Trigger warning: assault, lynching, gay bashing
I feel blocked as I’m trying to write this article. There are so many emotions that well up as I try to share my feelings about the attack on Jussie Smollett yesterday. My heart is heavy. I’m incensed, depressed, upset, and frustrated all at the same time. Jussie Smollett, notable actor who portrays Jamal Lyon on Fox’s Empire, was in Chicago to perform at a concert and went out at night to get a late dinner. At 2 am, two people, hurling homophobic and racial slurs, attacked him, beating him and pouring a chemical on him (which has been suspected to be bleach). Although he fought back, at some point they put a noose around his neck before fleeing the scene. Smollett was admitted to hospital, and is thankfully is in good condition. The details are gruesome, and they evoke a visceral reaction because it was a gruesome event. Imagine going to the hospital, drenched in bleach with a noose around your neck, still processing what just happened. Utterly reprehensible and heartbreaking.
For me, the most dolorous part is that the people who did this willingly chose to ignore Smollett’s talent and personality. His soulful singing ability and his dramatic expertise. His kind and compassionate nature. Instead, they focused on the two things he had no control over: his blackness and his queerness. They decided, based on the two things that he could never change about himself (and should never want to), that he was no longer worth basic human decency.
Since the incident, social media has exploded with support, analysis, and reactions to what happened. The attack is now being framed in political motivations, analyzed through queer discussions on homophobia, and dissected using a racial lens. I read a fantastic article by Rebecca Carroll via the Gothamist on the historical symbolism (and literal use) of the noose in black America, and why it still exists in 2019. Another great article takes a look at how this fits into the goal of white supremacy and the far right. The reality of this story is that Smollett’s case is not an anomaly, it’s the norm. It’s a visible example of a more invisible (more like ignored) and ugly truth about the society we live in. Every day, people of colour, people in the LGBTQ community, and people in a number of other oppressed communities deal with the reality of violence and hate directed towards them.
As part of the social media reaction, there was also an outpouring celebrity support for Jussie Smollett. You can read a lot of the posts in this E! News article. The one that hits me straight in the feels is the video message from Lee Daniels, Empire co-creator and director. You can watch it here, but he leaves us with a powerful final line: “it’s just another f-cking day in America.” Jussie Smollett most definitely deserves the support and love that he is receiving, as do the dozens of trans individuals who were killed last year. And the young black victims of police brutality? Will this support be there tomorrow, when everyone gets to move on while queer people and people of colour cannot?
What I take away from this attack is that the support and discussion about these issues needs to come BEFORE someone gets bashed, not afterward. We need celebrities like Ellen to realize that their condolences ring hollow when they en masse pardon people like Kevin Hart who make jokes about beating their gay children. Hate is a spectrum and a progression. It starts with words and ideas and becomes actions and violence. To prevent the latter, we must work on the former, and we must do it now.
The stories that strike a chord with us are the ones that hit us closest to home. It’s selfish, but what attaches me to Jussie Smollett’s story is a shared fear. It’s the fear I have when I walk home alone at night. It’s the fear when I choose to wear nail polish in public, or when I wear my pride shirt to a bar. It’s the fear when I cross the US border, and when I am noticeably the only person of colour in the room. What happened to Jussie Smollett is a reminder of what people who look and act like me go through on a daily basis. It’s f-cking terrifying. What’s f-cked up about it is that someone like Jussie Smollett takes a risk when he decides to be his most authentic self in a very public way.
Jussie was just living his life, as best as he could, and he suffered for it. But, at the same time, Jussie’s risk is important to the rest of us who do not have the same visibility or platform that he has. He is challenging stereotypes, sharing his experience of being a gay black man, and helping to make that very important incremental step into a world where that is normal and safe. While fear grips us at times like this, it’s also important to celebrate the courage of Jussie Smollett, and every person who chooses to take those risks in order to make the world that little bit better. Thank you. We’re all rooting for you.
Let’s appreciate Jussie’s talent in this amazing and moving performance of “Good Enough” from Empire: