jussie smollett and the fantasy of normalcy
January 30, 2019
If there’s one type of service that tragedy performs, it is the bringing of things into perspective. Yesterday, the public collectively discovered that actor Jussie Smollett was attacked in Chicago by white supremacists. And as details surfaced, there was a penetrable feeling of horror and doom that came across my body and mind. It was selfish. Though I do not know Jussie Smollett, and only know the quality of his character based on the people we have in common, that was enough for me to decide to love him. The doom was less about how close I felt to him, than how close the entire event felt.
My engagement with death and risk is queer. Because I live in the world as a visible queer Black person — the way I dress and move is a cue for many people; I’ve failed the cis-hetero societal codes — this makes me a target to be brutalized by those so moved by fear, hatred, and, most potently, shame borne out of witnessing Black queerness in public. I know that for many people I’m a friend, lover, family member, or co-worker. But for many unwilling to engage me as a full human being, I’m a symbol. I’m a symbol of the hatred and shame they feel around someone they read as a cis Black man failing the ideas around patriarchy; and for some, the only way to alleviate or eradicate this all consuming feeling of shame is through violence. Often, this violence ends in death.
This risk does not scare me because living my life editing my gender expression, or letting the pressure of surveillance intimidate me, is its own type of social death. So, I — or we, because there are countless people just like me — act queer in an ordinary, anti-Black world, and often the fantasy wins. People may look, take pictures, yell things, but the fantasy can still live inside of that (especially if you are equipped with headphones). For me, it is once you are touched that the fantasy fails — the fantasy I knew was never real to begin with, but which I needed to locate my confidence and sense of wonderment about the next moment. I can’t engage that the next moment can just as well be tragic as joyful, because that does not serve the mission of living life. That serves the mission of living in fear, and if that is what I am living in, I’m already a sentient, fabulous graveyard.
Yet news about the brutalization of any Black person — especially queer or trans — reminds me this is just a fantasy, and the reality is that, often, my livelihood is a conversation with somebody else’s hatred. My decision to live is never my own; it’s always being negotiated with forces that are interested in brutalizing and erasing me. The comfort of God and ancestors helps; but I’d be foolish to not recognize that if there is a God and smiling ancestors, they’ve also watched many of my Black queer siblings be beaten and killed. This is my/our routine familiarity with death that must be ignored to some degree, to get on with life.
However, when tragedies strike, when white supremacists soak a Black man with bleach and place a noose around his neck, as Jussie Smollett reported to the Chicago police, you can’t get on with life. You are stopped by tragedy. Nothing speeds up life like joy — and nothing slows life down like tragedy. And in that slowness, we reflect. And in that same quietude and reflection, we remind ourselves that we are not safe, and any safety we have is actually just a clinging to the hope that, once again, humanity and a fear of criminal repercussions will have us survive to see another day.
In these moments, I don’t just feel closer to strangers like Jussie Smollett, as another Black gay man, or as another human whose fantasy of safety has been disillusioned because they left their home when the sun was down. I also feel closer to the greater global struggle. I find a sense of solace in the idea that these moments of fantasy are not new to me, and exist most intensely for folks struggling around the world.
During the tragedies that hit me more personally and take away that fantasy of normalcy, I wonder about the fantasies children in Palestine cling to in order to ignore their own reality. Just to get through a moment. I become empathetic towards the fantasies that Black trans women may cling to from minute to minute, to be relieved of the deafening paranoia that comes with hyper-visibility without protection.
I think about the fantasies that my mother had to cling to: that her baby is safe and should go to school, that God will protect her child, that destiny will be stronger than a culture of hatred or those who worship at the altar of that culture. I’d imagine she was fantasizing like this before I was born, but these hopes and dreams around my safety only intensified once I was in her womb, and especially once she saw that I had an affinity for glitter, for pink, and for freedom. And this illustrates the great Black responsibility in the American project: to be the moral compass even as we’re being oppressed and tortured — not because we want to be, but because we must.
If there is something significant to collect from a tragic hate crime, it is that the fantasy we must eliminate is the illusion of separation; the idea that we aren’t a community, that we are alone, that the world we exist in is only close and intimate when it is violent. Yet, this is a fantasy too. The struggle is always happening and there is always a community of people, that have everything and nothing in common with you, people may or may not know what it is to be you, but know too well what it’s like to struggle like you. These are the fantastic realities that tragedies such as what happened to Jussie Smollett resurrect, while mourning the fact that we inherited a world we must struggle against to know peace and equity.
Artwork by Kendrick Day IG: @kendrickday
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