During the 2016 BET Awards, actor Jesse Williams was presented a Humanitarian Award for his activism and vigilance in advocating for political and social change. His stirring and poignant acceptance speech has been making headlines ever since. In it, Williams articulated our pain, contextualized our struggle, confronted our critics and eloquently placed the world on notice that justice for all is no longer optional.
Prior to this poetic call to action, Williams' has demonstrated a life-long dedication to the cause of social justice. The Temple University graduate of African American Studies spent six years teaching in the Philadelphia public school system. As an actor and public figure, Williams uses his platforms to advocate for social equality. He currently serves as a member of the board of directors for the Advancement Project (nonprofit organization) working with civil rights attorneys dedicated to issues of racial justice. He physically positions himself on the front lines of the Black Lives Matter movement from Ferguson to Flint.
Let it be understood that Williams is not new to this, he's 100 percent true to this and he's got the receipts to prove it. Here are 19 times Jesse Williams has been the voice of our generation:
1. In October of 2014, Williams joined demonstrators in Ferguson to protest the killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer. While there, he casually dropped knowledge on race and double standards in America.
2. When his actions spoke louder than words.
this is a two way street. Ferguson, MO Oct 11, 2014
A photo posted by Jesse Williams (@ijessewilliams) on Oct 12, 2014 at 11:14am PDT
3. When he got real on CNN about the media's deliberate criminalization of black men.
4. When he insisted on humanizing the headlines behind the 2015 Chapel Hill shooting that left a family dead in their own home.
#ChapelHillShooting is real life involving real people. Deah Barakat, 23 & Yusor Mohamed, 21 (married only 4 weeks ago) and Razan Mohamed, 19 #JeSuisThat
A photo posted by Jesse Williams (@ijessewilliams) on Feb 12, 2015 at 11:23am PST
5. When he and Talib Kweli reported what was really going down in the streets of Ferguson.
6. When he took to Twitter to call out double standards in media reporting of the Baltimore Uprising following the death of Freddie Gray.
The reaction to oppression has always been spun & marketed as validation for the status quo.
— jesseWilliams. (@iJesseWilliams) April 28, 2015
7. When, during this press junket for The Butler, he caped for Trayvon Martin and offered commentary on the state of social equality.
8. When he lent his star power to advocate for the reduction of drug and petty theft sentences that unfairly target black and brown people. #Prop47
Let's stop wasting 100s of millions in prison costs & space on low-level crimes; re-invest in prevention, treatment & schools. VOTE #YesOn47 TODAY
A photo posted by Jesse Williams (@ijessewilliams) on Nov 4, 2014 at 12:24pm PST
9. When he clapped back at ignorance on behalf of Michael B. Jordan and Ryan Coogler.
Learn to recognize beauty when you see it. Stop doing the extra work of making majesty wack and trash-ass people into deities. Insecure, dogmatic regulations on humanity are what enslaved you in the first damn place. #GTFOH If your mind's small, water it. We're gonna be ourselves now. Drown if you must. #FamilyFirst #Bredren @michaelbjordan #RyanCoogler
A photo posted by Jesse Williams (@ijessewilliams) on Mar 8, 2016 at 5:04pm PST
10. When he flexed hashtags to help Melissa Harris-Perry spread this word.
BREAKING: 400 people killed. At least twice a week for six years. Staggering numbers via @MHarrisPerry #SystemicEnoughForYou?#NotImaginary #ReflexiveDenialAndJustificationIsABadHabitYouCanBreak #SilenceIsConsent #DestroyAndRebuild
A video posted by Jesse Williams (@ijessewilliams) on Oct 19, 2014 at 4:50pm PDT
11. When he showed up for Flint.
It goes down. #JusticeForFlint Revolt.tv NOW. Text JUSTICE to 83224 !!
A photo posted by Jesse Williams (@ijessewilliams) on Feb 28, 2016 at 2:35pm PST
12. When he paid a visit to HLN to explain why everyone (not just black people) should be outraged over the shooting death of a black teenager over loud music.
