Early Tuesday morning, the actor Jussie Smollett was the victim of a racist and homophobic attack—his attackers shouting “MAGA country!” as they ran off. Like white terrorists have done for centuries now, they tied a rope around his neck, as if planning to lynch him, or most likely scare him. When he reported the incident to the cops, Smollett was still wearing the noose.
Just last year, the United States took a major step in acknowledging the reign of brutality brought down on black people when Montgomery, Alabama’s Equal Justice Initiative opened the first-ever museum and memorial honoring the 4,084 victims of what it terms “racist terror lynchings.”
Far from reparations, the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice represent one of the few times America has dared to grapple with its shameful history of racial terrorism.
And with the Trump administration emboldening and facilitating white supremacy, there’s little hope that much will be done to advance that cause, at least on a federal level. On the state level, New York just convicted a white supremacist as a terrorist for the first time.
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. released the following statement regarding the historic conviction:
DA Vance on this historic conviction ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/shTJbnUN86
— Cyrus Vance, Jr. (@ManhattanDA) January 23, 2019
This is 2019.
Smollett is best known for his role on Empire, playing Jamal Lyon, the talented, openly gay musician son of rapper turned producer Lucious (Terrence Howard) and the hot-tempered, but fiercely defensive Cookie (Taraji P. Henson). Jamal was a landmark character on television—a black, gay, essentially happy man who experienced love and is loved.
In one key scene, Jamal recalls Lucious throwing him in a garbage can as a kid—something that actually happened to series creator Lee Daniels. Cookie rescues him, consoles him, and reassures him that he is loved. Jamal frequently has to stand up to his father, who treats him derisively because he is gay, but he draws a line in the sand when he publicly comes out with an anthemic same-sex love song.
Like Jamal, Smollett has striven to be an outspoken advocate for the black and queer communities and has lived his life publicly, openly, and without shame. At this juncture, it seems that was the only reason he was attacked—that he had, as comedian and writer Phoebe Robinson said in a heartfelt Instagram post to Smollet, “the audacity to be young, black and gay.”
View this post on Instagram
MAGA is not just a hat. It’s a uniform and an armor. It’s how they suit up and what they wear to communicate, “I can unleash my ‘superpower’ any time I want.” What they spew isn’t just words. It’s hatred to incite violence, to break the backs and spirits of those who chose to live out loud and be free. To have the audacity to be young, black, and gay is a beautiful way of living and is a loving that bigots and racists and homophobes want to snuff out. I don’t know @jussiesmollett personally. I’ve never met him, but my heart breaks for him and his family. For it to be 2019 and still have to fear that one day a noose might be tied around your neck is horrifying. For it to be 2019 and you cannot be gay without wondering, “Will this be the day that I’m attacked” is unacceptable and deplorable. For it to be 2019 and the hideous poison that is MAGA and all it represents to be wildly unchecked from the top of the government all the way down to your average everyday street should makes us all have the biggest pits in our stomachs. Black and queer people just went to live. They just want to occupy the space on the planet that was made for them. They want to flourish and be happy and not worry and laugh about dumb shit. And until they can do that, we have failed as a country. I don’t know that we’re better than this, but gahtdamn it, we ought to be. Please comment below with black and LGBTQ+ organizations that I can donate money to and shout out on my platform, and the true activists who are on the ground that are making it their life’s work to better the world so that we can know their names and support their efforts. Love you all. #JussieSmollett
A week before the attack, Smollet received an anonymous letter in the mail with cut-out letters warning him, “You will die black faggot.” His assailants, before attacking him, reportedly asked, “Aren’t you that faggot Empire nigger?” The “MAGA country!” invective may be new, but the racism and the homophobia that it represents is woven into the very fabric of this country. MAGA is simply shorthand for white supremacy, the red hat the evolution of the white hood of the oldest terrorist group in America, the Ku Klux Klan.
Making America … Again
I read a piece yesterday that exacerbated the fury, sadness, and the weariness I already felt at the news of Smollett’s attack. It was a defense of the MAGA hat—something that, to me, has become indefensible. “The MAGA hat denotes support for [Trump], yes,” the writer argues, “but also a certain boldness and unwillingness to be bullied that isn’t merely symbolic—people occasionally get assaulted for doing nothing other than wearing the caps.”
Let’s get something all the way straight, first and foremost: there is nothing bold about wearing a MAGA hat. It’s an act of cowardice, an act of capitulation, an aligning of oneself with white supremacy out of fear and misplaced anger. This narrative of white people being bullied for daring to believe wholeheartedly in their whiteness is what leads white men, angry over the perception that their position in the world is under threat, to lash out at someone that embodies this threat. It’s far more brave to be black and gay in a country that has hated you and sought to bend your knee and break your back and deny you your very humanity than to be white in a country for whom whiteness is a religion.
“Make America Great Again!” is the new “White power!” It may be less blatant, but it is no less poisonous. And it harkens back to an America that never made reparations for slavery, then hanged over 4,000 black people—and traumatized thousands more in their families and communities—in the largest and most impactful act of homegrown terrorism this country has ever known.
Past as Prologue
It’s 2019 and we still have to deal with unchecked racial hate, but far from being intimidated or broken, I am enraged. I can only hope that Jussie Smollett has the love and support he needs to continue living his life publicly, openly, and without shame—that he remains audaciously young, black, and gay. What happened to him shouldn’t happen to anyone; that it happened to him, a famous person with means and a platform, is important to continue this discussion on a national level, but what of the black men whose lives become a footnote in the seemingly endless collection of police shootings, or the black trans women forced into victimhood by the sole merit of their existence?
It’s 2019 and we deserve better. We all need to do better and be better or what’s left of this country’s soul will shrivel up and die like the promise of 40 acres and a mule made to freed slaves by their once and future oppressors.