Jesse Williams’ speech in acceptance of the Humanitarian Award at the 2016 BET Awards was so many things. Incredible things. Powerful things. Poetic things. It was a riveting wake-up call that America desperately needed. And while I’m still processing it all, I had to write about it. When you see something beautiful, like the sun setting the clouds ablaze with hues of orange, red, and purple as it descends – you acknowledge it’s beauty immediately. You don’t look away. You celebrate it in that moment. Jesse was our sun tonight.
His words were the orange, red, and purple hues that set our sky on fire for nearly seven minutes. From a communication and public speaking standpoint, these are my reasons why his speech was notable and will be remembered for years to come.
Why We Can’t (and Shouldn’t) Stop Talking about Jesse Williams’ Speech
He honored his parents.
And it was sweet and sincere. I love that he recognized them and their part in shaping who he is. The camera panned to his father’s face and the look and love and pride he felt for his son were palpable. A truly special moment to witness for their family.
He acknowledged his wife, Aryn.
He expressed his thanks to her for changing his life. It was few words, but not many more words were needed. It was profound all on its own and surely means many things to them as a couple. I love to see marriage celebrated in this way.
He included others on the journey with him.
By saying, “This award is not for me..” he paid homage to others that are fighting just as hard as he is to bring pertinent issues to light but do not have the visibility he has as a celebrity.
He said what needed to be said.
It’s seldom easy to confront the hard stuff. To give the truth when it hurts. Jesse told the truth. He wasn’t (and has not been for a long time), afraid to have the difficult conversation that needs to be had in this country about racism, social justice, and inequality. He spoke what was on the hearts and minds of so many Black Americans. He gave our feelings of pain, anger, sadness, and frustration a voice (for which I am so grateful).
He knew what he was talking about.
While he didn’t share specifics with numbers, he mentioned how data is being reviewed on the rate in which police officers are able to diffuse situations involving white people that do not end in death. As a speaker, having research to support your claims is integral to your credibility. As he spoke, it was certain that he was well informed and was not interested in blowing smoke in everyone’s faces under the guise of hashtag activism.
He extended a hand to Black women.
Listen. Black love is beautiful, yet woefully complex. To hear a Black man say to his sistren, we can and will do better for you was a step toward healing that has been a long time coming.
He called everybody out.
Jesse’s speech wasn’t just social justice explained for non-people of color. It was for everybody. Black, white, and everything in between. He also made sure to make a poignant point to call out the entertainers he stood in front of. Celebrity can be a powerful drug that folks are addicted to for the wrong reasons. If you have a platform – use it for good. To illicit change. To speak up when people are wronged. Yes, we all love good tune or a funny movie – but celebrities are influencers, and only a small number of them are willing to use their influence and platforms to be agents of change. The brilliance with which he challenged the audience was masterful in that is assertive without being aggressive. That is a communication skill that is not easy to acquire.
He spoke with emotion and conviction.
It is obvious that this is real life for Jesse. It is not a game. He accepted his award with such passion and eloquence. He sought to teach and challenge anyone under the sound of his voice. Great public speakers know how to do it this in such a way that leaves you inspired. Jesse mastered that.
Now, I have to admit that as a public speaking coach and professor, I cringed when I noticed he was chewing gum! But this was so brilliant, I’ll give him a pass (my students are never that lucky!).
We shouldn’t stop talking about it because…
The issues he addressed are a further airing out of the dirty laundry that is America’s dark past and sordid history; and its affect on people of color centuries later. Racism, social justice, and inequality needed to be confronted to be dealt with. The difficult conversations need to be had. We needn’t shy away from them. Every generation needs its own set of leaders to start the dialogue. Celebrities and regular folk alike, we need our own suns to light up the sky. Tonight, Jesse was our sun.
Thank you, Jesse (and all who serve along with him). Thank you.
Below is a copy of the speech transcript.
Peace peace. Thank you, Debra. Thank you, BET. Thank youNate Parker, Harry, and Debbie Allen for participating in that.
Before we get into it, I just want to say I brought my parents out tonight. I just want to thank them for being here, for teaching me to focus on comprehension over career, and that they make sure I learn what the schools were afraid to teach us. And also thank my amazing wife for changing my life.
Now, this award is not for me. This is for the real organizers all over the country, the activist, the civil rights attorneys, the struggling parents, the families, the teachers, the students that are realizing that a system built to divide and impoverish and destroy us cannot stand if we do. It’s kinda basic mathematics: the more we learn about who we are and how we got here the more we will mobilize.
This award is also for the black women in particular who have spent their lives nurturing everyone before themselves — we can and will do better for you.
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’re going to have equal rights and justice in our own country or we will restructure their function and ours.
I got more, y’all. Yesterday would have been young Tamir Rice’s 14th birthday so I don’t want to hear any more about how far we’ve come when paid public servants can pull a drive-by on a 12-year-old playing alone in a park in broad daylight, killing him on television, and then going home to make a sandwich.
Tell Rekia Boyd how it’s so much better to live in 2012 than 1612 or 1712. Tell that to Eric Garner, Sandra Bland.
The thing is though, all of us here are getting money, that alone isn’t going to stop this. Dedicating our lives to getting money just to give it right back to put someone’s brand on our body — when we spent centuries praying with brands on our bodies, and now we pray to get paid for brands on our bodies?
There has been no war that we have not fought and died on the front lines of. There is no job we haven’t done, there is no tax they haven’t levied against us, and we have paid all of them.
But freedom is always conditional here. ‘You’re free!’ they keeping telling us. ‘But she would be alive if she hadn’t acted so…free.’ Now, freedom is always coming in the hereafter, but the hereafter is a hustle: We want it now.
Let’s get a couple of things straight. The burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander — that’s not our job so let’s stop with all that. If you have a critique for our resistance then you’d better have an established record, a 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.
We’ve been floating this country on credit for centuries, and we’re done watching and waiting while this invention called whiteness uses and abuses us, 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 and stealing them, gentrifying our genius and then trying us on like costumes before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit.
Just because we’re magic doesn’t mean we’re not real. Thank you.”