I Don’t Love The Way You Lie: On Justice and Jussie Smollett
by Max S. Gordon
With the news that Jussie Smollett’s story to police was — allegedly — a complete hoax, a hoax that has now led to a felony charge, there remains something compellingly truthful even within his lie. It is this grain of truth to which Jussie may be clinging desperately, as his whole world continues to fall down around him. The fact is Jussie is telling somebody’s story — the problem is the story he’s telling isn’t his.
In the weeks since the incident was first reported, I’ve found it impossible to pull myself away from the news coverage. Part of the mystery at the core of the Jussie debacle is the extraordinary randomness of it all. What other story has sub-zero temperatures, a noose, a bottle of bleach, MAGA hats, Nigerian brothers, and a sandwich from Subway? Like Smollett’s TV show Empire, there is way too much and yet not enough going on at once.
Growing up, one of the first things we learn as children is that it is wrong to lie. And without question, constructing a made-up account about a hate crime and then lying to the police, and to the public on national television, is a truly contemptible act. As a result, people are hating hard on Jussie. But with all the coverage and commentary I’ve watched on twenty-four-hour news programs, social media, TMZ, Facebook and YouTube, what seems to be missing from many of the discussions, diatribes, and critiques is context.
America loves its aberrations, especially when they relate to evil — observe the recent fascination with the serial killer Ted Bundy. And it especially loves its aberrant figures when they are famous and black. Some of the outpouring of contempt for Jussie Smollett is justified, and some of it is simply bewildering. Using racism as a career move is hardly exceptional, given the times and the country we live in; we need look no further than the presidential election of 2016 to establish that.
Full condemnation of Jussie Smollett requires the assumption of racial progress in this country. In the introduction to his 1985 collection of essays The Price of The Ticket, black, queer author James Baldwin wrote on the subject of White American progress: “[Progress]…translates as meaning that those people who have opted for being white congratulate themselves on their generous ability to return to the slave that freedom which they never had the right to endanger, much less take away. For this dubious effort, and still more dubious achievement, they expect themselves to be congratulated — : in the coin, furthermore, of black gratitude, gratitude that not only is my burden — (slowly, but it takes time) being made lighter but my joy that white people are improving.”
In recent months, Prada, Gucci and Burberry apologized for designs that suggested blackface and minstrelsy in their new fashion lines. Last December, Dolce & Gabbana also had to apologize to the Chinese for an offensive, stereotypical campaign that ended with a cancelled multi-million-dollar show in Shanghai. Racism is so damned exhausting. Hate crimes weren’t believed before Jussie Smollett, and I think it fairly safe to say that if we continue in the direction we’ve been going under this current administration, they still won’t be believed. Don’t misunderstand me: Jussie Smollett should pay for all the police time he gobbled up with his bullshit, but we need to keep things in perspective. Were we, or have we ever truly been, interested in the killing of transgender women and men? Let’s tell the truth about Jussie Smollett and his alleged crimes, but let’s also put his behavior in context, let us as a society consider our own bias and brutality. That’s the harder conversation. America, don’t act brand new. We continue to examine Jussie Smollett under a microscope while using a wide-angle lens on ourselves.
Recently, my dog was very sick and we had to take her for an emergency visit to the vet. After we introduced ourselves, a technician I’d never dealt with before spoke to my partner and me in a peremptory tone and told us to pick up our dog and keep her outside until they could prepare a room. She sounded angry when she told us that because we didn’t have an appointment — even though someone on the phone had told us to bring her in right away — we were going to have to wait until the doctor was available. Then she firmly shut the door.
When we were alone, my partner leaned over and whispered, “You know, I could be wrong, but I sense she’s not comfortable with the whole interracial gay thing.”
“Well, she better keep that shit under wraps like it’s Christmas, because I’m not the one, and this is not the day.” I tried to interest my dog in a liver treat but she coughed and turned her face away.
Despite my partner’s sensitivity to social bias, it was a rare observation from him. I, on the other hand, am very sensitive to all racism’s permutations and nuances; catch me on a bad day and I can find racism in Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. I try to keep my paranoia in check, but ultimately it’s not my fault; I was once walking past a house in which a group of white children were playing in an upstairs window. They began to shout at me, a stranger passing by, and I braced myself for the racist epithet I knew was coming. After many giggles and shouts of “Hi, Mister!”, I waved, they waved back, and I walked away.
