Notable in Smollett’s account is that he sought to come off as an especially fierce kind of victim—the victim as hero, as cool. “I fought the fuck back,” he told ABC’s Robin Roberts in an interview. Smollett has long displayed a hankering for preacher status. His Twitter stream is replete with counsel about matters of spirit, skepticism, and persistence that sounds a tad self-satisfied from someone in his 30s. His mother associated with the Black Panthers and is friends with the activist Angela Davis, and in interviews Smollett has identified proudly with the activist tradition.
The problem is that amid the complexities of 2019 as opposed to 1969, keeping the Struggle going is more abstract, less dramatic, than it once was. Angela Davis is on T-shirts; it seems less likely that, for example, the Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson will be. How do you make as stark and monumental a statement as a King or a Malcolm these days? With a touch too much thirst for glory, and a tad too little inclination for analysis, one might seek to be attacked the way they were.
In John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, a newspaperman advises, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” One take on Smollett’s story, if he turns out to have orchestrated it, will be that it was true in essence—a teachable example of the very real phenomenon of hate crimes. For a long time, the enlightened black person was to pretend that O. J. Simpson was framed by the Los Angeles Police Department, out of concern about the way the LAPD actually had treated black people for decades. For similar reasons, even today the idea that Michael Brown in Ferguson died with his hands up, although soundly refuted by all lines of evidence, retains status as almost an “alternative fact” in some quarters.
However, Smollett, in crafting his own “legend”—if that’s what happened—is less channeling Simpson and Brown than Tawana Brawley and Rachel Dolezal.
In 1987, Brawley claimed that six white men had abducted her, raped her, and left her in the woods covered with feces. They had scrawled racial epithets across her torso. That account turned out to be as fictional as it now sounds, but Brawley claimed as late as 1997 that “something happened to me,” a deftly vague statement. However, a key difference between Brawley and Smollett, pointing up the difference between 1987 and 2019, is that while Brawley lied to escape the wrath of her mother’s boyfriend after she ran away from home for four days, Smollett may have lied to look good to the public.
Read: How Americans became so sensitive to harm
Dolezal, white, spent years with a spray tan, “identifying” as black and even heading a local NAACP branch, and had fabricated episodes of racist discrimination against herself. As Bryan Cranston’s dentist character on Seinfeld adopted Judaism for the jokes, Dolezal, one might say, took on blackness for the victimhood. She felt that her existence was more meaningful while she was “playing” an oppressed black person than living as a white person despite all the attendant privileges. Few news events more perfectly illustrated that in our moment, a claim of victimhood from a black person is a form of power. Only in an America much further past the old days than many like to admit could a white person eagerly seek to be a put-upon black person out of a sense that it looked “cool.” A Dolezal would have been unimaginable until roughly the late 1990s.