"Words are only as good as the response to those words."- Jesse Williams
Muhammad Ali died on June 3, 2016.
Much like Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee and Harry Belafonte, Ali in his prime was much more than a celebrity. He was a part of an elite group of Black stars, our limelight drenched talented tenth, who used their platform, international appeal and power to advocate for the rights of Black people in America in the midst of many of our community's most tempestuous eras as pseudo citizens in the twilight zone for Black people that is the United States of America.
Ali was the rarest gem in the crown. Many luminaries within our familial fold, would balk at the idea of compromising their fame and fortune at the expense of actions that could be deemed as activism. Supporting movements surrounding social justice and reform, especially when it comes to issues plaguing the Black community, had the propensity to be deemed congruent to career suicide.
Whether in the 1960's or the 2010's, assimilation and placation have always crept into the respectability politics that are Black racial relations and celebrity, silencing those who could actually have a major impact on our standing as rightful and equal citizens in America.
But not Ali.
Ali stood confidently, firmly and brazenly in his convictions. He staunchly supported the Civil Rights Movement, opposed the war in Vietnam refusing to accede to the draft and serve in the United States Army as a Black man, openly affiliated with the Nation of Islam seeking spiritual guidance, political advice and close friendship from Malcom X and carried the mantle for Black manhood up until his death after his long battle with Parkinson's Disease just a few weeks ago.
Ali was THE icon.
Upon hearing the news of Muhammad's passing, I pulled up an article on his life and the publication had chosen to publish a picture of Ali carrying a majestic fiery torch and lighting the official Olympic cauldron signaling the opening ceremony of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. That moment being one of the most iconic snapshots in sports history, I looked at that photo and I said to myself "Wow....now that Ali is gone who is going to carry the torch?"
Enter Jesse Williams.
Best known for his role on ABC's hit drama" Grey's Anatomy", the young Black actor has gained a substantial level of notoriety as an activist within the Black community most notably for his efforts through the Black Lives Matter movement and boots on the ground contributions in Ferguson, Missouri in the wake of the killing of Mike Brown by the Ferguson Police Department. This year, he was awarded with the Humanitarian Award at the 2016 BET Awards where he delivered a scathing yet glorious acceptance speech that doubled as an indictment of systemic racism, cultural appropriation, white supremacy and privilege that encompass a myriad of spaces in American culture and as a call to action to Black people that reminded us that our future as a collective in America is in our hands and that it is integral now more than ever to place our energy and focus on Black men loving Black women the way Black women love us, prioritizing our minds and mobilization over monetary gain...especially those of us with means, teaching our children their true identities and using our platforms and voices to answer the need of the fierce urgency of now.
The reaction to the speech was sweepingly positive. Jesse had augmented his place in the movement as that moment will easily go down in history as one of the most relevant speeches made by a celebrity on Black issues on such a vast platform. Many have already heralded him as the next Harry Belafonte with Ebony Magazine recently featuring a cover and photo spread of Belafonte passing an actual baton to Williams in a mock racial progress relay race.
Coincidentally, Ali received the first ever BET Humanitarian award and here Williams was receiving the same award, for the same efforts on the same night the champ was remembered on this same stage after his passing.
No one can replace Ali, but damn it, I looked at the screen and said finally...we have one they can't have. A Black man with the platform took the leap.
As Jesse walked off of the stage to a resounding standing ovation, Eva Pigford, Spike Lee and Samuel L. Jackson revived from their holy ghost filled moment, the obligatory laudatory music playing in the background, I watched Jesse and Debra Lee turn the corner to the backstage area, probably handing his award to his assistant and being shuttled off to a number of press outlets for photo ops and sound bites before returning to his seat to the ever uplifting and unifying performance of "Wicked" by Future (Bruh.....smh) and I couldn't help but wonder ....what's next?
The impulsive reaction as a writer was to write a response immediately after this beautiful occasion. But the people watcher in me said...wait.
Wait until after the fanfare has died down to allow people's true colors to shine through.
Was this finally going to be our mass awakening? Our "Someday We'll All Be Free" that Donny Hathaway sung about so long ago?
After the inevitable social media firestorm...
After all of the Because of Them We Can Facebook posts.
After all of the "YASSSS JESSE IS BAE!" remarks on Twitter.
After all of the #staywoke and #goals hashtags.
WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO NEXT?
I had to wait.
Wait until the day after Jesse.
The day after Jesse is here.
As I feared, the demon that is counter productivity reared its ugly head as many revived the tale of self-hatred light skin/dark skin debate.
