Jesse Williams: June 2016
On Recieving BET’s Humanitarian Award
To the Black entertainment Network, the audience, and my wonderful parents sitting out there; thanks for inviting me, thanks for listening to me….and thanks for raising me right mom and pop; for equipping me to overcome life’s adversities and make a contribution to our community. Like it or not, those of us who have managed to achieve some measure of fame and fortune are duty bound by an ancestral imperative to use our platforms to advance the struggle for full justice on behalf of our brothers and sisters who still face racial discrimination as an everyday fact of life.
We must raise our voices in a swelling chorus and pledge our money to this herculean struggle for justice. For that is how we have come thus far along the way – as the poet and Reniassance Man James Weldon Johnson wrote in the immortal anthem: Lift Every Voice and Sing, composed by his brother J. Rosamond Johnson in 1901, just 31 years after the abolition of 250 years of chattel slavery here in the “land of the free.”
Yet unless we fully understand the complex problems confronting us, we could end up like “Jack the Bear,” whom Duke Ellington – that indefatigable painter of Afro-American life in song – immortalized. We’ll be making tracks but getting nowhere! Some of our problems are obvious, like fatal encounters with the police.
Yet as horrible as it is we can envision a solution to this problem: Mandate that all police everywhere video tape every encounter with a citizen and pass a federal law requiring the states to hire Special Prosecutors to try every case involving the police use of firearms… or fatalities by any means. These measures will pretty much put an end to this problem. But even so, alas the major danger to our lives from random gunfire remains a nihilistic, angry, uneducated young black male. The statistics are indisputable cause numbers don’t lie.
However as the prescient Afro-American sociologist and Harvard Professor William J. Wilson demonstrates in seminal texts like “The Truly Disadvantaged,” “When Work Disappears” and “The Declining Significance of Race,” we are facing devastating problems that limit our chances in life and the solutions are elusive. For these problems are deeply rooted in American history and exacerbated by the realities of a predatory economic system where Darwinian laws of the jungle prevail. As Senator Bernie Sanders has adroitly pointed out: The big dogs are taking all the bones in a cruel environment that’s red of truth and claw. It’s a for real jungle out there!
Hence while continuing to vigorously fight the lingering vestiges of the American racial caste system we must not be so blind that we fail to see the wider struggle between economic classes. If the US economy continues in the direction it is headed, with runaway cyber-technology wiping out millions of jobs and no plan for the survival of workers who are rendered obsolete, it won’t matter what your race or ethnicity: we are all be in the same sinking boat! It is this economic disaster that fuels social pathologies from widespread out of wed-lock births, drug and alcohol addiction, spiraling homicides, mass slaughters, etc. And it is devastating the working classes of all racial and ethnic groups.
This is why silly talk about not voting, or there is no difference between the candidates, represents a dangerous intellectual laziness…or worse an impulse to cut off your nose to spite your face. Either choice is self-destructive folly. If I had unlimited time on this podium I could obviously say much more on these critical issues….and much more certainly needs to be said. But as I am laboring under the tyranny of the clock I shall proceed directly to the marching orders.
The first and immediate plan of action is to defeat Donald the Clown, a vain megalomaniac and intellectual light-weight who would set our country back and endanger the entire world. So register to vote! Get your friends and family to register to vote, and badger them to badger their friends and family to register and vote. To put the argument in a nutshell, I shall leave you with quotes by two philosophers: One an ancient Greek, the other a twentieth century African.
“Unless you are a God or a beast your life will be ruled by politics” warned Aristotle. “Seek ye first the political Kingdom and all else shall be added there unto,” spoke Kwame Nkrumah, independence leader and President of Ghana, the first modern African nation. Impassioned rhetoric is fine, it’s inspirational, it makes us feel good, but if we not act its just a pity party!
For as our great ancestor Frederick Douglass warned: Where there is no struggle there is no progress….power concedes nothing without demand…it never has and it never will. We may not always get what we pay for in this life…but we shall sure as hell pay for all that we get! I thank you for this honor.
A Note of Clarification on My Purpose
Jesse Williams was brought to my attention by the persistent and vociferous praise for his acceptance speech upon receiving the “Humanitarian Award” presented by Black Entertainment Television. So I looked the speech up online and watched it for myself. I found Mr. William’s to be eloquent, impassioned and poetic; the kind of verbal virtuosity that excites the emotions and fires up a crowd. But this is what one would expect from an accomplished actor giving a great performance. Alas, I had hoped for something different…something more.
If Mr. Williams had been allotted twice the amount of time this would have been a great closing commentary. Appeals to the emotions can be powerful adjuncts to a substantive speech, a means of inspiring people to action after a precise analysis of the problem, and clear marching orders to correct it. Only then are powerful rhetorical exercises truly useful in waging real struggle.
I know that some will complain that I am judging the Brother too harshly, and I answer their complaints by simply pointing out that had Mr. Williams been presented this award as an actor I would have judged him as an actor and simply applauded his performance. For he certainly did what actors do and did it well. However Mr. Williams was presented an award for his activism with “Black Lives Matter.” It was announced that the award was given for “His continued effort and steadfast commitment
Hence his speech has to be judged by a different standard. The question before any activist who is provided such a powerful platform, a chance to speak to millions, in these turbulent and dangerous times, is how can I make the best use of the opportunity to advance the struggle? If that is the objective then it will determine the form and content of the speech. The role of a movement orator is always the same: To move the masses to action with the magic power of the spoken word; what our Swahili speaking brothers call “Nommo.”
But action without a correct analysis and a plan is an invitation to chaos and defeat. Hence as an able actor adept at tugging our heart strings and jerking our tears Mr. Williams gave a bravura performance. But as a charismatic revivalist giving direction to a movement he was a bust. Fortunately, all is not lost, for there is a valuable lesson to be learned here.
We will forget at our peril that actors, be they Bernie Sanders surrogates like Susan Saranden, or Black Lives Matter’s spokesman Jessie Williams, spend their working lives a vehicles for the thoughts of others; those who write the script. Hence all Mr. William’s or Ms. Sarandon need is a good script to give a great speech that can move the masses to positive, constructive, action…not simply emotional catharsis and continued confusion.
The great Afro-American intellectual historian, cultural critic and political theorist Harold Cruse argued in his masterpiece “The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual” that the problem with lack actors is that do not turn to black writers for their scripts. It is with that objective that I suggest “Here is What Jesse Williams Should Have Said.”
(Click on Link and wait for video to appear to watch the Speech)