Why Not Take All of Me? The Anti-Black/Anti-Queer Attack on Jussie Smollett’s Life and Unpacking the Selective Reactions to It
On Tuesday, January 29, activist/actor/director/singer Jussie Smollett — a Black, openly queer man — was the target of what is by all accounts a double hate crime. News reports state that two white men in ski masks approached Jussie and said: “Aren’t you that faggot Empire nigger?” (referencing the hit FOX Television show he stars in and sometimes directs), threw an unknown chemical at him (which some sites reported as bleach), and wrapped a noose around his neck before fleeing. The attackers were said to have been wearing Make America Great Again (MAGA) hats and shouted some pro-Trump rhetoric as well. Jussie was reportedly taken to a local hospital. Prior to this incident, Jussie received a letter in the mail that stated “You will die black fag.” The envelope addressed to him utilized an erratic handwriting style and was written in red marker. The contents of the note used letters cut out from magazines. As of this writing, it is uncertain whether Jussie suffered any lasting physical injuries, but one could imagine that there must be psychological ones given the onslaught.
I must admit that my gut instinct was to regard the incident with skepticism because I would have rather believed it was a hoax than to submit to another assault on my psyche. So I reasoned that it was initially being reported only by blogs, not journalistic news sites, and it seemed too textbook a case of hatred, like someone had gone about checking specific boxes for maximum effect. All of the markers of disgrace were there: nooses, chemical attack, the n-word, the f-word, and blood-red hats with stark white lettering bright enough to make the president proud (if he was not already head-to-toe full of unearned pride). All that was missing was the dogmatic religious overtures, although one might say that those who use the n-word and the f-word are amongst the most honest religious practitioners in the world, for they reveal themselves for what they actually are rather than who they say they are. And the Internet loves a lie way more than it does a truth. So I waited before I reacted (I had the decency, unlike some others, to keep my mouth shut until I had verification).
This is not to imply that I believed Jussie was making this up; I did not. I imagined that some Internet troll was making it up in order to raise my blood pressure and lower my life expectancy. However, as “trusted” (and I use that word very loosely) news sites began to report on the story, I could no longer deny that this cartoon-character display of rage was truth, not fiction. And I chastised myself for my former skepticism because I am fully aware that we are living in cartoonish times.
As the news of the attack circulated on the various social media platforms, most people were rightfully outraged and offered Jussie beautiful words of support. Many people, myself included, posted photos of Jussie and wished him a speedy healing. However, the tenor of many of the posts and subsequent commentary I saw perplexed me. In majority white queer digital spaces, I noticed most of the commenters focused on the f-word and the chemical attack. In majority Black cisgender (non-transgender) heterosexual spaces, I noticed most of the commenters focused on the n-word and the noose. The inability of both of these communities to absorb the full scope of the crime and all of its elements evinced for me a divide yes, but also a profound selfishness.
What can sometimes happen, even in well-intentioned, “progressive” activist spaces, amongst the righteous demands for justice and equity, is something as chilling as it is quiet: personhood becomes secondary to symbolism.(I am risking that same distortion in writing this essay, which is why I was hesitant to write it. And yet, here it is.) One’s intrinsic value as a living, thinking thing can be deemed less important than one’s usefulness as an evidentiary tool whose romanticized suffering becomes a kind of numbing pornography — the function of which is fashioned as a key to innocence.
Innocence, it must be said, is the most valuable of all currencies because, as it is constructed in contemporary discourse, it can bestow shelter against any investigation that reveals one’s own complicity in the very structures one claims to want to dismantle. And, too, innocence is almost always fraudulent. Its primary employment in this day and age is to avoid accountability, which is why nearly everyone claims to be innocent.
Thus, the Anti-Black White Queer Person must deny that they have any power to enact anti-Blackness in order to ensure that their status as a victim of anti-queerness remains pristine. For that grants them not only justifiable grievance, but positions them as above reproach. Likewise, the Anti-Queer Black Cisgender Heterosexual Person must refute the idea that anti-queerness is an actual crime against humanity; must, in fact, assert it as a virtue so that the violence against queer people is rendered immaterial in the face of anti-Blackness. This grants them a secure spot in the realm of moral high ground (the closer to whichever supposed God, the better) and situates them as unassailable victims who could only ever be righteous, irrespective of deeds.
And so they distance themselves from the dissonance by latching onto the part of Jussie that they can best endure without having to surrender purity. But even a superficial evaluation would uncover how much they have in common with the MAGAs they imagine themselves separate from. Jussie and rest of us Black queer folk are unsafe around each of those particular groups. Let a transgender girl try to use the girls’ restroom, for example; or a Black queer man defend himself after being attacked in a restaurant; or a Black lesbian try to just be alive. The vicious loathing disguised as justifiable fear leads to death — and it is embraced by everyone equally. That is apparent to anyone who legitimately gives a fuck — and not merely as pretense for social capital.
