I don’t watch BET.
Armed with a real concern about the programming of the network (and, in particular, how that programming promotes a marginalized perspective of my people), I presently find myself in a boycott of the longstanding television outlet. I realize my lone television not being dialed in to their frequency will not miraculously prompt them to change what they show, but I personally struggle with feeling like I am supporting the stereotypes that are perpetuated of our people (especially our women). Word around the campfire is that they are trying to do better, but even if that were the case, I wouldn’t know it because…I don’t watch BET.
Despite my non-existent viewership, my very real connection to social media allows me to be kept abreast as to what goes on as different shows and events are put on the air. So while I do not watch BET, my Twitter feed & Facebook timeline allow me to have blow by blow details of awards shows, premieres, and the like.
This past Sunday, while on Facebook, a “friend” posted a video that had made its way to my newsfeed (I’m sure you haven’t heard it or seen it). The video was of actor and activist Jesse Williams giving his acceptance speech after being awarded the Humanitarian Award at the 2016 BET Awards. Williams’ speech was a beautifully worded disquisition raising awareness to the realities of the African American struggle. His words were not only a clarion call for consciousness and activism from persons of color, but it was also a call to accountability for how we manage ourselves in the name of liberation.
From an apology to how we treat our women (and a promise on behalf of our brothers to do better) to warning abusive law enforcement to change their behaviors to expressing the need for urgency in our efforts to obtain justice to emploring Africans Americans to better control their dollars, the speech was both poignant and powerful.
As he concluded his speech, Jesse Williams’ words were met with a standing ovation. Celebrities, dignitaries, and persons of influence throughout the auditorium showed their support for his statement by raising to their feet and applauding. History teaches us that Williams joins a long list of entertainers who have used their fame and influence as a platform to speak to social issues regarding African Americans. It was an extremely compelling moment to witness.
I watched this video and was overtaken by two distinct emotions. On one end, I was extremely proud; overjoyed by the vision of unity among our people. The other feeling that took hold of me was an overriding feeling of concern. As I watched our people applaud the call to cognizance, given on this stage for the nation and world to see, I found myself wondering what would happen after this moment. By my thinking, milestones occur when moments are married to memories. Mountaintops are attained when motivation is translated in movement. As I watched this, I began to question whether or not we have we allowed the comforts of our culture to confuse us as to what the difference between milestones and mountaintops is?
Have the ideas of fighting for freedom, sacrificing in solidarity, and protesting for progress been relegated to notions that simply sound good? Concepts that we celebrate because our celebration makes us feel better about the work we are unwilling to do.
To affirm Jesse Williams’ remarks with applause is not a bad thing. In fact, it is the right thing (dare I say, the ‘Godly’ thing) to do. But I wonder what happens after the applause? It has been 48 hours since the ceremony, and the wheels on the commercial machine (wheels that often crush the consciousness of our people) are still rolling. The applause means nothing if the same rappers who clap make the same minstrel music that maligns us. The praise is purposeless if the actors who offer it still play characters that calumniate our culture. Our laudation is lessened if we offer it only to go back to business as usual after the occasion has passed. This convenient consciousness is dangerous as it is crippling to any breakthrough and betterment our people aspire toward. Convenient consciousness tells one that it perfectly acceptable to know what needs to be done but equally acceptable (even commendable) to fail in doing it.
The issues we face are real & the solutions to them are far from easy. The place we profess to desire for our community cannot be reached solely by our plans or our plauditing; they also require our participation.
Those who would look to oppress us, those who benefit from our inactivity, are banking on it. And while need to celebrate and support this who demonstrate the incredible courage to live past their own comforts to speak truth, we must not only affirm their truth with applause, but also be willing to act after the applause.
Recently, the world has found itself in a state of bereavement. Many persons of influence and importance have suddenly, unexpectedly passed away. Most recently, the world mourns the passing of the great Muhammad Ali. Famed human rights activist & accomplished athlete, Ali is one of the most influential, iconic persons of the 20th & 21st Century. This sudden loss happens as the global community is still reeling from the emotions upon the passing of another transcendent figure: musical icon, Prince. In fact, the past few months have held much pain for people. It seems as if the untimely, unexpected news of these deaths have sent shockwaves through communities all over the world. People (in particular, people of color) have been forced to engage their heroes in spaces of reflection and reminiscence. Forced into hindsight reflections by circumstance, we now are left wrestle with what these individuals meant to us.
People have taken to their varying mediums to express sentiments and fond momentos. Memories of milestones and acknowledgment of achievements cover the landscapes of our social media. But, what seems to be in lesser variety are the cerebrations concerning the values and principles these persons embodied while they shared space on Earth with us. So much more of the focus ends up on what they did as opposed to who they actually were.
This is a dangerous way for us to immortalize those important to us. We do a damning disservice to those whom we love when we hold up the memory of them without concurrently holding up the principles central to who they were. We stain the significance of the people we revere and respect when we laud what they did more than we laud who they were. The best gift we can give to our brothers and sisters who have departed from us is not exclusive to an emotional homegoing service or a televised tribute. The highest form of regard and respect we can offer our loved ones, the way we keep them alive despite their absence from us, is to preserve and pass along the principles that that made them who they were.
The sadness of what it means to allow principles to pass is exemplified in the 1st Book of Judges. The author writes of a failure to pass on the precepts that came before us. The Bible illustrates that an unsuccessful passing of principles, leads to a unprincipled generation, unaware of the what (or who) that allowed them to be where they are today. We, as a society, are on the verge of becoming an unprincipled people, lest we start to commemorate our champions by not allowing their beliefs to go unremembered.
How do we lift the memory of Muhammad Ali without lifting the causes he was willing to sacrifice his fame for? How do we affirm or appreciate the genius of a Prince without synchronously appreciating what lengths he was willing to go (and whom he was willing to fight) in order to protect that genius? To do so is no different than our brothers & sisters in Christ who preach Jesus but refuse to preach what Jesus preached.
At some point, our mortality will come to an end; we will all one day transition from here to our respective eternities. While we may inescapably expire, we have a responsibility to pass along the values, beliefs, and ideals of those whom we elevate. In a time where people of all walks labor to identify an identity for themselves, it is the preservation of principles that will move our culture forward.
None of us have the ability to prevent death when it is time for it to come to us. What we do have is the ability to not allow to the principiums at the core of our culture to perish. We must learn to love our heroes more for what they stood for than what they were celebrated for. For in this, we find strength & motivation; our voices are given necessary volume.
The critical causes of our culture die because we let them. People operate with no direction or devotion…nations act with no accountability or answerability…children walk into destinies devoid of direction when those who were influenced and inspired by the principles of our elders allow those principles to pass away. We must not allow the popularity of our champions to pacify us; if they meant what we say they did to us, we must not allow their principles to pass away.