By Shivaji Sengupta
On February 20, Americans woke up to the news that Jussie Smollett, the star performer in the Fox TV serial, Empire,” was arrested on charges of staging his own mugging by two black men late at night on January 29, at 2:00 a.m. on a Chicago street. Smollettt said two men approached him around 2:00 a.m., shouted “racial and homophobic slurs,” poured an “unknown chemical substance” on him and wrapped a noose around his neck. Last fortnight, Chicago police revealed that the attack never took place. Mr. Smollett had paid his “attackers” $3,500. One week before the allegedly staged event, Mr. Smollett had received a death threat because of being gay. The word “MAGA” (President Donald Trump’s Campaign slogan, Make America Great Again) was included with the threat.
Once the news spread, Americans weighed in, including Senator and Presidential candidate for 2020 Kamala Harris, decrying the horrific attack. Americans, she said, have not emancipated themselves from the dark ages of lynching and torturing African Americans; nor have they conquered biases about sexual orientation. Mr. Smollett himself made several social appeals about his victimization. Then came the police’s story: the attack never happened.
Who is Jussie Smollett, and why did he do such a thing? The fact that he was already an established TV personality, an actor and a singer, holding on very successfully to one of the major roles in “Empire,” makes it all the more puzzling that he would do such a thing. Some have said that Mr. Smollett did it because he was unhappy about the salary he was getting from “Empire.” Mr. Smollett himself, after strenuously denying that he had staged it, later said that it was done with political motivation; to show Americans what can happen in the United States in the age of Trump.
The fact remains, however, that admirers of Jussie Smollett are deeply disappointed; and his detractors now have the opportunity to say, “So what else is new? We told you that rumors of baiting blacks in America are grossly exaggerated.”
Both are unfortunate. Those of us who are sympathetic to Smollett, are scratching our heads about why. The Chicago Police Superintendent’s concern that after this it would become all the more difficult for “real victims” of racial prejudice and sexual orientation to get serious attention. Facebook, Twitter, and many other well-known social media organs are agog discussing the Jussie Smollett event. People have expressed their disgust, condemning the actor. Some have called for boycotting “Empire.” Others fear that the character of Jamal may be eliminated. Interestingly, Terence Howard, who plays the role of the father, the Patriarch, has had this to say to one severe critic of Smollett who called for an end to his role in the serial.: “Sorry you feel that way but…the Jussie I know could never even conceive of something so unconscious and ugly. His innocence or judgment is not for any of us to decide. Stay in your lane. My lane is empathy and love and compassion for someone I’ve called my son for five years. It’s God’s job to judge and it’s ours to love and hope, especially for those that we claim to have loved.”
This moving comment brings us to an interesting irony typical in plays and movies.
Jamal, acted by Smollett, happens to be the most balanced, dispassionate and level-headed character of the three brothers who, by their father’s decree, have to vie for succeeding to their father’s position of C.E.O. of “Empire.” Jamal, the middle son, is not the father’s favorite; in fact, the patriarch grudgingly accepts Jamal to take over the record company. There is even a flashback in which when Jamal was about 6 years old, the father literally dumps him in a garbage bin because of the son’s gay tendencies. The father is acted by Terence Howard, the one who wrote such feelingly about Jussie Smollett’s crime, punishable as a felony. Then there is Jussie Smollett himself, whose staging of the mugging gives the impression of a severely unbalanced human being, acting the role of superlatively balanced person, both cognitively and effectively.
Culturally speaking, what sense can we make from this Jussie Smollett conundrum?
The answer may lie in the viewpoints of two of the most well-known intellectuals of our era, Cornell West and bell hooks (she spells her name with small letters). The two, both African Americans, teaching at Harvard, Princeton (West) and City College (hooks) talk about the enormously culturally complex dilemma that African American celebrities have to negotiate. On one hand, there is the appearance of power that a black celebrity has. As a multi-million dollar athlete, or a gigantic show business personality they seem as capable of achieving anything. On the other hand, some of them – Michael Jackson, Whiney Houston, O.J. Simpson come to mind – they have proven to be so very fragile. While Cornell West has called for compassion among black men for each other, hooks has written about how black leaders who publically stand for all the right values and morals, often fail to live up to them in their own lives. Thus, Jussie Smollett’s public role as a super star actor gets cruelly undercut by something he himself does as a private, even secretive individual. hooks calls for continuous monitoring of our psyche and urges us to never believe in our own private myths about ourselves. By exposing all kinds of absolute truths, hooks argues that we humans also have “a yearning,” that unites those of us minorities who have felt victimized and wronged. But even as we overcome our weaknesses, she warns us to be aware of the limits of our own power.
As highly successful professionals in the U.S., we Indians often have a tendency to gloat at our own collective culture and power, to look down upon other minorities; to deride the Jussie Smolletts as upstarts.
But the culture of human polity is such that we should all heed what bell hooks has said.
(Shivaji Sengupta is Professor of English and Vice President of Academic Affairs at Boricua College, N.Y.C. He is a journalist, and writes for several Indian newspapers in the United States. He has lived in this country as student, as a professional and as a hippie for the past fifty years. He has a Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University in New York.)