I first watched Jesse Williams' speech on a phone in a lobby in a country club in Long Island. I wasn't able to watch the BET Awards (or the Game of Thrones) live yesterday because I was at a wedding reception there, but knowing both BET and HBO were going to broadcast several re-airings, I planned on watching each when I got back to my hotel. I knew (from Twitter) that Beyonce and Kendrick snapped during the opening, that Bilal apparently conjured Prince during his tribute, and that Alicia Keys should probably officially change her name now to "Bless Her Heart." But I was content on waiting until the reception was over to actually watch any clips.
My plans changed at approximately 10:30pm, when I received no less than a dozen tweets, texts, and emails all saying the same thing:
JESSE WILLIAMS!!! YO, TELL ME YOU'RE WATCHING THIS SHIT RIGHT NOW!!!
After the 10th or 11th message 1) asking if I was watching it and 2) wondering when I'd be writing something on it, I found a quiet space in the country club, found a clip of the full speech, and watched.
Whether Jesse Williams is the country's "wokest" celebrity is arguable. What's inarguable, however, is that no current celebrity is better at articulating both the breadth and value of activism and the importance of the possession, celebration of, and protection for unapologetic Blackness. He possesses a verbose lucidity that enables him float between painstakingly complex concepts like intersectionality and respectability politics and congeal them with a conciseness that manages to be both sharp and sanguine. And he does this all with a countenance that rarely changes and a steady and elucidating voice that shifts subtly to convey both fury and a slight and sly acknowledgement that he knows he's telling White people the fuck off. He doesn't smile, but his eyes communicate exactly how aware he is of exactly how what he's saying will be heard and felt.
And listening to his speech last night was like listening to Nas' first verse on "Second Childhood" or Ghostface's verse on "Impossible" and any other time a rapper has had complete control of his linguistic and articulative powers and knew it. But while most of the lauds he's receiving this morning are due to the second half of his speech — a clear and plain indictment of America and how America treats its Black citizens — the best, the Blackest, and the most damning part of it came while he was just getting warmed up.
"This is also in particular for the Black women. In particular who have spent their lifetimes dedicated to nurturing everyone before themselves. We can and will do better for you."
It is no secret that, within the Black community, Black women have consistently been at the forefront of our social, political, and racial justice movements — particularly movements that began as a result of something terrible happening to a Black male. Perhaps the appointed leaders have been Black men, but women have done the bulk of the grassroots groundwork and provided the emotional and spiritual foundations the work has leaned on.
Unfortunately, we (Black men) collectively have not been there the same way for them. While they have stood with — and even, at times, in front of — us when White supremacy and racism need to be challenged, they generally do not receive the same support from us when issues specific to the health, well-being, and safety of Black women and girls (street harassment, sexual assault, etc) are brought up. And sometimes the reaction goes past apathy and an empathy void and settles into a sheer resistance. Where the validity and relevance of those concerns are challenged and/or dismissed, and the agenda behind even expressing them is also questioned.
Of course, the reason why this happens is obvious. The primary antagonizers in this context also happen to be Black men. And it's far easier to mobilize against a collective oppressor than it is to look in our barbershops, our happy hours, our locker rooms, our street corners, our homes, and our mirrors. But nothing Jesse Williams expressed in the meat of his fiery speech matters unless the last line of his 30 word-long tangent ("We can and will do better for you") happens too.