You sat behind me in eighth grade algebra. When we were juniors, I watched you hurl a football 50 yards downfield, nailing a pass into the end zone at the state championship game. It was your voice I heard calling from the stands—cheering me, pushing me, never giving up on me—as I peeled myself up off the asphalt track and hobbled over the finish line to take last place in the 400 yard dash.
We were together, you and me, reconciling ourselves with the complexities of the sometimes conflicting worlds around and inside of us. Yours was the smile I saw that day I said I was going to be a writer. You believed in me even when I could not or would not in believe myself. You made me think that anything was possible or at least made me want to believe it. Sometimes that was enough.
Yours were the tears I heard, the quiet sobs in a darkened classroom at the end of freshman hall. I saw the way your father punched you that morning, burying his fist in your chest out in front of everybody. I remember when your mother wrapped her body around yours, her darting worry-worn eyes. He told everybody he was going to “make a man out of you” even if it killed him. I thought he was going to kill you.
You are still navigating some of those complexities and, if I am being honest, so am I. There are choices I cannot, should not and will not make for you.
The moment I heard the news about Jussie Smollett, star of the hit show Empire, I thought about you. And, I haven’t stopped. First there was anger. Then came the tears. I was overwhelmed by the lives we used to live, you and me.
It could have been you, I know, only your name might never have made the evening news. For some people, being black and queer is an invitation to hate. Others, who don’t quite get or just can’t stand the intersectionality of it all, think one comes before or above the other rather than residing in unison like interlocking layers of your collective humanity. For others still, it means erasure—to look over and past you as if you never existed.
Blackness is no inoculation, we know. Nor is it a ready salve for the open, pus-filled wounds of homophobia. I have always seen beauty in your multitudes. And when I could not see them in myself, you reminded me where and how to look to find it. I can only hope I did that same for you.
I heard the rumors and, by now, I know you have, too. There are those pointing to what they call “strange details” of the investigation. I have come to expect them—the naysayers who are deeply vested in the world that is, rather than the one it should be. But “sometimes, it be our own people,” I said to myself, knowing that it is almost always some of our own people questioning, picking, waging suspicion when we ought to be loving, protecting and daring somebody to turn a blind eye on your pain. As long as I live, I will never get used to the whispering ushers at the church. The loathing glares of teachers, coaches, barbers, and even cousins over for Thanksgiving. Even among us, there are no circumstances in which the responsibility for an act of terror against a black person cannot be placed on the victim—if they are believed at all.
The outcomes are dangerous and sometimes deadly.
Shared culpability, you see, changes the math. It allows for the subjugation of black bodies—be they gay, straight, queer, transgender or otherwise. If we are understood to have no value greater than the sum of our body parts, we can be raped, murdered or maimed without meaningful consequence. That made it possible for generations of people treat a public lynching like a family outing and send pretty postcards to memorialize the occasion. That makes it possible for people to look at Jussie dismissively or even with ire for reporting a vicious assault. Jussie said they tied a rope around his neck and doused him with a chemical.
I believe him.
Chicago police released still photos of potential persons of interest and they have asked for help identifying them. There is a video of Jussie entering a hotel after the incident with what appears to be a noose dangling from his neck. Jussie, in his first public appearance since the attack, re-affirmed that he has been consistent and honest about the assault “on every level,” and he continues to work with law enforcement. He then told the Los Angeles audience, that “During times of trauma, grief and pain, there is still a responsibility to lead with love.”
Jussie reminded me of you, from the boyish grin to the full embrace of his wholeness. But, it should not take knowing and loving a somebody of any given identity to want to stand up for a victim of injustice. I should give a damn even if I did not have a black son, gay and lesbian cousins, or a lifelong friend like you. I should give a damn even if Jussie was not a celebrity. Even if I never witnessed a moment of your pain, my first impulse should be to surround and protect you. People are dying and that has to mean something to me.
It means I do not get to turn my back on Jussie or you. It means I cannot have a single blind eye. I means I will walk with you no what the path leads and to carry you, if necessary, no matter how our journeys unfold.