13. When he knew Bree Newsome had set it off.
A photo posted by Jesse Williams (@ijessewilliams) on Jun 27, 2015 at 12:01pm PDT
I'm always trying to find the next comedian that just gives me something a little funny to combine with all of the depressing news that I'm processing. - Jesse Williams
14. Proving that #BlackJoy is a revolutionary act, Williams is down for the occasional roast on behalf of the culture. Like that one time when he just couldn't find the chill in Rachel Dolezal.
"I'm lookin' for chill. Y'all got any?" "...Nope."
A photo posted by Jesse Williams (@ijessewilliams) on Jun 13, 2015 at 8:53pm PDT
15. When he joined in our collective side-eye of Don Lemon.
When you're presenting a group project & the person that didn't help tries to stand in front and talk big game. ¡Museum worthy photo composition! #PutItInTheMoMA
A photo posted by Jesse Williams (@ijessewilliams) on May 24, 2015 at 9:11am PDT
16. When he shared woke holiday gift suggestions for the kids.
A merry resistance to all and to all a good fight. #AisForActivist
A photo posted by Jesse Williams (@ijessewilliams) on Dec 25, 2014 at 5:22pm PST
17. When he executive produced and appeared in the BET Documentary, Stay Woke: The Black Lives Matter Movement.
18. When he showed love for black artivism at Goodman Gallery in Cape Town.
#RaiseUp #Art in #Action w/ @hankwillisthomas y @DCChambersii #ArtBasel @Goodman_Gallery
A photo posted by Jesse Williams (@ijessewilliams) on Dec 5, 2014 at 4:33pm PST
19.When he executive produced this multifaceted media project focused on the black male identity.
Jesse Williams is about far more than compelling speeches and media sound bites. He dedicated his art, his life and his voice to the cause of social justice long before he had the spotlight.
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I was raised by parents that were for real woke. My mother fought back against systemic hate for our people by becoming one of the foremost medical professionals in our community and sharing her knowledge with those who were receiving poor care or no care. My dad often used his food as a catalyst to start conversations about issues the community was facing. A meal from him came with a side of straight talk in a safe space. Trendivism was not a thing when they were becoming who they are. You could not be lukewarm about your freedom. Either you were with us or you weren't. Straight like that. They might not have looked like a black power couple, but they were one. They raised my sisters and I with an honest sort of consciousness I often find lacking others in my adult life.
I was so excited when I learned that sales for relaxers were down and continuing to drop. This wasn't just a sign of a new wave in black hair trends, it was an indication to me that we were accepting ourselves in our natural state more often. I saw it in my personal life as well: My mom stopped pressing her hair and opted for twists or braids, and even my corporate mentor was rocking singles. This outward expression of blackness brought me joy. On social media, my timeline was flooded with folks speaking out against gentrification (and its dominating affect on people of color), police brutality, and negative depictions of us in media. When I thought about it, people I never thought would engage in these conversations were online posting their outrage.
But often, that's where it ends.
Something truly unjust and tragic happens to our people, it goes viral on social media and then people move on to the next thing. Even positive things that go viral, we tend to rally behind for a few weeks, spouting essays and sonnets about how much it inspired us, only to toss it for the next thing that's social-media-poppin'. I think this is one of the most counterproductive things to do.
There's someone out there right now reading this saying, "...but the conversations matter. Conversations lead to awakening." And I agree with that. I'm just wondering how many times our conversations lead to tangible and consistent action on our part. Trendivism is this thing where everyone says something bad happened, so more people say something bad happened. Then we post articles about the statistics of the bad thing happening, we watch videos where experts tell us about the bad things in this or that state, we listen to personal stories from families about how that bad thing affected them, and then everyone says we should do something, everyone else agrees... and then nothing happens. Why is that? Is it because we can't think of solutions or we really just don't want to?