It is possible there wasn’t any homophobia or racism at the vet’s office that morning and that the technician was just having a bad day or was simply rude. But in my experience with the children I realized that one of the most destructive legacies of living in a racist society is not the fulfillment of one’s constant suspicion that racism lurks around every corner; it’s the tension of living daily with the possibility of racism in every encounter, one’s constant “bracing” against being hurt.
I’ve shared this story because it might help some people understand where the rush to believe Jussie comes from. Even when the early details seemed incredible, the idea of being targeted because of race feels familiar and true to many of us, even more so now. Our minds may buck in disbelief at the information we are receiving, but emotionally we are compelled. Rationality, at first hearing, may have little to do with our response.
When the facts stopped adding up, and the two brothers, both American-born and of Nigerian descent, told police that Jussie had paid them to participate, Jussie went from being a hero to being a pariah almost overnight. It’s hard to feel sorry for him, as he made a fool of a lot of people. But there is a false premise at the core of the “pile-on” condemnation of Jussie Smollett and it needs to be addressed. When Ryan Lochte and Susan Smith made up false narratives involving dark, scary black people hiding in the shadows, their behavior was publicly condemned, but they were also given the privilege of personal responsibility. The entire white community wasn’t under indictment because one white person lied; if that were the case, no white person in America could have cashed a personal check after Watergate. Eventually Smith and Lochte, who also appeared on Good Morning, America after his incident in Brazil, were forgiven and/or forgotten; in fact, I just watched Lochte two weeks ago on the last season of Celebrity Big Brother and to my mind he seemed just as white and vacuous — and publicly accepted — as ever. Lochte plans to compete in the 2020 Olympic games.
People are claiming, however, that when a person of color or a queer person lies about a hate crime it is now going to be called “Pulling a Jussie Smollett”. Smollett’s cowardly act is also defined by a deep cultural betrayal that comes with an antiquated subtext. (Donna Brazile, Democratic strategist, black elder and liar herself, was on Bill Maher’s show this weekend expressing her fury at Jussie.) The subtext is a perception that still exists of the single black ambassador who has the power to fix or ruin everything for “the black community”. As black Americans, we are encouraged to despise Jussie, the way black children are shamed for “showing out” when company is visiting: “See how well we were doing before you came along, Jussie. White people were finally starting to act right and now you’ve set us back 50, 100, 300” years”…etc. etc.
Racist white people feel disgust for Jussie, and laugh at his downfall: once a “credit to his people”, he is now a big black embarrassment. They shake their heads forlornly, with their variation on the same theme: “Things were going so well, Jussie, until you showed up. White people were finally beginning to listen and now you’ve lied and set your people back 50, 100, 300 years.”…etc, etc.
To hear some commentators, Jussie Smollett has singlehandedly put the entire black community back on the auction block, a thought as fantastical as the idea that the majority of white people in America were working on their racism in any meaningful, transformational way before Smollett’s lie. The only appropriate response to this is — respectfully — give me a fucking break. I am particularly sensitive to this argument because it seems that every day there is a new story about racism on the TV or radio. While it is necessary that all racist incidents in America be reported, the tone of these extended segments often feels detached, dissociated, exploitative. Racism is fetishized these days; it gives off a kicky charge for listeners, both right-wing and liberal. One is forced to conclude that just because we’re talking about racism all the time doesn’t mean anyone is actually doing anything about it.
It gives me no satisfaction to watch Jussie’s reputation completely destroyed, even though he’s the one who destroyed it. Jussie’s vision for his stunt was both grandiose and minor; not unlike his singing and acting on Empire. Which isn’t to say that Jussie doesn’t have the potential to be great; he may one day prove himself as an actor in a supporting or leading film role. But he was too insecure and impatient to wait. I am disturbed by the recent reporting that, when he was stopped for drunk driving in 2007, he gave his brother’s name to the police instead of his own. This I find more inexplicable then “MAGA-gate”; throwing a family member under the bus, and especially a black family member, knowing that any person of color dealing with police officers in this country may be in danger, suggests deep sociopathology and pathological narcissism. One may conclude from that incident alone that Jussie Smollett is seriously fucked up.
