By Nana Efua Mumford
"Empire," Fox's drama about a family-run hip-hop label, has always been defined by its bizarre plot twists. The show has featured a ghost who haunts her living husband, a child whose stepfather is also his grandfather and an amnesia-inducing car bomb. But the latest real-world twist involving a member of its cast is the strangest - and saddest - yet.
On January 29, Jussie Smollett, who plays Jamal Lyon, the openly gay heir to the show's hip-hop record label throne, was allegedly attacked in a baroque hate crime. He told police that his attackers immediately identified him as a gay actor from "Empire," then proceeded to yell racial and homophobic slurs, shout "this is MAGA country," pour an unknown chemical on him and place a noose around his neck. The story has since become even more complicated: The Chicago police questioned two Nigerian brothers, one of whom said that he played a small part on "Empire," about their possible role in the attack. As of this writing, the department is seeking to interview Smollett again; he has hired a criminal defense attorney.
But even before these latest details emerged, when I first heard of the attack on Smollett, I had to pause. On "Empire," Jamal Lyon came out as gay in front of his homophobic, abusive father; took a bullet for that same father and overcame an addiction to pain pills. Was I reading last week's episode recap, or did this actually happen in my hometown of Chicago? Almost immediately, I had a terrible feeling that I was victim blaming, or worse, that I am so brainwashed that I no longer can hear cries of hurt and outrage from my own black community. It was a horrifying feeling that I am still trying to work through almost three weeks later.
I wanted to believe Smollett. I really did. I know that there is a deep, dark racist history in Chicago and, if proved true, this would be just one more point on the list. I wanted to believe him with every fiber of my being, most of all because the consequences if he were lying were almost too awful to contemplate.
And yet I struggled with Smollett's story.
I tried telling myself that it is possible that two assailants were walking around downtown Chicago at 2am in January in 10-degree weather, waiting for a black victim. In addition to that, they were stalking around with a bottle of bleach and a rope. And ultimately, the prey they selected was an actor on a show that they must've been somewhat familiar with, because they were able to not only name the show but also know that he played a gay character. Never mind the fact that he was likely bundled up because again: Chicago, January, 10 degrees. Also, after he fought to get away, he left the rope around his neck until he got to the hospital.
Perhaps I don't want to believe him because this is a stark and scary reminder of the poor condition of the country (and city) that I call home. Maybe this story makes the boogeyman in my nightmares all too real, too close and too calculating. Maybe it's because while I consider myself an ally to the LGBTQ community, I still don't understand and appreciate the daily harassment that they endure. Or maybe even though I am a black woman, I still don't know what it's like to be a black man in America.
Over the past few hours, there have been speculations that have confirmed my worst fears. Unnamed "police sources" have claimed that Smollett orchestrated the entire thing.
If Smollett's story is found to be untrue, it will cause irreparable damage to the communities most affected. Smollett would be the first example sceptics cite when they say we should be dubious of victims who step forward to share their experiences of racist hate crimes or sexual violence. The incident would be touted as proof that there is a leftist conspiracy to cast Trump supporters as violent, murderous racists. It would be the very embodiment of "fake news."
And that reason, more than any other, is why I need this story to be true, despite its ugliness and despite what it would say about the danger of the world I live in. The damage done would be too deep and long-lasting. This could be one tragedy that the Lyon family - and more importantly, the ordinary people who loved the show and invested in Smollett and his character - could never overcome.
Nana Efua Mumford is the executive assistant to The Washington Post's editorial board. She lives in Virginia with her family but will always call Chicago home.