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“Just Because We’re Magic Doesn’t Mean We’re Not Real”

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Jesse Williams is not only one of my favorite actors on the hit TGIT show “Grey’s Anatomy,” but is also a vocal activist about the Black experience, inequality, and injustice in this country.  On Sunday night, Jesse delivered one of the most “woke” award speeches given when he received the Humanitarian Award at the 2016 BET Awards.  When I heard his speech, it made my heart almost leap out of my chest at the hard truth Jesse delivered to Black & White America.

Jesse’s impassioned speech touched on whiteness, police brutality, appropriating Black culture and discounting Blacks who created it, and reminding us as Black people that we are still forced to “stay in our place” when we act “so free.”  For me, Jesse is what I aspire to be as an advocate – relentlessly using one’s platform and opportunities to share the message to those who need to hear it.  Jesse reminded us that we cannot be complacent with the progress we have made while we are still fighting for our lives and freedom, and dying for them, in 2016.  The success of a few of us does not mean that we have “arrived” at equality utopia.  We are still dying on our streets at the hands of the police, and white supremacy has a firm grip on our society and how it tells us to live in it.

Jesse’s speech resonated deeply to me because many of the issues covered – police brutality especially – affects Black disabled people at disproportionate rates.  Our experience with police violence is a serious issue that cannot be overlooked – we are losing our very lives and rights in our own neighborhoods.  Jesse also touched on the abusiveness of whiteness, which very much so relates to disability since the plight of disabled Black people and other persons of color are forced silent, ignored, and tokenized within our advocacy efforts.  This whiteness is why it is so difficult for Black disabled people to feel welcomed and accepted in this community due to the overt refusal to discuss anything outside of disability.  I know personally from the #DisabilityTooWhite backlash that there is stark opposition among some disabled Whites to address race.  As Jesse stated so directly in his speech, “If you have a critique for the resistance, for our resistance, then you better have an established record of critique of our oppression. If you have no interest, if you have no interest in equal rights for black people then do not make suggestions to those who do.”  When Jesse said those words, it personified my thoughts:  if you are uncomfortable with me discussing my Blackness and disability, then stay the hell out of my way as I work to empower my people without you.  The discomfort of a few will not and should not stop any Black disabled advocate from speaking our realities and aim to create a space where we feel validated about our intersectional identities.

There is one more point Jesse made that I cannot forget:  “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.”  As a Black woman, to hear a Black man proclaim the righteousness of Black women when we have been stripped of our personhood, autonomy, and value by white supremacy, patriarchy, and from our very own (Black men specifically) was powerfully affirming.  Black women are indeed the most disrespected group of people in America; Black disabled women are disrespected AND invisible in America.  To have it said that now is the time to step up and recognize that it is imperative to do right by Black women and to never dismiss the sacrifices we have made with our bodies, minds, and spirits was moving to hear.  It made me sit a bit straighter in my wheelchair that the plight of Black women, all of us, was declared unapologetically in front of America and the world.

Jesse was speaking to every Black person in attendance and those of us watching – are we listening?  Are we ready for battle to obtain our FULL rights, freedoms, and protections from violence and white supremacy, and to break the mental shackles of our thinking about each other?  I can only speak for myself, but I know that I am prepared for the conflict that lies ahead, and it is comforting to know that I am not the only one.

Below is the full transcript of Jesse’s full speech; bold emphasis is mine that pertains to key points that stood out to me.  As you read, let Jesse’s words soak into your consciousness – let it shock, disturb, and move you.  Then figure out how you can answer the call in being fearlessly Black and an agent of change.  

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Peace peace. Thank you, Debra. Thank you, BET. Thank you Nate Parker, Harry and Debbie Allen for participating in that

Before we get into it, I just want to say I brought my parents out tonight. I just want to thank them for being here, for teaching me to focus on comprehension over career, and that they make sure I learn what the schools were afraid to teach us. And also thank my amazing wife for changing my life.

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.

It’s kind of basic mathematics – the more we learn about who we are and how we got here, the more we will mobilize.

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.

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 everyday. So what’s going to happen is we are going to have equal rights and justice in our own country or we will restructure their function and ours.

Now… I got more y’all – yesterday would have been young Tamir Rice’s 14th birthday so I don’t want to hear anymore about how far we’ve come when paid public servants can pull a drive-by on 12 year old playing alone in the park in broad daylight, killing him on television and then going home to make a sandwich. Tell Rekia Boyd how it’s so much better than it is 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 Dorian Hunt.

Now the thing is, though, all of us in here getting money – that alone isn’t gonna stop this. Alright, now dedicating our lives, 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 is no tax they haven’t leveed against us – and we’ve paid all of them. But freedom is somehow always conditional here. “You’re free,” they keep telling us. But she would have been alive if she hadn’t acted so… free.

Now, freedom is always coming in the hereafter, but you know what, though, the hereafter is a hustle. We want it now.

And let’s get a couple things straight, just a little sidenote – the burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander. That’s not our job, alright – stop with all that. If you have a critique for the resistance, for our resistance, then you better have an established record of critique of our oppression. If you have no interest, if you have no interest in equal rights for black people then do not make suggestions to those who do. Sit down.

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. The thing is though… the thing is that just because we’re magic doesn’t mean we’re not real.

Thank you. – Jesse Williams

About Vilissa Thompson, LMSW

Vilissa is the Founder & CEO of Ramp Your Voice!, an organization she created to establish herself as a Disability Rights Consultant & Advocate. Ramp Your Voice! is a prime example of how macro-minded Vilissa truly is, and her determination to leave a giant "tire track mark" on the world.

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