We may also surmise from his botched plan that he is greedy and cheap. Jussie’s greed is evidenced by the fact that he chose two fictional weapons for his scenario when one would have sufficed. (The noose and the bleach together were a bit much.) We can assume he’s cheap because of the amount that he allegedly paid the Nigerian brothers for their role — $3,500 before, and $500 once the job was completed. Smollett was trying to pull off Grand Theft Auto at crackhead prices.
It’s been alleged that one of the brothers was dealing drugs to Smollett, which also makes sense: somebody had to be high to think that a pair of white men would be walking around the streets at 2 a.m. with a noose in their hands, looking for famous black people to harm in Chicago’s winter. Let’s face it, sometimes it’s simply too cold for racism; when the temperature is nearly 30 below, a racist white person might pass you on the street, unable to crinkle his eyes with hate. His face, a frozen mask of snow and ice, seems to say, “I’ll hate you next week when it’s warmer”, which is probably why northern racism has the reputation of being the covert version of the Southern variety. If Jussie really wanted his stunt to be believable, he should have staged his assault outside a Piggly Wiggly in Mississippi.
As I watched the Smollett scandal play out over the last couple of weeks, it became obvious that something was seriously amiss in his story. I recalled the 2002 case in Florida, in which a man murdered his wife on the beach after claiming they had been robbed at gunpoint; after he shot her, he also shot himself four times (carefully avoiding any vital organs). In other words, if you’re going to fake it, go all the way. Jussie is irritating because not only did he waste our time, he was playing at crime; people who stage scenes usually go a bit farther than a minor abrasion on the cheek. I’ve gotten worse injuries reaching for a box of cereal that fell down on me at Whole Foods.
Jussie is also guilty of not reading the room; he seemed to be unaware that we live at a time of instantaneous consequences. Roseanne didn’t even have time to finish her morning coffee before she was fired by ABC for her racist tweet; Megyn Kelly was escorted directly from the set of her morning show to the NBC parking lot, unable to say goodbye to her viewing audience after her show was cancelled for defending blackface. Kevin Spacey, after sexual assault allegations surfaced, got to watch the role he just completed in All The Money In the World being re-filmed by Christopher Plummer who was nominated for an Academy Award. Jussie’s Waterloo was when he allowed himself to be interviewed for ABC’s Good Morning, America. Individuals may still be acting out in private, but when it comes to race and sexual assault charges, corporations aren’t playing in these streets.
In addition to needing to be punished, Jussie clearly needs help. (Anyone that can bring himself to tell an audience after a fallacious attack that he is the “gay Tupac” definitely has a screw loose.) Still, no matter how much I detest his choices, I just can’t bring myself to hate his guts, even when I know that he played on our emotions, triggering our primal responses about Stonewall and the Civil Rights movement, and all of this during Black History Month. The irony is that in the news coverage I’ve seen since his indictment, Jussie is surrounded by a raging sea of reporters and paparazzi. He holds onto a bodyguard in front of him for mooring and looks black, small and overwhelmed. The image recalls — I’m ashamed to admit it but it was my first thought — a black child attending a newly desegregated school in the Fifties as throngs of racists spit and shout at her with rage. It’s a perverse comparison; unlike those innocent children, Jussie has orchestrated the circumstances that have led to his American nightmare. But even as I condemn him, I can’t resist the part of me that still wants to protect him.
If Jussie lied (despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, there is always the remotest possibility that he might be telling the truth), one of the saddest parts in all of this is that he has given our society an excuse to unleash our full racist contempt on a single black man. You may not be able to tell your black boss to go to hell, but you can hate Jussie Smollett. It’s bad enough that the racist floodgates had already been opened by Donald Trump, but whatever tattered societal barriers of public decency we once enjoyed are now officially gone. Jussie’s impropriety allows us to become a society of ideological looters, shoppers breaking down the doors of WalMart on Black Friday. We release our inner scavengers; free now to rip his black ass to pieces, he gives us the freedom to hate blacks mercilessly and spew our vitriol under the guise of “hating the sin and not the sinner.” Dear Liam Neeson: we’ve found your black bastard.