Others questioned Jesse's "permission" or "authenticity" as a Black man, as his mother is Swedish and his father is African American, that gave him political license to even weigh in on such issues as he isn't a "real Black man".
The finger pointing continued with Black men pointing out that Black women were only moved by Williams' speech because they were sexually attracted to the actor, while Black women countered that Jessie is willing to jeopardize his lucrative career to stand up for Black women while most Black men won't even break them off a piece of a damn kit kat bar.
Some were disgusted that it took a "light skinned soap star" to open up the minds of so many young Black men and women to their duty when so many regular joes have said the same message over and over again only to have it fall on deaf ears. Those more focused on the messenger than the message.
Black people who were more concerned about a Justin Timberlake tweet in response to the speech than the actual heart and instruction of the speech itself.
And White men and women shed buckets of Greek Yogurt tears over the speech calling it racist and offensive because their children were exposed to the truth as the show was broadcast on Nickelodeon when they were just trying to watch Peppa Pig and chill.
I call these people the misguided.
Then, there was the counterculture to this group. Those who were motivated, invigorated and ready to rise to the occasion. But, who wondered what they should do. What should their contribution be?
I fell into this group.
Am I doing enough? Is there more I can do for my people or are the problems so large that my little actions really won't make a change? If I get involved and attempt to contribute to the movement will I offend other people? What will my white coworkers and friends think of me? What can I do to help?
People say to me all the time, "Paul you write. Keep on writing man. That's your contribution." Little do they know that honestly, I'm scared too. Every time I write a piece and publish it to the world I am afraid that this is going to come back to haunt me. I wonder if I am going to regret this? Will speaking the truth harm my family? Will this affect my finances? Will I lose my job?
I call this group the seekers.
If there is one thing that the misguided and the seekers have in common in the aftermath of Jesse's speech, it is that neither of us seem to know what to do now. Admittedly, Jesse's speech was a lot to unpack.
But one take away that cannot be denied is that in the days after Jesse, we have to act.
Here is what we must do.
In the days after Jesse, we have to realize that our children are our responsibility.
"Now, this award, this is not for me. This is for the real organizers all over the country. The activists, 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. All right? It's kind of basic mathematics. The more we learn about who we are and how we got here, the more we will mobilize." -- Jesse Williams
If we continue to rely upon other people to teach our children their history, morals, principles and values, we will forever be a people without knowledge of self. African American people are this nation's motherless children. We are one of the only groups of ethnic decent that have no direct connection to our origins. This is deliberate. Society doesn't want us to know who we are because a people without knowledge of themselves can be told anything and controlled. We were brought to this country against our own will. Our intra-cultures and tongues mingled to render our ancestors incapable of communicating with one another. It is incumbent upon those of us who have been bestowed the great responsibility of raising and educating little black boys and little black girls to provide our children with the education they will never receive in school and a clear understanding of their identity and to prioritize content and character over commercial gain.
In the days after Jesse, Black men, we have to be better for our women.
"Now, 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." -- Jesse Williams
Throughout history, Black women have always stood up for Black men. Ida B. Wells. Assata Shakur. Angela Davis. Black, beautiful women. Standing in the gap even when we don't return the favor. Women who were raped, maimed, beaten and abused by slave masters in efforts to keep us safe and to keep the slave masters hands off of Black men. Women who were forced to carry the children of their master rapists to term and give birth to babies bearing the face of their attackers as a constant reminder. And today we rape, assault and disrespect the great great granddaughters of those same women. Women have had to forcibly open their legs for generations to men who sought only to invade and brutalize the most intimate parts of their bodies and we act like we can't voluntarily open a door for woman as she enters the mall? We call our women bitches and hoes and diminish their existence to butt cheeks and DM targets? Is this how we honor those who came before us? Are you the type of Black man you would want your daughter to marry? Like Jesse said Black women, we can and will do better for you.
In the days after Jesse, we have to organize and focus our attention on how to dismantle and combat a system that was created to be a conduit for racism.
"Now, what we've been doing is looking at the data and we know that police somehow manage to deescalate, 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 in ours."- Jesse Williams
We have to equip ourselves with knowledge of the inner workings of our government and become active and integral members of this country's political system. We are more than just the black vote. We are more than just a political visit to church around election time every four years to tell us the same empty promises and false hopes. We are more than hot sauce in my bag. We are more than a whip and a nae nae and a Breakfast Club interview in the name of Black and white solidarity. We are not Donald Trump's African American. We have to research and know who we are voting for. We have to ensure that we vote based on who has a proven record of standing up for our community and not based on the brand name we recognize. Our political interests cannot continue to be bypassed and we cannot continue to allow our political capital to be prostituted by officials who offer nothing more than dirty sheets, a Plan B pill and a wrinkled $20 bill on our nightstand after election night. We have to vote locally. We have to become judges. We have to run for political office. We have to demand more from our police forces and call for their demilitarization. We have to realize our own power and harvest it.
