This past Sunday, actor and activist Jesse Williams was awarded the 2016 BET Humanitarian Award. In front of a television audience of 7.2 million people via 12 different cable stations, Williams first acknowledged the “real” foot soldiers (organizers, teachers, students, etc.), then spoke passionately on issues such as police brutality, the pervasive materialism of mainstream hip-hop, systemic racism, the under-appreciated Black woman, and the invasion of the White body snatchers hell bent on robbing Black people of their culture and then “discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit.” He ended it with the mic-dropper to end all mic-droppers, “Just because we’re magic doesn’t mean we’re not real.”
I, like many people, were impressed by Williams’ use of his platform in that moment. I appreciated the fact he could have gotten to the podium and said a number of things. He made a conscious choice however, to speak directly to his people while also speaking truth to the oppressor.
On social media his speech has been posted and reposted by millions and many of the statements have taken on lives of their own through memes. An Ebony magazine’s photo of Harry Belafonte passing a baton to Williams and then to young singer/actress Zendaya has resurfaced online alongside headlines of torches being passed from one generation to the next.
Facebook and Twitter have also become home to debates over Williams’ authenticity. Much of which speaks directly to his privilege as a “Hollywood star” as well as his looks.
“Maybe if I was lite-skinned with pretty eyes and a chiseled chin, people would have heard what I’ve been saying, too. For the last five years,” said one poster.
Yes, Williams has made a great living for himself as an actor. Yes, Williams is light-skinned with blue eyes. Yes, he was born of a Black father and White mother. Yes, many people consider him to be attractive. Do any one of these things negate his ability to speak on issues that affect us all?
I don’t believe it does. We should not allow colorism to detract from what the real issues are. Williams was, of course, not the first nor the last person (celebrity or otherwise) to say the things he said. The difference is: when given the opportunity to do so, he seized it, excellently, capturing the ears and minds of millions who may have not heard this message otherwise. I mean, it’s freaking BET for goodness sake! The same station criticized for years due to its penchant for problematic programming. Most of the folks watching Sunday night, had no idea it was going to be that woke.
I take no issue with healthy debate and knowledgeable critique. Not one person is infallible and beyond reproach. My problem is when the criticism is entirely superficial and without merit. I also take issue with those who have so many shots to fire in the direction of those, like Williams, who are passionate and unashamed of their love for Black people but have little to no ammunition for the very ones who hate the very air you breathe.
There is no better time than now to become inspired to mobilize and change things. The future is dependent upon an organized chorus and not a solo voice. It is time we as a people stop getting so caught up in the messenger that we lose the message. If God used a jackass to speak a message that changed Paul’s life it is very possible someone rich, good-looking and popular can share something that might inspire you and I. It is time we set aside the petty things that so easily ensnare us and run forward towards real victory.