Question: How many times have you watched Jesse Williams’ historical speech? I know I’ve watched and listened to and read it too many times to count. For those of us who tuned into Sunday night’s BET Awards, we were absolutely astounded by the brilliance and eloquence espoused by our generation’s Harry Belafonte. I can’t remember the last time an artist used a platform, particularly BET, to make a statement so powerful, so moving, so provocative, so everything. Well, we’ve actually had a few performances as of late that were both controversial as they were stirring but this was something altogether incredible and different.
Jesse (I’m only calling him by first name because he follows me on Twitter) touched on so much. I mean so much. White supremacy – check. Black Lives Matter – check. Say her name – check. Problematic ideologies within Christianity – check. The hell fire Black women walk through on the daily and why Black men should love, exalt and support us – check. Mass incarceration – check. Our ancestors building this country – check. Patriarchy – check. White tears – check. White supremacy – check. White supremacy – check. Did I say White supremacy? (check.) Cultural appropriation – check. Gentrification – check. Black educators, grassroots activists and present-day freedom fighters – check. White supremacy some more – check. If we couldn’t love him even more than we already do, I mean, he just had to and talk about all of that.
But this is not your everyday celebrity rhetoric, nor is it happenstance. He did not dumb his message down for his audience. Not dissing attendees of the awards, some of them were friends, but his commentary was the type that is suitable for a keynote speech at any academic conversation or movement rally. So when my best friend, Dr. Yaba Blay, shouted him out as a fellow alumnus of the Department of African American Studies at Temple University (TUMF!), I was reminded once more the power of an African-centered education. At that department, were taught to center our experiences and world-view as people of African descent. Our professors also stressed the importance of a scholar-activist methodology, one that does not allow you to compartmentalize your work, from your work. So for those of us who came out of that school of thought, and knew that he did as well (in Yaba’s case, she actually taught him), his sharp analysis comes as no surprise.
In “the Department,” we had classes on African spirituality, the Afrocentric Paradigm, 20th Century Social and Political Thought, W.E.B. DuBois. We did field work and ethnographic research. We read Cheikh Anta Diop and Ayi Kwei Armah, Fanon and Hortense Spillers. We examined all that we’d learn from Eurocentricism functioning as both universal and superior and flipped it on its head. Temple’s AAS Department was not Ivy League, but was the first to grant a doctoral degree in the discipline. Although its current state is only a fraction of its historic glory, in many scholars, activists, artists, curators and professionals, it has produced some of society’s most analytical thinkers, doers and makers.
To Temple, we do give thanks. But we have to also give thanks to his parents. And his wife. And for whichever ancestors sitting on his shoulders, whispering in his ear, compelling him, pushing him towards fearlessness and bravery.
But I digress. For at least the next several days, I’ll distract myself from global gloom and doom by handsomely using my ole faithful DVR to relive those precious moments of last night’s golden awards show. I’ll commit Jesse’s speech to memory in much of the same way as I have many Ali quotes. I’ll also relish the remarks made by my folks, cause they too, like Jesse, were totally awesome.
-Shantrelle P. Lewis
Notes and Sidebar Comments:
- Some of Temple’s illustrious Department of African American Studies alumni include: Dr. Yaba Blay (PhD 2007), Dr. Kaila Story (PhD 2007), Dr. Gregory Carr (PhD 1998), Dr. Marta Moreno Vega (PhD 1995), Jesse Williams, Shantrelle P. Lewis (M.A. 2007) yes I just spoke about myself in 3rd person, Dr. Ibram Kendi (PhD 2010), Weckea D. Lilly (M.A. 2007), Shesheena Bray (BA 2007), Dr. Michael Tillotson (PhD 2008), Dr. Suzanne Henderson (PhD 2007)
- Oh and by the way, #TUMF translates as Temple University Motherf*cker, in case you didn’t know.