I remember when I first heard about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. I freaked out because my sister lives in Lansing. We learned about the major intellectual deficits many children from Flint would have to cope with for their entire lives, and the local government's role (and culpability) in the entire situation. Celebrities came forward and publicly or privately offered their assistance to residents of Flint, and maybe you did too. The issue wasn't one city in one state who had poisonous water, though. The issue was that a government could knowingly allow residents to have unsafe resources, lightweight try to hide it, and then not be held responsible. We all know that our lives might be in danger when engaging with law enforcement, but now it's in the water.
That's the conversation I don't always see happening.
That's the action plan that has yet to materialize. What are our national (and more importantly, local) survival tactics for seemingly targeted efforts to wipe us out? Trendivism will have us posting memes where we're sipping tea over some faux pas at the BET Awards while sipping tea that's poisonous in real life. These conversations are big and the actions that need to follow them can seem like mountains that are insurmountable.
The thing is, we have to try.
You don't need to be a celebrity to make an impact. What are you doing in your local community? How are you empowering your block? What child you could you be mentoring to make their lives better (and so they, themselves don't fall victim to trendivism)? Could you volunteer at a local soup kitchen? What do you know about renter's rights that you could share with someone who's being pushed out due to gentrification?
Trendivism says that we should stand up for what's right online only, because it'll never be us in real life who needs someone to fight for us. But what happens when we do?
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It's been more than a month since the passing of former Black Panther Afeni Shakur. Her untimely death is a major loss in the black community. For me, her death had a profound effect. I took a leave of absence from social media to avoid all the conspiracy theories that would arise following this tragedy.
Like Afeni and Tupac, my family is also made up of activists.
I can relate to her commitment to the struggle that so many of us face. Afeni is more than just the mother of the late and great Tupac Shakur. She is one of the most inspiring black women of her time. There will never be another Afeni Shakur.
Growing up in Harlem, I heard many stories about the Black Panther party and the black power movement of the '60s and '70s. I was fascinated with this era in African-American history. As a teenager, I read every book l could find on the subject and spoke to anyone who was involved in the movement.
Although I was big Tupac fan, I knew very little about his mother. I knew she was a former Panther and that she had served some time in jail, but that was the extent of my knowledge of her. It was after reading Assata Shakur’s autobiography that I became curious about the role of the women in the organization. This inspired me to learn about other sisters in the movement, including Angela Davis, Kathleen Cleaver and Elaine Brown.
I researched information about the Panther 21 members and their trial. I found out Afeni played an important role as communications secretary for the Harlem chapter. She was one of the most respected members. While pregnant with Tupac, she was harassed by police and faced the possibility of life in prison, but she stood her ground. Her resilience in the courtroom is a testament to her strength. Her strength inspired Tupac in his music career. He often spoke fondly of his mother during interviews. His hit single, “Dear Mama,” was dedicated to his mother. I remember first watching the video in the '90s and thinking that I’d never heard such a moving musical tribute before. It was a powerful song at the time and remains a classic in hip hop.
The trials and tribulations of Afeni as a single mother who battled addiction is not uncommon in our communities. She was able to overcome her circumstances and raise talented children. She also set an example for other young women of color. There are so many women of color going through similar struggles today. They should look up to Afeni as their inspiration.
Tupac was a gift to the world and a prolific artist in the hip-hop community.
He inspired me and many other activists all over the world. When Tupac spoke, people listened — whether it was positive or negative. His mother’s work in the Black Panther party and the guidance he received from his step-father, Mutulu Shakur, played a major role in the development of his socially conscious mindset.
After Tupac’s murder, many thought Afeni would go to Cuba to be with Assata. The pain of losing a child would cause others to simply give up the fight, but not this strong woman. She remained in the United States to preserve the legacy of her son.
Afeni also continued to work with youth in the community. She launched the Tupac Amaru Shakur Foundation, which raises funds to provide art programs for youth. This program encourages young people to express themselves through art.
In the nearly 20 years since Tupac’s unsolved murder, I have followed Afeni’s monumental work.
