“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. Sit down.”
His words burned with vigor. Zealous and without subtlety, Jesse Williams took to the stage this past Sunday evening at the BET Awards and delivered, not a speech, but a battle cry.
In the era of Trump, Westboro, and ISIS, hate is a commodity. Every man and woman oppressed by their race, gender, or creed, lulled into the belief that “things will get better,” recognize all too well that segments of humanity exist to extinguish this hope.
Often we (even myself) become complacent. We utter the words on kinder days: “Things are getting better.” Through a narrow glance, as our personal bubble remains intact, we think to ourselves that nothing is wrong, that nobody I know personally has been shamed, belittled, beaten, or killed. And for an instant we dare to confide in ourselves that we can rest easy, “things are getting better.”
Remove the cherry framed goggles. Turn on the news, scroll through Facebook or Twitter, skim a comment board, even read a newspaper – “things” are not getting better. Maybe, for a while, it seemed that way. Americans appeared to learn the niceties and behaviors of a polite society. Don’t call him a nigger. Don’t call her a cunt. Don’t beat the shit out of those fags. Keep your mouth shut and your hands to yourself, and everyone is happy.
Except, all anyone learned was a well-rehearsed routine. The hateful wore masks and the radicals bit their lips bloody. We all readily buried our darker thoughts and impulses (some of ours black as tar I might add) deep within ourselves. If it was quiet, nothing was wrong. Now, that act is wearing thin. Those harbored resentments have blistered through the skin. Something is wrong.
Crowds are rallying behind the likes of Donald Trump because they are tired of being nice (read: liberal). They want to say what they want to say, do what they want to do, and have no person tell them otherwise.
You know what? The rest of us can relate. Williams’ speech was scary. It struck a nerve. Those impassioned words that no one is allowed to say, the very least of which in a public forum, were shouted. We, not simply African Americans but every marginalized group, are tired of silence. We are tired of hearing and seeing hate in all its forms right before us, praying in our beds at night that tomorrow is not our last, and doing nothing – because it’s not polite.
Williams received ecstatic kudos from nearly all those who listened to or read his edict.
“Now, what we’ve been doing is looking at the data and we know that police somehow manage to de-escalate, disarm and not kill white people every day. 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.”
Truth be told, I do not condone the full weight of Williams’ statements. I do not believe in placing blame for such appalling acts as the shooting of Tamir Rice or Reika Boyd on “whiteness,” but on bigotry. I do not believe in demonizing our public servants, but in justly punishing the protectors who betray us. I do not believe in inciting greater racial tension, but in expressing the realities of racism and waking those still unconscious masses. Williams did both.
Yes, I have my reservations with some of what was said. But, I sure as hell am damn grinning that it was said. I do not need to agree with every ounce of content to applaud the man and the magnitude of his message. What I take from Williams’ speech is there exists an individual willing to tear down the curtains and the scenery, smear the make-up across his face and say, “Enough!”
The show is over. The script is in the trash. Now, let’s really talk.
Williams’ speech followed a recent string of “real talk” on a range of topics:
Daily Show correspondent Hasan Minhaj finished his funny-man routine at the Radio and Television Correspondents’ Association Dinner with a condemnation of Congress and the media elite on gun control: “Is this what you want your legacy to be? That you were a ‘could-have-done-something Congress,’ but you didn’t because of outside lobbying? That you were complicit in the deaths of thousands of Americans?”
The Tony Awards saw all four major acting categories awarded to performers of color, and award-winning playwright/actor Lin-Manuel Miranda exclaim against homophobia, “Love is love is love is love is love.”
Elizabeth Warren, current Democratic vice presidential hopeful and target of vitriolic comments by Republicans in regards to her heritage and political stances, firmly proclaimed, “Can they bully me into shutting up? The answer is, nope, not happening.”
Guess what? Mom lied. She told you only say nice things, or say nothing at all. Good enough advice to impress a future boss or clamor for some kind of social acceptance. Prejudice is not quiet, though. Bullying and intimidation are not quiet. And if you find yourself angry, betrayed, or downright scared – it’s time to make some noise.
We have seen enough people transform their fear and anger into hate and violence. We can do better. We can use our words. We can be humans first. What Williams, Minhaj, Miranda, Warren, and a growing number of others have done is taken the grief of inequality, or the scorn of bigotry, or the pain of loss, and made actual statements.
These statements are bold and firmly held by each respective speaker, and they represent our freedom to speak openly and wholly. They are not meant to convince you or me that what has been said is absolute truth. We are entitled to our own interpretation of the world. These statements are ultimately meant to open the discussion, broaden our interpretation and, in some cases, make our own voices heard.
“All right? It’s kind of basic mathematics: the more we learn about who we are and how we got here, the more we will mobilize.”
Williams’ specific intent: to proclaim the injustices of racism against African Americans in the United States. That is his cause and his speech allowed us all an insight into that reality.
We are not the same. We are not treated equally. But we can overcome.
We each have a reality to speak on. You and I will hear a great deal of rhetoric in our lifetimes. And we will agree and disagree. If nothing else, take from each of these moments a new perspective. Do not let yourself be silenced by what is considered “common courtesy.” Open your eyes and witness the world as it is. “Things” are not getting better.
Possibly, all the words and speeches and statements we can muster will add up to nothing. Possibly, being outspoken and brazen is bad for your health. Quite possibly, “better” is the wrong word. What we seek is change, which, is not always “better,” but different.
All of these suspicions are possible. So why do anything at all? Because we can. We are breathing. We are alive. And we can still speak for all those who never again will. If our world truly is crumbling beneath the hatred some cling to so tightly, then those of us who see a different future need to learn by these examples and endeavor – declare, discuss, compromise, and listen. When the time and place calls for it, shed that humility we were instilled to shroud ourselves in and frankly insist,
Now, let’s really talk.
Excerpts sourced from “How Jesse Williams Stole BET Awards with Speech on Racism,” written by Katie Rogers for The New York Times.