Think of Ed Buck, the wealthy white Democratic donor whose alleged sexual predation resides in specifically exploiting vulnerable Black queer men whom he pays to take drugs — even, or maybe especially, if the consequences are fatal. No different from serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, who was able to rape, dissect, and consume his victims undisturbed because most of them were Black queer men and boys. When the wages of that danger occur, it is not shocking; Black queer people are accustomed to receiving malice from every direction. It remains, however, annihilating.
To one group, all that matters is Jussie’s queerness; to the other, all that matters is his Blackness. And for them both, never the twain shall meet because if it did, those who refuse to witness would have no choice but to confront the fact that they forfeited their humanity. For the aforementioned MAGA is the worst side of each of them brought to bear in one host, not unlike a possession by the devil except that there is no devil: just human beings.
So when the majority of these people offer Jussie their sympathies, they are responding mainly to his celebrity. I do not believe that they are reckoning with the full reality of who he is in all of his divine parts, inextricable from one another, together creating the entire whole.
They, not unlike Dahmer, dismember him until he is reduced to edible pieces, spiritually if not physically. If they were, indeed, dealing with his whole humanity, then, in their everyday lives, their dating profiles would not read “No Blacks!” or “Into BBC (‘Big Black Cock,’ a despicably racist phrase).” They would not make the criminalization of Black people indistinguishable from sexual gratification or seek to make us pliable enough in our self-loathing to submit to humiliation in “race play” and hide the anti-Black desires that corrupt such sexuality behind legitimate kink.
If they cared for all of Jussie, then, in their day to day, they would not be adhering to the antiquated and ensconced philosophies of profane religions. They would not prophesy visions of a doggedly ahistorical, queer-free “Afrika.” They would not insist that the origin of queerness is found in rape. They would not chastise a Black man who can express feelings other than fury or a Black woman who refuses to become a receptacle of procreation for “The Cause.” They would not employ the Black queer person as a pet or en vogue fashion accessory, but never as an equal. They would not tell the jokes or share the opinions that shape thought, which, in turn, inspire action, where action looks like people willingly relinquishing their humanity to shout “black fag” at a stranger and hurl bleach at their face. They would not resign to “beating the gay out” of our children even if it kills them. They would not be so willing and able to replicate the very white supremacist principles that hold them in abject oppression to use against another marginalized victim.
If anything, these individuals will use their sympathy for Jussie as a deceptive emblem designed to disguise their own anti-Black and anti-queer predilections.
This leaves Black queer people with one haunting question: Do we only have each other? Not even, it would seem; particularly when we consider the bottom shaming and anti-femininity; the anti-lesbian and anti-transgender sentiment — even in exclusively Black queer spaces. And let us think a moment about the overwhelming weight of the politics of desire and beauty. Would we be so united in our support of Jussie if he were dark-skinned, fat, flamboyant, woman, gender non-conforming, disabled, neuro-atypical, or transgender?
The jagged little pill to swallow is this: Very few people truly want to be liberated. For the primary responsibility of the liberated is to liberate others. Rather, what most people want, whether we admit it or not, is to occupy the space at the top of current hierarchical apparatus because we believe that is where comfort lies. It is not that we do not want to step on necks; it is that we do not want our own particular necks stepped on. Most of us, sadly, confuse power for empowerment, not readily recognizing that the former is about dominion over others and inevitably leads to damage, and the latter is about dominion over oneself and is the path to liberation.
Jussie is not only Black: He is also queer. He is not only queer: He is also Black. The double g’s in each of the slanderous words levied against him are forever hooked together in us; they shall never be put asunder. The conventional wisdoms that assured us that he could only be in danger for one of those states of being at a time is revealed as fallacious. The attempt to literally erase (because isn’t that what bleach does?) him from the place where his existence by itself is enough to guarantee him his right to exist diminishes not him, but those who unleashed themselves at him because they wanted to make the whole world aware of their insufficiencies. Erasure carries one price, visibility another; but both of them are linked.
In this analysis of highfalutin words and concepts, what should never be lost upon us is Jussie’s humanity. Or Gemmel’s. Or Islan’s. Or Britney and Crystal’s — which includes not only the cosmic timbre of their Blacknesses, but also the lucid contours of their queernesses.
Jussie is not just an artist or activist. He is not here merely for our entertainment or hashtags. He is real; do you understand?
To paraphrase a meme I once read:
He is someone’s son.
He is someone’s brother.
He is someone’s uncle.
He is someone’s love held dear.
He is someone.
Those of nature’s creatures who fail to grasp this irrefutable fact condemn only themselves and open the door to war. For the days of us quivering in repose are over.
And retaliation is within our reach.