Fame is an integral tool that stokes the fire of social movements. Sunday’s BET Awards was another reminder that despite painful and turbulent times, a new movement is flourishing. Both the past and present teach us that during times of great social upheaval and domestic warfare, everyday people are rejuvenated by public figures who unapologetically stand on the right side of history. Celebrities are more than rich people who show us their cribs, receive endorsements, and follow on Instagram; they are archetypal symbols who reflect the consciousness of society- For better or worse. If their power is leveraged effectively, they can be voices for the voiceless and dramatically influence the national conversation of racial justice and equality. Grey’s Anatomy’s Jesse Williams understands the implications and responsibility of his fame. During his BET acceptance speech, he spoke about why all people (famous or not) can’t wait to fight for racial justice:
“Yesterday would have been young Tamir Rice’s 14th birthday so I don’t want to hear any more about how far we’ve come when paid public servants can pull a drive-by on a 12-year-old playing alone in a park in broad daylight, killing him on television, and then going home to make a sandwich.Tell Rekia Boyd how it’s so much better to live in 2012 than 1612 or 1712. Tell that to Eric Garner, Sandra Bland. The thing is though, all of us here are getting money, that alone isn’t going to stop this. Dedicating our lives to getting money just to give it right back to put someone’s brand on our body — when we spent centuries praying with brands on our bodies, and now we pray to get paid for brands on our bodies?”
This is not the first time that fame has been utilized to speak out against racial oppression. Who can forget the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City?
One simple pose broadcasted worldwide showed athletes standing up for a cause larger than themselves, and using their influence to courageously stand up to oppression. Or what about Josephine Baker? Although many people try to limit her to just dancing woman in a banana suit, she was a fierce civil rights advocate who dedicated a large chunk of her life to the movement and was the only woman who was asked to speak at the March on Washington. Additionally, we can’t forget about the late and great Muhammad Ali. As much as the general public has attempted to whitewash his legacy, he was a constant critic of white supremacy. Back in the day, he unapologetically refused to participate in the Vietnam War boldly asking:
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over.”
Speaking truth to power is what we need from black celebrities now more than ever. Black people nationwide are doing it at our jobs, in our classrooms, and with our friends and families. Black celebrities are not exempt from this responsibility because like it or not, black people share a symbiotic relationship in this country. Any public display of courage can have an alchemical impact on black people nationwide. Bravery in the face of oppression replenishes our spirits and enables our voices to be magnified in our daily advocacy. Beyonce’s Formation gave us so much life! As did several of Amandla’s cultural appropriation clapbacks on Twitter, and Kendrick’s electrifying 2016 Grammy performance. For better or worse, famous people represent the voice of our generation and because of this, our fates are tied together in this continuing movement towards racial justice and liberation. We are rooting for more public figures to be brave. Fame carries social responsibility, and it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to remain complacent in the face of state sanctioned violence, murder, and xenophobia. To all black celebrities who truly care about their fan base: We need you. We can’t amplify your voice if you don’t speak.
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