The most disrespected person in America is the black woman.
The most unprotected person in America is the black woman.
The most neglected person in America is the black woman.
Malcolm X spoke these words over 50 years ago; Beyoncé brought them back into current consciousness a mere two months ago. On Sunday night, with two simple sentences, Jesse Williams drove the point home at the 2016 BET Awards in what can only be described as perhaps the most “woke” acceptance speech ever:
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.
That rumble you might’ve felt? That was the passionate stomping of millions of female feet in living rooms across America. The high whistle that rose and fell on the wind that night? That was us, whooping in gratitude for a nod in what is already being called one of the “most memorable speeches in award-show history.”
But along with impassioned appreciation, there was a swift and predictable backlash attacking Williams’ intent, his integrity and his heritage. Sadly, this included criticism from other black men insulted by the nod to black women—a mere 10 seconds out of a nearly five-minute speech—and questioning whether the acknowledgment was made at their expense. A few even went so far as to suggest that Williams “pandered” to us, since we’re clearly thirsty enough to give him our unconditional approval on the basis of his appearance alone.
But if Jesse Williams is considered as much eye candy as activist, does that detract from the importance of his message; a message that advocated not only for black women but also for black bodies, black equality and black freedom on the whole? Doesn’t reducing him to the sum of his physical parts not only insult him and the multitudes of women who found momentary validation in his words, but ultimately risk being as dismissive and demeaning as the ongoing denial of our humanity? Isn’t it a form of hypocrisy?
And why? Is Williams’ commitment to the cause somehow in dispute? Has he remained silent on issues of injustice? Was the award undeserved? Who should this message have come from in order to have been considered valid? Does his very clear message require deconstruction, or might our time be better spent considering why black women were so starved to hear it? After all, where was the lie? As Damon Young noted:
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.
So, is it really any wonder that so many women found Williams’ acknowledgment so significant? Instead of shooting the messenger, why don’t we take a moment to ask #WWJD—what would Jesse do? Or, better yet, what Jesse has done to win himself such high appreciation from so many black female fans (hint: His heartthrob status is the least of it).
Like our sitting president, Williams is the biracial son of a black father and a white mother—who were notably in attendance and applauding during his speech Sunday. And like our president, he is the proud husband of a black woman, and the father of two black children, including a daughter.
As encouraging as it might be to drink the Lemonade, we still live in a world that tells black women that they are the least desirable to date and that our presence often isn’t necessary at all, since, if rumors are to be believed, we aren’t even qualified to get on a boat to celebrate a black man’s achievements. So, for a man not only to choose his blackness but to choose to stand in defense and appreciation of black women? We’ll take it, thank you very much.
Malcolm X. Angela Davis. Diane Nash. Billie Holiday. Langston Hughes. Thurgood Marshall. Harry Belafonte. Huey P. Newton. Kathleen Cleaver. Eartha Kitt. Josephine Baker. Muhammad Ali. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Julian Bond. bell hooks. Sonia Sanchez. Nikki Giovanni.
I could go on, but notably, all of these people happen to fall within the scope of what might commonly be called “Team Lightskin”—yet they’re known as some of the most “woke” people in American history. And it begs the question: Are “light-skinned tears” less black, simply because of the circumstance of skin color? None of the above icons chose to hide behind his or her privilege, even when it undoubtedly would have been more convenient.
And Jesse Williams is seemingly no different, readily acknowledging the advantages his biracial heritage has given him, yet consistently identifying with his blackness above all else. In fact, he’s chosen to use America’s fixation with color against itself, in order to gain the access necessary to further his activism:
“We are programmed to believe that someone is attractive because they told you that blue eyes are hot. I am not going to participate in that [s—t],” he says. “I aim to do what I can with what I have. And I have my [looks]—you know, European beauty standards give me access to things.”
Good to have a man on the inside, Jesse.
“We can and will do better for you,” Williams promises. Easier said than done, because as Damon Young also admits, “ … 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.”
Nevertheless, both Williams and Young are clear on the fact that we cannot collectively gain complete liberation and respect if we continue to consider our women less than worthy of the same. If we are to be the ones who teach the world at large how we are to be treated, we must begin by looking inward.
“Was Jesse Williams the first person to say those things? Of course not. That's not anyone's claim. Point is, he said them when they counted,” Marc Lamont Hill tweeted. It might be argued that it counted when there were an estimated 7.2 million viewers over a dozen networks, including Nickelodeon (to the outrage of many nonblack parents).
Repeatedly, Williams has used the platform his fame has granted him to advocate and to express his anger over the treatment of black people in America, seemingly undeterred by what effect this may have on his mainstream appeal. It is both refreshing and, unfortunately, rare. And while he is far from the first or the only one to do so, his impact and willingness to use his visibility in this way should not be taken lightly. Hopefully he’s helping to inspire and influence the next generation of activists.
Williams credits his “amazing” wife with changing his life. He has also been quick to acknowledge the “incredible women running [Black Lives Matter],” which he so proudly and consistently represents. And in an election year when black women may once again hold considerable sway as voters, he undoubtedly also recognizes our potential power and wants us to recognize it, too.
Because the truth is that while black women are traditionally the keepers of our communities, we are also the mothers of movements and the unsung heroes in an ongoing battle for racial equality and freedom. That we should have to remind anyone of this—or find our validation via 10 seconds on an award-show stage—is a sad statement on how unappreciated we often feel on the whole. And while no one is expecting a celebrity—even a “woke” one—to be the source of our supply, maybe 10 seconds is enough to garner a little more consideration.
Maiysha Kai is a Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter, fashion model, devoted auntie and Brooklyn, N.Y.-based, single black bombshell who recently strutted into her 40s. She is also an expert at oversharing who chronicles her attempts at dating—and adulting—on 40onFleek.