I was waiting for the conversation around Jesse Williams’s Humanitarian Award acceptance speech at the BET awards to play out before I formulated my thoughts, since I consider the discussion of it to be as revealing, in its own way, as the speech itself. Williams’s speech represents the best and the worst of Black America. It represents the best because it showcases how effective we have always been, at making the most elite among us understand that our ultimate fate is their ultimate fate. It represented the best because BET knew that they wouldn’t have credibility as a “Black station” in times such as these, if they didn’t at least occasionally make a public statement on human rights. The best, because, like the strongest examples of Black liberation rhetoric, Williams’s speech reflected a strong understanding that as important as words are, the battle belongs to those who bleed and are beaten trying to win it in the streets; coupled with a demonstration of the power of eloquent, passionate, flow. Williams followed generations of Black woman theorists and activists by affirming the centrality of Black womanhood to Black liberation, and taking responsibility for the fact that Black men have often failed Black liberation, by shirking our responsibilities to the Black women who, as a collective, have never not been present when their presence was needed, even as they received second class liberation in return.
The worst parts of this story come not from Williams’s speech itself, but from the context before, during and after. For one thing, there is no separating what happens on BET from the fact that BET is owned by Viacom. That the most prominent single vehicle for broadcasting Black culture in America, and possibly the world, is not controlled by Blacks, is central to Williams’s statement indicting White power for: “burying Black people out of sight and out of mind while extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment like oil – black gold, ghettoizing and demeaning our creations then stealing them, gentrifying our genius and then trying us on like costumes before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit.” This undeniably implicates the economic and social violence which was necessary to even give Williams the platform which he used so brilliantly. This is not an indictment of Williams, but of a system that uses Black words, Black thoughts, Black presences, Black minds, so skillfully, that the oppressed are forced to rely on it to voice their oppression. To say nothing of the fact that the award was “presented by State Farm,” according to Viacom employee Debra Lee. The BET awards are a monument to commodified Blackness, an American specialty since 1619.
I remember one time, sitting in my mother’s living room as she watched “The Game.” As the only one in my family who doesn’t watch the show, I’ve developed a passing familiarity with the characters and their basic predilections. In the scene I observed, a biracial character, married to a White woman, who was known for his greed and apoliticality, was being schooled by a militantly Black walk-on character in a restaurant. The Uncle Tom began to relent and listed a number of things he was doing to show solidarity with the Black community, including (unironically) getting The Rush Card. One doesn’t have to watch BET for very long to realize that RushCard owns a goodly helping of BET’s advertising space. The RushCard is not a Black bank, it’s not even a Black owned prepaid credit card company, it’s a licensing agreement between Russell Simmons and Visa in order to extract millions in no interest loans from poor Black people. (As long as Visa makes sure you have your money when you request it, they can do what they want with it the rest of the time, including draw interest from it.) There is nothing nationalistic or liberatory about the RushCard, but, because a Black man’s name is on it, and it’s being advertised on a Black network and product placed in a show with an almost all Black cast, you’re not supposed to notice that. This is cultural vulnerability (trading on the increased comfort Black people have in Black spaces because they are so scarce) being used to prey on financial vulnerability. But this is hardly the most sinister context in which Blackness is commodified to bleed us for Wall Street’s benefit. In order to lure Black borrowers into subprime loans, Wells-Fargo conducted “Wealth building seminars” targeted to predominantly Black audiences. Trusted luminaries like Tavis Smiley were hired to tout the value of homeownership in the building of family wealth, including in Prince George’s county, the bastion of Black wealth which was gutted by the housing crisis brought about by companies Wells-Fargo and its class. The game is rigged so that we’ll always lose, yet we insist on playing it by the common rules, because we are blinded by capitalist acculturation.
