Over the years the BET Awards became more and more lackluster with mediocre performances, unorganized rundowns and even those artists receiving awards would often not attend. However, this year’s BET Awards was a return to the time when the BET Awards was a show that the Black community not only looked forward to but supported whole heartedly.
One of the most talked about moments – outside of the performances – was the speech given by Jesse Williams who was given the Humanitarian Award for his work in supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. Williams took the stage and delivered an articulate and poetic speech concerning race relations in America.
The most significant thing about Williams’ speech is that it rebooted the honest conversation about race in America and the conversations that ensued thereafter have been honest, poignant and varied.
The Biracial Thing
Williams is a the son of a Black father and a White mother making him biracial. Clearly he identifies as a Black man and even chose a Black women as his life partner. However, I had a discussion with a friend who had been pressing me to listen to the speech – I missed the show when it aired as I don’t really watch television, I usually catch specific shows or moments after the fact online as it appeals to my interest. After watching the speech my friend expressed how moved he was by the speech and I asked him why. He stated that one of the things that moved him was the fact that because Williams is biracial he could choose to “go either way” and it was pivotal that he chose to identify as a Black man and speak out in support of the Black struggle. My heart sank and I went into that dark place that many dark skinned people go to when the subject of Black complexion takes place.
My thoughts about his speech had not been in that space until hearing my friend speak but I wondered how many other Black people thought or felt that way. I explained to my friend how significant it was that that kind of thought played a part into his feelings about what Williams had to say because, in fact, it had nothing to do with what he said and everything to do with a problem that we have in the Black community. In the same fashion as many White people do to Black people we, ourselves, do the same by qualifying individuals according to their complexion or their ability to escape their Blackness. It somehow is special when a light skinned black person with “good hair” chooses to wear locs or their natural curls but for the darker skinned black person who has no choice because their hair texture would never allow them to wear their curls in a way that is deemed “beautiful;” or when a light skinned person with light eyes decides to be pro-Black and militant, there is suddenly a platform for how amazing they are but when a dark skinned Black person makes those same statements, they risk being deemed the angry Black person. This is the same type of message side-stepping, point avoiding, internal distraction that White people employ when they tokenize Black people and make the individual special rather than the message of what that person stands for.
Personally it brought back personal feelings of this invisible pressure to be a certain thing as a dark skinned Black person. The pressure to be the most articulate, or to dress the right way, or to have the proper etiquette because it is the only way that the dark skinned person can relate themselves to the dominate culture and be deemed as special. For those Black people who are of mixed heritage or have fairer skin, or light eyes, or “good hair,” or can in some physical way relate themselves to the dominate culture, there comes a certain sense of entitlement to choice. They somehow convince themselves that their Blackness is a choice. My friend and I even had a short debate about whether or not Jesse Williams could choose to be Black. My point to him had been that although I could not presume to speak for Williams or for any biracial person for that matter, I know that historically one drop of Black blood made you Black in America – or at the very least “mulatto” or “mixed.” And I know that for many biracial people there isn’t a sense of choice because – God help them – if their features are too Black then there is no changing the way that America is going to perceive or treat them.
So that said, I am not sure that it is special that Williams said what he said because he is biracial. I think that it was special that he said what he said because at a moment when he had the opportunity to self aggrandize he chose to say something and to further his passion for civil rights and the struggle of Black people in America. I think it is special because Williams is clearly a very articulate man and because his delivery was beautifully poetic. I think it is special because Williams did not speak in cliches and coinphrases but actually used his own words and thoughts to send a powerful message about race relations in America and Black empowerment. That is special and, in truth, anyone of any race could do it, but he’s special because he chose to.
I’m not sayin; I’m just sayin,
An Angry Black Man