I also had the opportunity to meet many notable former Panthers. I held out hope that one day I would have the opportunity to speak with her as well, but that day will never come. The details surrounding her sudden death have not been revealed yet. Many of us still have questions about the cause of her death and what will happen to her estate. Even though Afeni is reunited with her son in the afterlife, her work in the community must live on through us. We must never forget her contribution to our community, nor the legacy she left behind.
Afeni Shakur wasn’t just Tupac’s mother or a member of the Black Panther party. Above everything else, she was a strong black woman.
Her contributions to black empowerment are second to none. Intertwined in her legacy is the legacy of her son, Tupac Shakur, one of the most successful hip-hop artists of all time. Combine Afeni’s activism with Tupac’s social consciousness and you have an insurmountable legacy for the ages and the impetus to inspire future generations of activist, rappers, and black and brown families alike.
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The terrorist attack at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shook my world. Occurring on the heels of the McKinney Pool incident, the Baltimore uprising. and Rachel Dolezal, I didn't believe any event could make my summer go from bad to worse.
The assassination of Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, Tywanza Sanders, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Myra Thompson, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Daniel Simmons, Ethel Lee Lance, and Clementa C. Pinckney brought to the forefront discussions surrounding gun control, white supremacist activity, and the use of the confederate flag on state grounds. Although masses of groups advocated for the flag to remain (citing Southern pride as the "real" meaning behind it) and refused to see the shooting as an act of domestic terror, others pointed to the racist history of the flag and demanded for it to be removed.
These debates were interrupted when one woman did the unthinkable.
Filmmaker and activist Bree Newsome (with assistance from James Ian Tyson) scaled a flagpole at the South Carolina state capital to remove the confederate battle flag on June 27, 2015.
Every single time I watch this video, I cry. Newsome's spirit and respect for her ancestors elicits intense emotions from me. Her fortitude and courage emboldened and reignited the passion I’d long had for justice, a passion I thought was ruined when a 19-year-old white male walked into a church and murdered nine people in cold blood.
This past March, Newsome gave a compelling public lecture at my university in Nashville. For more than an hour, she talked about her action and other movements (such as #FreePalestine) that coincide with it. Newsome also revealed to the audience that during the action, a police officer threatened to electrocute the metal pole while she was attached to it. The officer refrained from doing so after Tyson wrapped his arm around the pole, linking his demise to hers.
Before her lecture in Benton Chapel, I spoke with Newsome about politics, faith and self-care.
Erin Logan: Something that makes you stand out from other prominent activists is your faith. Black Lives Matter (BLM) is very different from the Civil Rights Movement partly because of the lagging presence of the black church. What is your opinion on the absence of church leadership in the movement today?
BN: "Honestly, I’m not entirely sure. I question how accurate our perception is of the 1960s. Dr. King had a lot of pushback from the preacher community. He was not typical. It’s not like every black preacher was out there pushing for civil rights. So I am not completely sure how different today is from then. Obviously today, there are some ministers involved. I will say that I do feel like the Black church is not as involved in issues of social justice today as it once was. I think that has a lot to do with the effects of integration. At one point, the black church was the only place we had to go to meet. If you wanted to have meetings, put on a play, or are pushing for civil rights, the church was one of the only places we had to go and have those kinds of meetings.
"So, I think it was maybe a little more required than it is now. Also, generally speaking, this movement that’s happening right now is really pushing for an all-inclusive fight for black life. Which means trans, queer…lots of groups that in a lot of ways wouldn’t qualify under respectability politics. And that’s something that existed in the 1960s as well. There were all of these groups participating prominently in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s but they were denied leadership roles. They were pushed to the shadows because they didn’t fit this respectable image of the 'black male charismatic leader preacher.' I think that one of the most dramatic images today is overrepresentation and the fact that people today are consciously making sure that the folks who are doing the leg work are getting credit for it and that people are not being pushed to the margins because they don’t fit some kind of respectability model."
EL: Have you had to confront boundaries that black women in the movement have to engage with?