Which probably explains why Williams’s words will have little effect beyond the conversation we’re having now. Williams indicted the culture of money worship which infects our community at every level. (It infects America as a whole, but, it pays off especially poorly for us) In fact, just a few minutes after Williams sat down, Samuel L. Jackson blew off critics of the Negro-for-hire ethos which has made him Hollywood’s wealthiest actor, by mocking poor Black people in front of a room full of rich ones, the same ones that had just cheered as a man chastised them for chasing money. Black folk have gotten disturbingly good at paying lip service to the revolutionary aesthetic, while remaining on the market for White capitalism. I’m not talking about someone who has to work at McDonalds so her children don’t starve (and so that she can remain an object of mockery for Samuel L. Jackson). I’m talking about a room full of Black people who probably have several billion dollars of net worth between them, who still act like they have to hustle to survive. Who have world’s of space to live for something more sublime than zeroes on a check, yet choose not to. Not that this is a disease unique to the elite, I know people who marched across bridges screaming “Hands up, don’t shoot!” who now work at Morgan Stanley, a company which helped pioneer the funding of private prisons. I say all this to say that : Words, however well spoken and flowed, will never get us anywhere as a people until we internalize and take their implications seriously. Until we look in the mirror and interrogate the work of our hands; until we answer with honesty, that voice of conscience which challenges us, demanding we account for the good we could be doing with our lives; words will just be words. The great Brazillian educator Paulo Freire said that a true word implies action, I would add, that if this is the case, then true hearing implies a commitment to live according to the true word. If we can’t, each and every one, make this commitment, there aren’t speeches enough between here and the end of time to save us from ourselves, to say nothing of the horrors we face.
Finally, to address the issue of colorism, or rather, those who have brought up colorism in an effort to invalidate Williams’s speaking out. I must preface this by saying, that I can find almost no evidence that such persons exist, other than the comments by people calling them out, but, since I can’t afford to believe people make up debates just to take a side in them, I’m going to assume that the trolls are out there. It would be an affront to numeracy to argue that light skinned privilege doesn’t exist, it does. Privilege, in this case, must not be confused with power. Privilege is a by-product of power, it radiates from empowering social structures like heat from an engine. But, privilege and power are not always held in the same hands. White privilege is fed by the social power which White people possess, the material realities of White power allow individual people identified as White, to move through the world in certain ways based on the knowledge of their collective social power. Light skin privilege comes from White privilege too. Lighter complected Black people are presumed to have more White ancestry than their darker brethren (even if they are, like me, overwhelmingly of African descent. Genetically speaking, complexion is just another trait, and since DNA isn’t aware of our racial hangups, sometimes the connection between skin color and African ancestry falls apart. In any event, such persons would still benefit from less physical dissimilarity from Whites.) The valuable critique of positionality which allows us to see the violence done when White voices are privileged over Black ones in Black liberatory contexts, can’t become an excuse to demand positional purity from our messengers. Dozens of darker skinned Blacks (Including the classist Mr. Jackson) spoke into the same microphone which Jesse used and, at their most political, told us to vote. Furthermore, if Williams were oblivious to race issues and tried to live in the margins like, Tiger Woods, we’d criticize him and rightly so. To quote Syl Johnson: “If you half White, light brown skinned or high yellow, you still Black.” The privileges of lightness stem not from power, but from the White man’s presumption that non-Whites exist to be accepted or denied by them, like slaves lining up outside the big house for extra food at Christmas time. The privileges of lightness pale in comparison to the soul crushing economic, cultural and political burden of simply being Black in a White supremacist society. Therefore, the only honest, non-self-negating position any Black person can take is as White supremacy’s unflagging enemy. All this said, it is likely that Williams’s physical appearance helped bring his commitment to broader attention. Just consider the infamous tale of “prison bae,” the light complected, blue eyed gentleman whose mug shot went viral thanks to women (by no means all) who would never let something as insignificant as a criminal record get in the way of physical attractiveness. If light skin and eyes could turn a jail bird into a heart throb, it’s no stretch to imagine that they could help turn a “woke” t.v. actor into an icon. Which isn’t to say that Black women don’t show love to more melanin blessed brothers, but, it’s hard to imagine Idris Elba being referenced on the BET awards (like “prison bae”) were he to trade tailored suits for a prison jumpsuit. Some have compared Williams to David Banner who says similar things (though with a certain amount of androcentric “hoteppery” thrown in which may turn off Black women who, we must admit, are the undisputed gate keepers of Black social media). As usual, things are never as simple as twitter would lead us to believe. Williams deserved the humanitarian award as much as anyone there and he did as much with his platform as anyone could have hoped. The real question is, when does being “woke” and “dropping knowledge” turn into commitment and action for the millions of us, rich and poor, famous and obscure, dark and light, who zealously guard the sidelines while a war is waged on our behalf.
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