In the days after Jesse, we have to stop making money our idol.
"Now, the thing is, though, all of us in here getting money that alone isn't going to stop this. All right? Now 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 with brands for our bodies." -- Jesse Williams
Floyd Mayweather was once asked why he seemed to be evading a fight with boxing champion Manny Pacquiao. He stated, "I don't mind being a rich coward."
And as I look around, it seems like that is all I see, Black rich cowards who are afraid to fight for anything but themselves. Wrapped up in the false security of their money. Those in our community who have the means and the platform to take a stand instead choosing to idly sit by and watch Black people continue to be victimized.
Yet we still love you.
We loved you OJ, even though you don't consider yourself Black, you're OJ right? Even though the civil rights movement was not your concern.
We loved you.
Even when you turned your back on Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali's call for solidarity amongst Black athletes' quest for social justice.
We loved you.
And in return? You called us "niggers", moved as far away as you could from us, divorced yourself from our community and used our images and empathy to get away with a double homicide.
We still loved you.
We loved you Dr. Ben Carson for the doors you broke down for people of color in the field of medicine. We lauded you as an example to our young Black men of what hard work, faith and education can lead you to in life. And in return? You used your platform as a candidate for the Presidency of the United States to denounce Black issues and the Black Lives Matters movement, allowed a racist to call you a child molester and pat you on the back and then endorsed that same racist to be the leader of the "free" world.
Getting money is not enough.
Those of us who are fortunate enough to have been able to navigate this system and create a layer of financial independence have to start opening our mouths and using our platforms and positions of power to effectuate actual change. We have to stop being afraid of offending those who oppress us simply by demanding equality. We have to stop putting our dollars back in the hands of those who victimize us. We may not be in physical chains and bonds, but we still have to overcome being slaves to consumerism, greed and wealth.
Who will be Ali in a room full of Mayweathers?
In the days after Jesse, we have to stop appeasing people who seek to erase our existence.
"The burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander."- Jesse Williams
If we are ever going to mobilize as a people, we have got to stop caring about how our actions in furtherance of our eternal freedom make White people feel.
It is not nor will it ever be incumbent upon we, the oppressed, to explain racism or show empathy in the face of blatant xenophobia and disregard over and over again to those who "don't know" what is or is not bigotry. In 2016, the issue is much more vast than people just not knowing what is or is not racist or cultural appropriation, it's people not wanting to know, not caring to know and even when they are informed that their actions are racially stigmatizing and offensive, still finding a way to place blame on we, the oppressed.
"We've been floating this country on credit for centuries, yo. 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." -- Jesse Williams
The fact that society feels as though the conversation of white supremacy and privilege, and the messages relaying the anger Black people hold about constantly being treated like second class citizens in this country, should be shrouded in empathy for white people's hurt feelings about being forced to actually come to terms with said white supremacy and second rate treatment is the problem.
We have to take back our culture. We exist. We are real people. We are not costumes for you to parade around in. Our culture is not something you can shame us for centuries and then steal and call yours for your own shameless self-promotion. Society has to check their privilege at the door and realize that for once in America...your feelings don't matter. Black people have a right to speak candidly about our feelings on the detriment white privilege has caused minority communities without the weight of having to worry about offending the privileged of which we speak.
The truth is a powerful mechanism. It has the power to hurt, yet heal at the same time. The audacity to be bold yet humble. The power to liberate, love and hate.
When Jesse Williams took the stage at the 2016 Bet Awards he didn't have a large entourage with him...all he brought with him on stage was the spirit of Ali and the pure unabridged truth.
It is now up to us to be the entourage.
In the days after Jesse, will you carry the truth with you?
Will you spread it to all you meet?
Will you be an Ali in a room full of Mayweathers?
Jesse gave us the Blueprint and I for one am proud of him, his courage and his dedication to the empowerment of his people. This speech was not for publicity. This was not a man concerned with his ego. This speech was a call to action for us all. Our lives and our freedom may be conditional in the eyes of other people but it is time for us to reclaim possession. Each of us have the magic and the power in us to combat the many arrows and snares that are directed at us on a daily basis. It is up to each of us to harvest it.
Yes, it is true that just because we're magic doesn't mean we're not real. But our actions can't just be magic either, they too must be real.