Jesse Williams And Freedom: Love Note To A Tradition

Crowd cheering and watching a band on stage.
Crowd cheering and watching a band on stage.

The 2016 BET Awards started with a sound we know--the voice of genius that we're told is no longer: Martin Luther King, Jr. Curated by team Beyoncé and followed by her collaboration with super emcee Kendrick Lamar, King's voice was the haunting to a night that both idolized the visionary brilliance of Prince and Muhammad Ali and suggested that there's so much more yet to be done. The disembodied voice of King was, perhaps, an indictment of absent leadership but this recurrent concern is not about missing bodies. If we look and listen closely enough, we see and hear these powerful women and men, youth and elderly all around us. What we are nostalgic for is not a person but perhaps a style--not a group of readily identifiable people but a genealogy of thought.

The distinction between the loss of a figure and the loss of a tradition was powerfully displayed during Jesse Williams's acceptance speech for the Humanitarian award. His comments sparked a standing ovation from his BET audience as well as the admiration of and hallelujah hand-waves from those of us at home. He began with an acknowledgement of those who made his work possible: his parents, wife, and the "real organizers...the activists, the civil rights attorneys, the struggling parents, the families, the teachers, the students" who are standing against "a system meant to divide and impoverish." His descriptions of our world were delivered as clear, declarative statements; there was no pleading, no pandering, no equivocating. And all of this without sacrificing its poetry.

The beauty of his comments were in the candor and clarity of his thinking. His language moved listeners between the local and national conditions of Black life with ease, from praise for Black women who provide disproportionate care in our communities to the devastating murders of Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd, and others. He argued that these lost loved ones are the evidence of a failed progress narrative; they mark "how far we've come," which is not enough distance at all. Williams's new timeline was also a mirror to the audience whose money, he argued, is not enough to protect us. Drawing parallels between the hot iron branding of enslaved people and the chosen branding of celebrities with designer names, his challenge was tailor-made for that extravagant event even as his critiques followed in a long history of artist activism.

It may be difficult to see through contemporary eyes but Williams is one of many. Paul Robeson was one of the most hyphenated artists of the twentieth century and used his stages to sing and speak for the rights of workers, liberation of African descended peoples, and a global peace agenda. Beginning in the 1930s, he argued against impartiality, famously proclaiming that "The artist must elect to fight for Freedom or for slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative." A student of radical intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois, Robeson too mentored others in this way, including actor-singer-activist Harry Belafonte. That Williams has assisted in bringing to the screen and will portray Belafonte in an upcoming biopic displays the integrity in casting that eluded the most recent efforts to document the large life of Belafonte comrade Nina Simone. Like Robeson, her unapologetic love for Black people and rebellious performances cost her the career that her talents warranted, forcing her into exile for more than twenty years.

These artists were and are beloved because they used their access to the stage to both expose corruption and encourage those communities abandoned by the systems and nations that claimed to protect them. Each one of them insisted on the word that Williams repeated on Sunday--freedom--and made it mean and do new things in the organizing that was already happening around them. This is why people listened. This is why people followed. This is also what made them dangerous. The cost of being Robeson, Belafonte or Simone is well documented; surveillance, censorship, erasure, and violence are not only possible but likely, meaning that artists like them are few and far between. Many artists are well-intentioned. Some have their moments. But few consistently lead. And even fewer take the challenge from of the organizers to the stage. That is the tradition that Williams attached himself to and enlivened on Sunday.

This isn't an ode to Jesse Williams. He wisely knows that the recognition is not about him. This is instead a love note to a tradition populated by Robeson, Belafonte, and Simone, Mahalia Jackson, Abbey Lincoln, and Janelle Monáe. And this is a wish for more artists who trust themselves and us enough to be visionary, to be courageous, and to ask tough questions of their art and careers. Ten years ago Black feminist scholar Hazel Carby posed the single most important question that I've ever received: "What's at stake?," she asked. This is the question that organizers ask themselves almost everyday and every thinker, writer, actor, singer, dancer, artist, and politician should ask themselves on a regular basis for the answer may get us closer to this elusive freedom.