I don’t have cable, so I wasn’t able to see Jesse Williams’ speech live as he accepted the Humanitarian Award on BET on Sunday, June 26. Thankfully, due to social media, within minutes of his making his speech, people began to post recordings of it. It was a powerful communication with many subtexts to it. Pundits have been analyzing aspects of it and I am no different.
Of the many words he spoke, there were two that caught my attention. The first is where he said: “Freedom is always coming in the hereafter, but you know what though? The hereafter is a hustle. We want it now.”
That line resonated with me because the black community has, as of late, made dying the path to betterment. We use the words, “He/She is in a better place” as if the unknown and unseen were better than the reality of living. Truthfully, none of us knows if death is better. What we do know is the life we’re living. And for the time we are on this earth, it should be spent enjoying life while respecting the hereafter as our inevitable destination. But to put so much emphasis on death and so little on life is backwards.
Think about it. If death were truly the betterment, then we as a people could’ve never been enslaved. It was the fear of death that was used to keep us in the mental bondage of slavery. If the slaves hadn’t feared death, slavery would have been over soon after it started with a bunch of dead folks as the reminder that perhaps enslaving people wasn’t such a good idea.
It has been the lure of the wonderful and beautiful afterlife that keeps us from making the here and now the wonderment it should be. We get 70-80 years on earth, and some people spend the entire time talking about going to heaven when they die. One of the most vivid memories I have is of a young guy who was killed during the commission of a robbery, and his family had huge posters showing a stairway to heaven with his name on it, along with his sunrise and sunset. However, we fail to talk about the opposite of heaven above, which is hell below, and some of our criminal elements are destined more for the lower than the higher.
The second and much longer comment that I loved was this: “We’ve been floating this country on credit for centuries, 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, just because we’re magic doesn’t mean we’re not real.”
The power and imagery in those lines took me to so many different places. I can still recall a basketball game in the late 1960s and the sportscasters couldn’t understand why black basketball players gave each other a “five.” Now hand-slapping is so much a part of the American fabric that its origins, beginning with black people, has been lost, ignored and forgotten. Is that something we should lament or constantly celebrate as part of the richness of this country — cultural appropriations from others to make us who we are?
Which leads to an even bigger question: If one gets the chance to stand up in a bully pulpit, do you lament the half-empty glass or do you celebrate the half-full one? I’ll address that further in my next column.