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Jussie Smollett and the Legacy of Ida B. Wells

 

 

 

On a cold Chicago day in January 1900, journalist and activist Ida B. Wells delivered a speech titled “Lynch Law in America.”  First published in The Arena — a liberal, Boston-based publication — Wells’ speech decried the American tradition of grotesque violence against the Black body through lynching.

 

On Tuesday, we were reminded of the significance, and the urgency of her words. That night, actor Jussie Smollett a proud gay, Black man was attacked by two white supremacists in ski masks and MAGA hats.  They beat Mr. Smollett, poured bleach on him while screaming anti-gay slurs at him. They tied a noose around the dear brother’s neck while shouting the ‘N’ word and claiming Chicago as “MAGA COUNTRY”.

 

The significance of each aspect of the attack cannot be overstated: the subjugation of Black sexuality, anti-Blackness, and white supremacy are as present and acceptable as they were 119 years ago when Wells gave her now-famous anti-lynching speech.  

 

The practice of lynching was the most dramatized form of physical subjugation to white supremacy in a culture and country chock-full of legal and extralegal practices to uphold the power of whites and whiteness. In a chorus of famed public intellectuals like Booker T. Washington, Anna Julia Cooper, Frederick Douglass, and W.E.B. Dubois, Wells emerged as the most recognized leader of the international anti-lynching campaign. The campaign called lynching what it was: a crime; a crime that had been overlooked by a government not yet willing or prepared to consider Black people as human beings and full citizens.

 

In her own words:

 

“Our country’s national crime is lynching.  It is not the creature of the hour, the sudden outburst of uncontrolled fury, or the unspeakable brutality of an insane mob. It represents the cool, calculating deliberation of intelligent people who openly avow that there is an ‘unwritten law’ that justifies them in putting human beings to death….without trial by jury….and without right of appeal.”

 

Wells’ writings on lynching were by far the most unflinching rhetorical chastisement of white southerners for their deep-seated fear of the agency, capacity and sexuality of Black men.  Moreover, Wells was unabashed in her critique of white men and what appeared to her as their inability to satiate the sexual urges and needs of white women.

 

What is often noted about Wells’ prose is her analysis on the process of lynching as not only physical brutality, but often a sex-crime where Black men were stripped naked and castrated, while Black women often had their breasts cut off or other sexual organs dismembered.

 

Ahead of her time, Wells clearly identified the hyper-sexuality and toxic masculinity of white supremacy.  She understood that white supremacy thrives on degrading and dehumanizing Black sexuality; they are the main arteries of this viscous disease of hate. It cannot exist without maligning the sexual integrity of Black women and men. Homophobia is a major facet of white supremacy and compliments the depraved nature of racial hatred.

 

We live in dangerous times. The level of violence against Black and brown bodies that is being waged by lovers of white supremacy is unprecedented since the Civil Rights era.  The level of violence against LGBTQ bodies that is being waged by lovers of white white supremacy is unprecedented since the Gay power revolution and the later the codification of hate crimes laws.  

 

The Trump administration is not the first administration to stoke the flames of racial division or the first to use racially coded language to describe Blacks and other people of color as society’s grifters and moochers. This administration, however, is the most recent to so openly cosign violence against all non-white people, the LGBTQ community, anyone and everyone else that falls within those intersections.  

 

The term Make America Great Again is a not-so-subtle nod to the Jim Crow era when violence against Black women and men was the order of the day and the head of state was mostly silent on the suffering of citizens of color.  Making America Great Again is the celebration of European methods of subjugation and extermination of people of color, LGBTQ people, non-Christians and the foreign-born. It is a celebration of all things white, violent and hate-filled.  

 

When the President of the United States invoked this expression he knowingly stroked the ever-burning embers of anti-Blackness, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia and immigrant hatred. This expression has given license to the descendants of the white marauders of the Jim Crow era to conjure the hatred of their forefathers and unleash it upon the generations of Black and brown people who have survived and thrived in a nation predisposed to reveling in our erasure.  

 

What will be required to cut off the many heads of white supremacy will be a fierce commitment to working at the intersections of race, gender and sexuality to call out white supremacy wherever it exists; to stand unabashedly against a government that supports violence against us, and push back hard against an administration that has stayed silent when called on to bring their supporters to heel.

 

What happened to Jussie Smollett is unconscionable. And proves once again, that ending violence against Black bodies must be lead by fearless, feminist Black women and men who live in the intersection of race, gender and sexuality — who are unafraid to speak truth to power, unafraid to organize and to act.

 

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