Heterosexual black male commentators on social media find subtle ways to humiliate Jussie as a gay man because they have carte blanche; if the MAGA people didn’t call Jussie a faggot, we are collectively calling him one now. This contempt isn’t new either. Jussie, with his covert schemes and cloak-and-dagger shenanigans, triggers a familiar conversation about “down low” behavior of a different kind. He is the gay brotha you can’t trust, he taps into our hatred of dissembling black men who “ain’t shit” because they choose to lie about their homosexuality. We are left again with condemnation, without the context of why a black man may feel the need to lie about his sexuality. Or what pressures in a racist society might result in a false testimony. Why do black people in this culture, and particularly black celebrities, sometimes end up addicted or go insane? How did Kanye, who once criticized George W. Bush for hating black people, end up under a MAGA hat, why can’t Lauren Hill, one of our greatest black contemporary artists, arrive on time to any of her concerts or record a second studio album more than twenty years after her first? These questions might inspire us to look at our culture in an honest and uncomfortable way. But the easier conversation, rather than exploring black madness, is simply hating Jussie Smollett. As a narcissist who clearly hates himself, he is complicit in that hate, and thus deserving of our collective loathing.
I’m arguing that what Jussie Smollett did was grotesque, no question, but that it doesn’t stand outside the grotesqueness which is American racism in all its myriad forms, from John Wayne’s white supremacy to Donald J. Trump’s Pocahontas jibes at Elizabeth Warren. Perhaps it is the self-destructiveness of a black gay man who at his core doesn’t believe he deserves the wealth he’s earned; perhaps it is the blind rage of a man who has seen the increase of hate in our society and watches as nothing is being done to stop it. Maybe he figured if he survived an assault, he would be a spiritual inspiration to survivors. That if something happened to a celebrity black man who was out of the closet — and there aren’t that many, mind you — it would draw more attention to victims. Maybe he was frustrated with the hate crimes that occur every day in our White House, evidenced by the president of the United States publicly humiliating and targeting three black female journalists all in the same week. Perhaps Smollett thought that if that man, seemingly untouchable, could continue to go unpunished, then it was a good idea to punish one of his “innocent” supporters, or simply to make someone up. It’s not right, but that’s definitely the racist code that justified the lynching of thousands of blacks in the Jim Crow South. It probably just feels a little strange to us when a black man does it.
While the story he told was outlandish, it wasn’t beyond the realm of black, gay experience; you can’t be gay and black in this country and not deal with racism and homophobia. Truth exists in Jussie’s falsehood; his is a crime of degree. What he did seems spectacularly ungrateful, given the fact that to most people he’s achieved the American Dream. Jussie Smollett seemed to “have everything” — money, power, fame, influence, and celebrity friends. The only thing he didn’t have as a black, gay man was justice. And not justice for a fake crime; but the justice of ordering a cake for his wedding and not being refused by a homophobic baker, the justice of trusting that if he is pulled over for a traffic violation it won’t lead to murder. In that context, his story, however contrived, remains archetypal. He is telling someone’s truth, even though it remains his lie.
Some may find it impossible to forgive the damage done to LGBTQ youth and rape survivors, to real victims of hate crimes, who will now be afraid to come forward. There are people who will undeniably suffer because of Jussie Smollett’s choices. A friend of mine, artist Anthony Smith, wrote me yesterday and said, “As a poz person of color who feels constant persecution from various communities I took his alleged attack personally because it could have been me. I’m so conflicted how to handle the situation since in a way I think we’ve all become less safe whether he lied or not.”
Jussie owes the world an apology, and a lifetime’s dedication to ensuring victims are heard. And for the people who are now being shamed for believing Jussie and who are expected to apologize for jumping to conclusions and for “being played”: you weren’t wrong for believing, please keep believing. We must listen to victims. This has been an unprecedented time for survivors’ speaking out, and Jussie Smollett’s bad decision mustn’t have the power to overturn that.
The right-wing press seems obsessed with the demonization of Trump supporters, but the president’s poll numbers, after a month-long government shutdown and the declaration of a bogus national emergency, appear to be just fine. As a black gay man, what I personally find most outrageous about Smollett’s interview is that he perpetuated an idea that continues to haunt queer men; the demonization of the sissy. Even through copious tears, Smollett places a macho emphasis on gay masculinity, “He punched me right in the face and so I punched his ass back…I want a little gay boy who might watch this to see that I fought the fuck back”, “learn to fight…learn to be a fighter.” When I first heard Jussie’s words, I thought they sounded familiar. My father, who told me to pick up a broken bottle the next time someone intimidated me at school, gave me a similar speech when I was in the fifth grade.
