Between all the performances, the BET Awards also found time to fit in one of the most remarkable acceptance speeches since Sacheen Littlefeather. Actor and activist Jesse Williams was this year’s recipient of the BET Humanitarian Award, joining the ranks of past honorees including Myrlie Evers-Williams, Harry Belafonte, and Muhammad Ali. Williams, who plays Dr. Jackson Avery on Grey’s Anatomy, rose to national prominence after traveling to Ferguson, Missouri, to participate in protests after the shooting of Michael Brown. BET also cited his service on the boards of the Advancement Project and Sankofa.org, as well as his work as an executive producer of documentary art installation/website Question Bridge: Black Males.
Williams, who’s known to be refreshingly blunt, pulled no punches on stage. After thanking his parents and wife, he gave a barnburner of a speech about systemic racism and oppression, ranging from police brutality to capitalism to cultural appropriation, with a little aside about the promises of the hereafter that would have made Joe Hill proud. It’s worth watching in full, but here are some of the highlights:
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 are going to have equal rights and justice in our own country, or we will restructure their function in ours. … 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 it is to live in 1612 or 1712. Tell that to Eric Garner. Tell that to Sandra Bland. Tell that to Darrien Hunt.
Freedom is somehow always conditional here. “You’re free,” they keep telling us. “But she would have been alive it she hadn’t acted so … free.” Now freedom is always coming in the hereafter. But you know what, though? The hereafter is a hustle. We want it now.
And let’s get a couple of things straight—just a little side note. The burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander. That’s not our job, all right? Stop with all that. If you have a critique for the resistance, for our resistance, then you’d better have an established record of 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, then stealing them, gentrifying our genius, and then trying us on like costumes before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit. The thing is, though, just because we’re magic doesn’t mean we’re not real. Thank you.