The difference between Jesse Williams’ BET speech and what comes next


— More than a couple of million folks have responded to the words spoken by Jesse Williams, which points out the fact that many black people are mesmerized by words that excite us and stimulate our emotions. Rather than initiating practical and appropriate actions as a result of words that make us feel good, we usually end up celebrating, espousing, regurgitating and discussing, ad nauseam, those words instead of implementing strategies that make us “do good.”

The speech by Williams was important and relevant, especially to black people. I appreciate his words and his willingness to make his statements on such a widely viewed stage. He used his fame and the very popular BET Awards Show to put forth a message that has been spoken and written by others before him, but also one that we need to hear over and over. Seems to me that when someone famous says the same things other non-famous folks have said, it takes hold quicker and our light bulbs come on faster. Questions: “How long will the message last, and will we act upon it?

Jesse Williams’ background, political affiliations and motivations notwithstanding, his message was more important than the messenger. However, since we are so attuned with what our celebrities say, he had instant credibility with many young and older folks alike. This is not to suggest that we discriminate against a message because of its messenger. A moron can bring a valid message. Suppose Clarence Thomas had said the same thing Williams said. Would we reject that message?

My point is that black folks should be able to discern a positive message that comes from any messenger, so that we can know “why” the message is being promulgated and be able to respond appropriately to that message. Emotional catchwords and phrases are fleeting and seldom cause any improvement in our wellbeing. Remember: “I have a dream!” “Down with dope— Up with hope!” “No justice, no peace!” “Yes we can!” and all the other words we have heard and chanted millions of times?

I’d rather we follow words from Richard Allen, “To Seek for Ourselves,” Marcus Garvey, “One God, One Aim, One Destiny!” and Elijah Muhammad, “Do for Self.” I chose to hear some of those words in Williams’ speech, and I give him credit for speaking on the subject. It’s on Mr. Williams now to show us what he meant by putting his words into action; and it’s up to the rest of us to develop strategies and initiatives that will move our people forward.

Jesse Williams spoke on issues that I have written articles about as far back as 1994, more specifically, one titled, “The Young and the Relentless,” in which I described how many young Blacks were becoming entrepreneurs. Rather than falling for the okey-doke of buying and wearing someone else’s brand, they were developing, marketing, and selling their own brands. Unfortunately, as the article also cited, many of our young entertainers had succumbed to the lure of “OPS” (Other People’s Stuff) e.g. Adidas, Nike, Tommy Hilfiger, etc. rather than “OPM” (Other People’s Money).

It is ironic that in April 1997, Forbes Magazine featured a front-page article titled, “Badass Sells,” by Joshua Levine, which aptly illustrated much of the tremendous economic potential within the younger segment of black America. It also described how the hip-hop culture had been co-opted by designers such as Hilfiger and manufacturing giants like Nike. Now in 2016, Alicia Keys is featured in a commercial for Levis jeans, in which she says, all women are “Badass,” so I guess it still sells.

But I digress. Will Jesse Williams’ comments simply become last month’s shining moment for black folks, or will his message finally be transformed into real economic progress for our people? Will his two minutes of enlightenment and in-your-face rejoinder to our plight make their way into the pantheon of speeches by our learned elders, or will they drift off into oblivion never having gained traction or made a significant difference in our lives?

Will Jesse Williams’ one shining moment become activated within us to the degree that we begin to coalesce and collaborate to build an economic foundation from which we can truly have an impact on public policy? Fiery rhetoric, overwhelming applause, and two million “hits” and “tweets” are not enough to get the job done. We must have action. We must have a critical mass of black people who are willing and able to work to make our economic and political empowerment a reality.

Yes, we had yet another shining moment when Williams took the stage to accept his award. Will its sheen fade to black, or will that moment turn into momentum for black progress? Remember: A moment is not a movement, but a moment can start a movement.

James Clingman is the nation’s most prolific writer about economic empowerment for black people. His latest book, “Black Dollars Matter! Teach your dollars how to make more sense,” is available on his website: