blackest thing, Featured, Race & Politics

The Best And Blackest Part Of Jesse Williams’ Speech Was An Indictment Of Black Men

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.

It starts at the 1:14 mark and ends 10 seconds later.

“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.

Damon Young

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB. He is also a columnist for GQ.com And he's working on a book of essays to be published by Ecco (HarperCollins). Damon is busy. He lives in Pittsburgh, and he really likes pancakes. Reach him at damon@verysmartbrothas.com. Or don't. Whatever.

  • HouseOfBonnets

    He ain’t always there when we call but he always on time…..In my Ashanti voice.

    • KMN

      Hmm…this is an interesting line…don’t take this as shade or sarcasm lmao I’m really thinking on this line…reminds me of what old folks used to say God ain’t always there when you need Him but He’s always on time…
      Now that’s making me think even MORE about that line…ugh…like I don’t have work to do this afternoon

      • HouseOfBonnets

        Not taken as shade at all. It’s just that a few of us were waiting on something regarding the awards and Jessie’s speech.

        • KMN

          oh you meant that in regards to Damon lmao…lissen…it’s time for night night lolol

  • Mortal Man

    Jesse Williams had bars last night, fo’ sho…

    And the part about standing up and giving credit for our women was dead on. The amount of casual misogyny we have in our discourse makes us see women as objects, rather than agents; and an object only exists to be used instead of truly appreciated. At the same time, I’m not going to lie and say I step up every time I hear an untoward remark in the barbershop or other places of Black male gathering.

    • Jennifer

      Let’s do better for each other then, huh?

      • Mortal Man

        I try to do a little better everyday.

        • Blueberry01

          Thank you.

    • Nina Morena

      He has the right audience to say those words to.

    • S.B. Real

      Out of curiosity, Mortal Man, what are the reasons you may not step up when you hear an untoward remark.

      • Mortal Man

        It’s not checking your barber when they lining you up and they say some crazy stuff about women.

        It’s an uncle who everyone calls crazy at Thanksgiving but is slick insulting women- and by extension, your momma, grandma, aunties and nieces.

    • Blueberry01

      Casual misogyny…..

      It ain’t casual for us, MM. It’s very direct.

      • Mortal Man

        I’m not a woman and I’m not going to even try to mansplain my thoughts. I hear you. What seems like words to me must be a web that covers everything to you.

        • Blueberry01

          Ouch, MM, that jab almost connected. I thought we were cooler than that.

          I’m not exactly sure where the disconnect happened, but I don’t your mansplaining. I’m glad that you listening, though.

          That’s all we, as women, really need anyway. Well…one of the things we need.

          • Mortal Man

            Wasn’t trying to throw a jab! I was genuinely saying that I prefer to listen versus getting defensive.

            Defense is an act of war and I ain’t here to fight nobody.

            • Blueberry01

              Better not…

              : lightly mushes him in his head, then runs away: ?

    • robin

      a/s/l? And are you single?

      • Mortal Man

        Not single- happily married.

        • robin

          it was a joke, but thanks for replying?

          • Mortal Man

            Hahahaha. I’m bad at picking up at jokes and sarcasm.

  • This is what I’m saying

  • grownandsexy2

    “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.”

    ALL. OF. THIS.!!

  • Listening to this completely made my day. I think I had previously written him off as a pretty guy who says smart things sometimes but after this, I’m in full support of Jesse Williams. In a world where everyone avoids pledging allegiance to any sidelined group for fear of losing sponsorship, this is beautiful. The courage and the passion means something: Let’s stand for ourselves, come what may.

    • Val

      “here everyone avoids pledging allegiance to any sidelined group for fear of losing sponsorship,..”

      Interestingly enough he actual spoke on that.

  • Sigma_Since 93

    It felt like he remixed Tupac’s keep your head up with that line about Black women. When they panned over to his Dad, you could see the pride all in his face. Brothas and Dwights were left with homework after that speech.

  • As stated in the other thread:

    1. Usher needs to find friends and producers over the age of 30 to surround himself with
    2. Alicia Keys….she’ll never be greater than her first 2 albums were
    3. Beyonce gone Beyonce
    4. J. Cole went platinum without any features
    5. Remy Ma is stacked, my gawd!!
    6. Future 2.0 was a riot
    7. Future 1.0 is boring to watch (why don’t rappers give a good show??? They just be on stage out of breath looking bored and dry)
    8. I would like to see new hosts next year
    9. I would like to see less of the horrid joke writing for the mini interludes
    10. No one that goes to the BET Awards knows how to get down, how are you in your chair for a Sheila E performance????

    • Proverbs31WIFE!

      #5. Facts on facts on facts.

    • Jocelyn

      Numbers 1, 9, and 10 are my thoughts verbatim. I don’t know how you did it but keep up the mind reading.

    • Val

      #8 Nah, AP, just get rid of Anthony. I never get tired of Tracee.

      • Ok that’s fair. He isn’t funny to me.

    • Quirlygirly

      #10..Sheila E is 58 years old and slid her a$$ across the stage..I was out my seat before then but that slide had me cheering for her. And at the end with her and Mayte. That almost had me in tears..

      • Jennifer

        I didn’t even notice #10. Who had the audacity to stay seated? They should have stood up when Mayte triple-spun on ’em, or when 85 year old Jerome did a split on that stage prior to Sheila E’s slide. The audacity.

        • Quirlygirly

          And he almost didn’t make it up but I was for him on the way down..tho..Go Jerome!

      • miss t-lee

        She sure did! Chick had them shoes off, and ready to rock.

      • Ghettoprincess

        That slide made me nervous. Like that’s the kind of thing that messes with hips.

        • graphixspot

          Girl, I said the same thing. I was clutching my pearls watching her slide. Thank GOD she ain’t hurt nothin’!

        • catgee12

          I was breathed a sigh of relief when she got up … I was extremely concerned for her hips …

    • Courtney Wheeler

      I was never a Alicia Keys fan. “Diary” is a good song though.

    • Jennifer

      9) Some of the comedy and television writers I follow on Twitter were @BET like, “Hire me next year, please. It didn’t have to be like this.” Lean in, babies!

      • I don’t even write professionally and I could’ve done better. H e l l , they can pick through some of these threads and use some things I’ve posted here.

  • Kim

    “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.

    I’m not going to lie, that was the most poignant part of his speech for me. When I first heard that particular line while watching his speech it made me burst out in tears. Even when I re-read it in screen grabs, gifs and recaps I still get teary eyed.

    • Same. Honestly he could’ve just said that and sat right on down.

    • Squish

      Straight up.

      I spent the rest of the speech wiping tears and slapping my table.

      That will forever be etched in my mind.

    • RhetoricalReverie

      Hands down one of my favorite parts of the speech. There was something really beautiful and comforting in seeing a black man acknowledge our sacrifice and address their shortcomings. No indictments, just support and a promise to do better. Simple and fulfilling.

      • Kim

        Exactly

    • Nina Morena

      I am back in tears just thinking about it. That whole moment was magical as fcuK.

  • Thank you!

  • Vanity in Peril

    Obligatory, non-spoilery GOT gif…

    I watched it this morning and I was shaking. I expect the resistance from white people. I am never shocked, they have never counterpointed with any information or pov that has led me to believe anything less than most of them just do not get it, know they don’t have to get it and are taught to fight against something that is plain as fuque to comprehend.

    But I also can say the same thing about men as it pertains to gender equality. Including black men.

    So why aren’t we listeming to black women, again?

    Jesse Williams is my best friend in my mind. He embodies every deep discussion on race I’ve ever longed to have.

    Plus, he fine. If you aint know.

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