BN: "Yes and no. I haven’t encountered as much of that. It’s hard for me to speak on that with my personal experience. I feel blessed and fortunate in a way. I work with a lot of black men and there was never this sense that I couldn’t be in a leadership role because I was a woman. But, I know there is a lot of that in the movement. I have definitely encountered other organizing spaces where they have some very real issues of patriarchy and making spaces for non-cis hetero male leadership.
"At the same time, I understand the frustration that black men feel. A lot of the cases that have been most prominent in this movement were about the murder of black men. Now, granted, there have been a lot of murders of black women, especially black trans women that don’t get coverage. So the fact that the cases involving black men have been more prominent has to do some with the sexism and focus on black men over other groups. I was at a gathering of some of the founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Chicago. One of the elders said to me, “We need unity without uniformity.” And I think that’s what people are trying to work out and find right now. Yes, you have groups that have been traditionally barred from leadership and casted to the shadows. It’s important that they have a voice and can take the platform now. But it doesn’t need to be at the exclusion of anyone else. "So it’s kind of like ‘how do we really come together around an understanding that all black lives matter?’ That this is an inclusive liberation. "
(NOTE: When this interview occurred, Clinton and Trump were not the presumptive nominees of their respective parties.)
EL: Do you have plans to endorse a political candidate?
BN: "I do not plan to endorse any political candidate because I don’t really endorse the system nor this process. But I do encourage everyone to vote because this is the system in process that’s going to be in place in November, and it does matter who is going to be in office. There is the short-term issue, and then there is the long-term issue. Long-term, this whole system has to be redone. Short term, these are the choices that we have."
EL: Since the South Carolina legislature passed the bill to remove the confederate flag, a narrative has arisen that erases your act of bravery. Hillary Clinton perpetuated this narrative in a speech in South Carolina but briefly made mention of your name. Do you have any thoughts on HRC's comments?
BN: "What Hillary said is not surprising at all. She’s a politician. I did see where she made mention of me when she was campaigning in South Carolina because she needs to win black voters in South Carolina, and I was like ‘okay that’s cool.’ And it doesn’t really disappoint me because that’s how it is. I think that it’s imperative on myself and all of us who know the history to make sure that things don’t get re-written and watered down. We’ve seen this happen before in the same way that Lyndon Johnson gets credit for passing the Voting Rights Act. We know that came about because of sustained protest over a long period of time. People shutting things down and getting killed...all the things that went into it before legislators pulled out their pens.
"South Carolina was no different. There had been a boycott for decades. I was not even the first person to touch the flag. There was another protester who went up there and burned the flag, and then there was the massacre. All of these things had to happen before Nikki Haley felt that it was time to take the flag down. Yes, the massacre brought the issue to the forefront again. But lets not forget they were still quibbling about whether or not to take the flag down. I am really not convinced that the flag would have come down if we did not do the action. Part of what we did with that action was to show how easy it was to take the flag down. They said that they couldn’t do it because of the law on the books about when the confederate flag can and cannot be lowered. They did not even lower to half staff when they buried the victims. The US flag was lowered; the state flag was lowered, but not the confederate flag. I think that what we did (was) force their hands. And shamed them in a way. By taking the flag down, we forced the state to make the decision if they were going to keep the flag down or put it back up. And you saw how they sent a black worker down there to raise the flag back up."
"History is always told from the point of view of the colonizer, of the victor and of the power structurer. But the truth is that all the rights we have today in this country did not come about because of the Declaration of Independence. This is because of sustained protest from many movements over the years. The 40-hour work week and the existence of the weekend came from people rising up and protesting. It did not start because the people in power felt they needed to do something right on the behalf of the oppressed. I always try to drive home the point that people need to vote but recognize that we did not vote our way into voting rights. Voting has never been and will never be all that it requires to secure your freedom."
EL: What were your thoughts, feelings and emotions in the weeks leading up to the action?
