Jesse Williams’ BET Awards Speech Powerfully Sums Up What It Means to Be Black in America

Source: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

It's a rare day when an award show speech can shake up the internet as much as a Beyoncé performance. But when Jesse Williams accepted the 2016 Humanitarian Award, he did exactly that.

"This award is not for me," he told a rapt audience at Los Angeles' Microsoft Theater Sunday. "This is for the real organizers all over the country; the activists, the civil rights attorneys, the struggling parents. The families, the teachers and students that are realizing that a system built to divide and impoverish and destroy us cannot stand if we do."

His speech, which lasted nearly five minutes, was pure revolutionary poetry and a breath of fresh air in an award show filled with stale skits and bits.

Williams, who stars on ABC's Grey's Anatomy, was recently featured in Stay Woke, a BET documentary about the Black Lives Matter movement. He's previously spoken out against the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson as well as the Flint water crisis

Williams also dedicated the award to "the black women who have spent their lifetimes dedicated to nurturing everyone before themselves." He talked about the legacy of inequality against black Americans — while also calling out cultural appropriation.

"We've been floating this country on credit for centuries," he said. "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 disregarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit."

In this powerful excerpt, Williams remembers several victims of police brutality, calls out celebrities and their responsibility to step up, and then talks about delayed freedom for black Americans:

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 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.

Now, the thing is though, all of us in here getting money, that alone isn't going to stop this. Now, dedicating our lives to getting money just to give it right back for 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 has been no job we haven't done. There's no tax they haven't levied against us. And we've paid all of them.

But freedom is somehow always conditional here. You're free they keep telling us. She would have been alive if she hadn't acted so free. Freedom is always coming in the hereafter.

The hereafter is a hustle. We want it now. 

Preach on, Jesse Williams. Watch the full speech here.

Read more:
Bilal Gave an Epic Tribute to Prince at the BET Awards — The World Should Know His Name
Beyoncé Opens the 2016 BET Awards With a Powerful Statement About "Freedom"
2016 BET Awards Winners: Complete List of Who Took Home the Night's Top Prizes

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Erin E. Evans

Erin E. Evans is a senior editor of The Movement at Mic.

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