Jussie Smollett Can't Destroy Black History Month

*The Breakdown is The North Star's daily analysis of an essential news story designed to provide historical context, go beyond the popular headlines, and offer a glimpse of where this story may be going next.

Key Facts: Empire actor Jussie Smollett is at the center of a hate crime and publicity controversy after widespread reports that the 36-year-old may have fabricated the story of a hate crime committed against him. On February 18, CNN reported that Smollett, an openly gay Black man, may have staged the attack in Chicago, leading to widespread response from politicians, journalists, and even Cardi B, who said Smollett “f—ed up” Black History Month.

Historical Context: Like the soap operatic Empire, Smollett’s story has twists. On January 28, the actor said he was attacked on the freezing streets of Chicago after two white men wearing ski masks put a noose around his neck, poured bleach on him, and allegedly yelled “This is MAGA country,” among other slurs. Smollett was hospitalized in “good condition” and later told Essence, “My body is strong but my soul is stronger.” The Cut reported that a racist, homophobic letter containing white powder appeared on Empire’s set on January 22 – leading some to believe the attack was premeditated. On February 13, Chicago Police arrested two suspects, Nigerian brothers Olabinjo Osundairo and Abimbola Osundairo, who also have connections to Empire. They were later released, and CBS Chicago reported that they were paid $3,500 to attack Smollett.

Smollett was cut from Empire episodes within days. On February 20, his attorneys received a hail Mary trial postponement, minutes before the Osundairos were set to testify before a Cook County grand jury. Much of the community that supported Smollett in the days after the attack has turned critical.

Beneath the Surface: Assuming Smollett’s attack was staged, it’s both offensive to victims of hate-based violence and a pathetic publicity stunt. “Smollett doesn’t need the money he would get from a court settlement,” John McWhorter wrote in The Atlantic, questioning why the actor would go through such pains to stage a horrific event. “The reason might be that he has come of age in an era when nothing he could have done or said would have made him look more interesting than being attacked on the basis of his color and sexual orientation.”

That said, extrapolating Smollett’s self-inflicted victimhood and giving it the sway to influence the narrative of Black History Month is more damaging. Cardi isn’t wrong when she criticized Smollett on Instagram, noting “Then you give f—ing Donald Trump immunity to laugh at n— and s—, to make motherf— look bad.” But giving one Black person power to control, and destroy, the century-long progress of Black History Month is a much worse look.

What’s Next: Smollett hasn’t spoken to investigators since the self-staging allegations have surfaced. The actor could be charged with obstruction and lying to authorities, which are typically misdemeanors in Illinois, NBC legal analyst Ari Melber said. Smollett should be held to account, but we shouldn't allow this situation to put a damper on Black History Month.

About the Author

Jessica Lipsky is the content editor for The North Star. Her work as an editor and reporter has appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Vice, Billboard, Remezcla, Timeline and LA Weekly, among others. She regularly pens authoritative features on subculture, broke several music industry-focused #MeToo stories and also writes on the business of music.