BN: "When I agreed to climb the pole Tuesday night before we did the action, I felt very calm and confident. When I got home and over the next few days, I would have these waves of fear. I knew it was going to radically change my life. I leaned on my faith, and I believed God would bring me down safely. But I also had to dig into a very deep part of my faith where I can say that even if I did it, I was still prepared to go up there.
"There was a KKK rally planned for later that day, and it a was very hot topic at the time. Police were there guarding the flag because they anticipated somebody doing something. We talked about the possibility of somebody coming by with a gun and what we would do? We agreed that everybody would scatter but obviously I would be in a very vulnerable position on the pole. So, I had to make peace with all of that. I had to make peace with the possibility of my death."
EL: What do you do for self-care?
BN: "For self-care, in addition to my faith, one of the most simple things I do is just unplug sometimes. I take a break from social media because it can be so much. I have to remind myself that I am stepping into a struggle that existed long before me and that can very well continue long after me. And that I’m not the only person out here doing it. So if I need to take the day off, the movement will still be going when I get back. That is something I really emphasize to other people. You can feel so passionate and you want to take on everything but that's really not possible. Not in your own strength."
EL: What is the current state of your case?
BN: "The charges have been dismissed. It took a while. The solicitor said early on that he did not plan to prosecute. But, I think because of the politics in South Carolina, they wanted it to be dismissed quietly."
EL: Who do you look to for support?
BN: "I have a great community of support in Charlotte where I organize. I don’t think I could do the work I do without that. Before I was in Charlotte, I was in the Raleigh-Durham area and I had a small group of folks I was trying to build with. But, when that did not materialize, I scaled back in terms of what I could do. Going back to self-care, you cannot sustain what you do on your own. So I really lean on the community of organizers that surround me. My family is also very important to me."
EL: What writers do you read for inspiration?
BN: "Ta-Nehisi Coates...I view him as the Baldwin of our era. I realize those are big shoes to step into. With every major thing that happens I’m like 'please drop that essay,' and then he would and I would be like 'yes, thank you for saying what was in my soul that I couldn't articulate.'"
Photos were taken by Laurel-Ann Hattix.
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For some, art is a lifestyle as well as activism; and some artist and activist marry their loves together and embody the definition of an artivist. The NY Daily News recently did profile pieces on two women using their artistry to take some some politically and racially charged circumstances. They are both also co-founders of a collective entitled "Artists for Justice."
Meet Babbie Dunnington. Dunnington is an English teacher and an artist who is known for drawing portraits of police brutality victims.
“I consider them emotional tools for people experiencing the pain of racism and serving people who were murdered, and spreading awareness about what is happening to these human beings,” Dunnington said.
She hopes when people see her painting they are able to see the faces of those afflicted, recognize there is an issue and want to add their voice to those seeking change and justice for all peoples.
And meet one of her co-founders, Shyvonne Sanganoo. Sanganoo is an educator and singer who uses her songs to evoke emotions from those who hear her, either positive and negative.
“Art gives people a way to deliver the same message, but be interpreted differently. You don’t even have to speak the same language to understand what that feels like and looks like, and possibly reach more people," Sanganoo said.
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While the origin in unclear, #GoHomeDeRay sprang up on Twitter shaming social media organizer DeRay McKesson's presence in South Carolina during the aftermath of Charleston's Emmanuel AME shooting. The hashtag has been filled with racists trolling the Civil Rights activist, and it became a trending topic on Sunday night. This unsolicited attack utilizes historical anti-Black rhetoric that vilified many Black folk, especially Black leaders.
The hashtag was repurposed to show how this sort of attack has historical relevance for derailing justice work in America. And folks called this out quick:
Many folks quickly tried to reclaim the hashtag with covert support:
Black Twitter members, including celebrities and everyday faves, came through to support DeRay's work and combat the hate with #ThankYouDeRay.
Of course the longtime revolutionary bae held his own on CNN today, because he knows his place in the work.
See the love on #ThankYouDeRay, and clap back on #GoHomeDeRay.
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