Smollett’s presumptuousness is breathtaking. Jussie: Gay children are fighting! — daily survival is fighting, waking up and going to school when you are bullied each day is fighting, sitting at the table at dinner and in your pew at church and hearing messages about gay people going to hell and still managing to exist in your community is fighting. Not killing yourself is fighting. And sometimes killing yourself is also fighting, the final witnessing to the pain others have caused you, when you have no voice left to speak and the silence of your absence is your scream.
The idea that resisting racism and homophobia in America requires a corny “noose and bleach” survival scenario is deeply destructive. Smollett’s emphasis on “fighting back” perpetuates a heterosexist male narrative that has haunted victims, male and female, for years. And in his particular situation, it turned out to be very bad advice. If Subway is open twenty-four hours, as Smollett claimed in his interview, why not just run back inside and have someone behind the counter call the police? But running for help wouldn’t have promulgated his hero narrative. With this emphasis on fighting, Jussie perpetuates the homophobic idea that he may be gay, but he’s no “punk”, and does further harm to the queer children he claims to champion.
And finally, the answer to the question we are all still asking “Why did he do it?” is this; why the hell do people do anything in this world? He was desperate, he wanted love, he’s sick, he’s an asshole. We are determined to find out the whys, but in the end, who cares? Jussie himself might not even know why he did it.
What’s true is that he was wrong, and he should be made to know that he was wrong. But he’s not outside the circle, he remains one of us. Jussie astounded us with his ineptitude: successful as a professional actor, as a criminal he was pure amateur night. But his was the perfect crime for the hyperbolic, stunt-queen, tweet-frenzied time we live in. You want to talk about ineptitude — Ralph Northam apologized for a 1984 yearbook photo of a man in blackface standing next to a man dressed as a member of the Klan. He then told us he couldn’t remember which one he’d been, and later that he didn’t think he was in the photo at all. He finally admitted he had dressed in blackface, but on another occasion — he’d entered a Michael Jackson contest in college and donned blackface to complement his moonwalk. When asked if he’d be willing to moonwalk for reporters during a press conference, Northam seemed to consider it briefly until his wife intervened.
The fact that Northam had any association with the Klan, whether as an actual member or next to someone dressed in a costume, the optics are reason enough for him to resign. But Northam has planted himself even deeper in white privilege and made it clear to everyone, I ain’t going nowhere. Northam should have sent a thank you card to Smollett for taking him out of the national headlines. Now Smollett can thank recently indicted and alleged sexual predator R. Kelly for supplanting him.
There are no spectators at this event. We’re all trapped in this funhouse, this celebrity freak show. And the grief and shock of societal injustice continues weekly, daily, it is relentless, and we barely have a chance to get over the last assault before the next one arrives.
I am horrified by Jussie Smollett’s deception. But one could argue he played by the rules in this distorted political game where too often the mythmakers and liars win. Some people lie about the present to get what they want, others lie about their past. In the end, in this country, it really all comes down to color and consequences. Jussie Smollett I’d like you to meet Justice Kavanaugh.
Max S. Gordon is a writer and activist. He has been published in the anthologies Inside Separate Worlds: Life Stories of Young Blacks, Jews and Latinos (University of Michigan Press, 1991), Go the Way Your Blood Beats: An Anthology of African-American Lesbian and Gay Fiction (Henry Holt, 1996). His work has also appeared on openDemocracy, Democratic Underground and Truthout, in Z Magazine, Gay Times, Sapience, and other progressive on-line and print magazines in the U.S. and internationally. His essays include “Bill Cosby, Himself, Fame, Narcissism and Sexual Violence”, “A Different World: Why We Owe The Cosby Accusers An Apology”, “Faggot as Footnote: On James Baldwin, ‘I Am Not Your Negro’, ‘Can I Get A Witness’ and ‘Moonlight’”, “Resist Trump: A Survival Guide”, “Family Feud: Jay-Z, Beyoncé and the Desecration of Black Art”