On the evening Oct. 23, 1989, Charles “Chuck” Stuart called 911 to report that he and his pregnant wife, Carol, were shot near Boston, Massachusetts. First responders rushed the couple to the hospital. Carol died a few hours later, but not before doctors delivered her son, Christopher, via caesarean section. (Unfortunately, he died 17 days later due to trauma and injuries that he sustained as a result of the shooting.) Meanwhile, Chuck underwent two surgeries and was hospitalized for six weeks.
Chuck gave a description the attacker, an African-American man who had “a raspy voice.” Boston police rounded up scores of Black men — and boys — in their zeal to identify the depraved perpetrator of this horrific crime. Eventually, they arrested a young man, Willie Bennett, who fit Chuck’s description. (Chuck soon identified Bennett in a police lineup.) However, shortly thereafter, events took a strange turn. Chuck’s brother, Matthew Stuart, told police that the crime had been staged. Chuck Stuart was the actual murderer! Stuart had shot his wife, apparently because he didn’t want to become a father — and wanted to collect a hefty insurance sum. Further, he may have been having an affair with a co-worker.
Given Boston’s history, it’s not surprising that racial tensions greatly increased before and after Chuck was identified as the killer. Why? The police had harassed scores of Black men of various ages, heights, weights and hues. They were criticized for their seemingly indiscriminate investigation. I was a college freshman — in Massachusetts — as these events unfolded. Naturally, the murder and its aftermath were a topic of discussion in some of my classes. One of my classmates, who was also a football teammate of mine, was from Boston. I will never forget his response to Blacks students’ complaint that the police were irresponsible in their approach to identifying potential suspects: “Well, (Stuart) did say it was a Black guy.”
Not to be outdone, five years later (almost to the day) in Union County, South Carolina, Susan Smith frantically reported that “a Black man” had carjacked her and subsequently drove off with her two young sons still inside. That was a lie. Smith had pushed her car into a lake — with her babies strapped in their car seats. Michael (3 years old) and Alex (14 months) died one of the most horrific deaths that one can imagine.
Chuck Stuart (a Northerner) and Susan Smith (a Southerner), both of whom are White, implicitly understood America’s history as it regards race. More than 4,000 African-Americans have been lynched in America, many of whom based upon outright lies (especially about “raping” White women). Stuart and Smith knew that pointing an accusatory finger at “a Black guy” would sway public sentiment and play upon ingrained stereotypes within the law enforcement community.
It is against this backdrop that actor Jussie Smollett is alleged to have fabricated a story that two White, MAGA hat-wearing assailants attacked him in a racist and homophobic episode. At this point, it appears most likely that Smollett’s account is phony. (The facts do not appear to be in his favor, but I will let the situation play out before making my final judgment.) But, for the sake of argument, let’s say that Smollett is lying. My view is that he should be subject to whatever penalties the law allows. To be frank, this is in large measure because the ramifications for all African-Americans are — sadly — on the line.
African-Americans have always understood the concept that “when and where I enter, the entire race enters with me.” Unfortunately, that is less true for positive actions than it is for negative ones. Chuck Stuart and Susan Smith will never carry the weight of their entire race on their shoulders in the same way that Jussie Smollett or O.J. Simpson or Bill Cosby or R. Kelly do. From the time that we entered these shores, “our skin has always been our sin.” The weight of imputed collective guilt hangs around our necks like an unmovable millstone, threatening to drag all of us into the abyss at any moment.
Ultimately, Smollett may be found not guilty of the crimes for which he has been formally accused. But he was given a life sentence on the day in which he was born.