holding no punches on CNN. A denial of the privilege Williams’ proximity to white standards of beauty affords him would be disingenuous. The actor himself said as much in an interview with The Guardian. “…I have my [looks] – you know, European beauty standards give me access to things,” admitted Williams.
But judging the value of Black activists by their palatability to white people is dangerously counterproductive on either side. If Danny Glover’s or Roland Martin’s activism are no less valuable, no less brave, no less insightful because white America can’t stomach passion from a Black man who fits the phenotype, then neither is Williams’ commitment to force-feeding America the bitter truth any less admirable because they adore Dr. Jackson Avery’s blue eyes and freckles. Perhaps it’s a little easier for white people to hear the message coming from a man who looks like Williams, and perhaps it’s a little easier for him to speak to them because of whatever familial and community ties he has to whiteness, but easier doesn’t mean easy.
It would be easy for Jesse Williams to collect a paycheck from his role on a hit primetime drama, bask in the celebrity that opportunity affords him, indulge in the post-racial fairytale and keep quiet about structural racism and the open season on Black lives. Taking every opportunity to remind the white viewers who support his show, white relatives, his white costars and any other white person who thought his Blackness was exceptional or inconsequential that Black people are literally dying because of their willful ignorance and indifference to Black suffering is anything but easy. And I’m not prepared to downplay his efforts because white people, and maybe even some of us, will never be ready to hear the truth as told by Saul Williams.
Moreover, while Williams’ words on capitalist exploitation, extrajudicial executions of Black bodies and white apathy are constant themes in Black critiques of the American system, the explicit address to Black women is a modern anomaly. Many of the Black men at who speak about Black liberation see Black patriarchy as the best alternative to systemic racism. So Williams’ unwillingness to continue the practice of offering Black women as sacrifice to improve the position of Black men within the white supremacist hierarchy is the full circle liberation Black women have been craving. We cannot write off the centering and protecting Black women by a biracial Black man raised by a white woman when monoracial Black men raised by Black women are epidemically infected with strands of misogynoir that prove detrimental if not fatal to Black women.
At an awards show celebrating Black people, an Black man stood before Black people and poured gasoline on the revolutionary fire. However his speech was received and interpreted by the white masses, those five minutes were for us. Justin Timberlake’s self-righteous misinterpretation or white media’s praise (so ironically oblivious to the implication of their complicity) of the message are irrelevant to the value of his words to us.
And yes, much of what Williams said has been said by Black activists — with two Black parents who fit whatever perceptions of Black phenotype who have been silenced by the media, persecuted by the government and all but forgotten by history — a thousand times and thousand different ways, but “I love you” is as sweet the 1,000th time as it the first.