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Jussie Smollett on America's Racial Divide

Jussie Smollett

The out gay star of Empire speaks on his show about race, Confederate monuments, and the whitewashing of U.S. history. 

It's been nearly two years since Donald Trump became president of the United States, exposing hidden ideologies most of us haven't seen in decades or refused to acknowledge, and unmasking issues that have long impacted the nation. One show is aiming to educate viewers on why these issues matter, and how we can come together and move forward toward social and economic equality.

The show, America Divided, returns to Epix for a second season beginning Friday. The five-part docuseries deals with subjects including Native American rights, coal mining, sexual harassment, Confederate monuments, and sanctuary cities. Its first episode follows former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson as she investigates the hidden epidemic of sexual harassment on Capitol Hill.

Out gay actor-activist Jussie Smollett acts as executive producer alongside Carlson and TV legend Norman Lear. Smollett anchors an episode titled "Whose History?" It brought him to Tennessee to witness the growing movement to take down Confederate monuments and commemorate the deaths of thousands of African-Americans lynched during decades of racial terror.

Smollett is best known for his BET-nominated role on Empire, which launched him to stardom and has been called trailblazing for its depiction of black male sexual fluidity. In one of the most significant scenes in "Whose History?" he interviews the head of the Sons of the Confederacy, Lee Miller, an experience he describes as especially hard to sit through.

"It's so interesting to sit across from someone and look them in the eye, talk to them about the history of your people, and they're trying to create something else that is not even true," he says of Miller's attempt at whitewashing the South's racist history. "It's blatant lies, and it's there only to serve their agenda."

In another scene, Smollett speaks with an older black man who is asked if he sees justice ever truly prevailing in his lifetime. He says no. "I think that if you look at the time that [he] grew up in, it was a different time, you know, as far as the hope of humanity," Smollett says. "I think that he's made peace. But I also think, sadly, he had to make peace."

He further explains, "For our generation and younger, we're seeing the rise of social media, we're seeing the rise of outrage and putting that toward something positive. I think that we're starting to put the two and two together of the fact that this is not actually getting worse; it's just getting more visible."

As the killings of unarmed black men and women seem to go unpunished; and the mass rapes, mass incarceration, police brutality, and racial profiling continue, Smollett sees it as a cycle continuing to feed itself because we aren't speaking enough about these issues to each other.

"Everybody wants to be like, 'Oh, well, why is it that it always has to be about this? Why can't we just enjoy our lives? That happened, it is what it is. Why can't we have our history?' For all those ignorant questions, America Divided answers them," he says. "[The show] is showing you why you can't have your quote-unquote history, why you can't have your flags flying high, why you cannot have your monument."

For Smollett, silence can be deadly. "If you think about all of the issues in our nation -- from race, gender equality, homophobia, immigration, to HIV/AIDS, the running thing has been to silence it," he explains. "Don't talk about it. If you talk about it, you're annoying. If you talk about it, you're a Debbie Downer, you're a killjoy, or you're a buzz kill. ... If these things are out in the open, then we actually have to deal with truth and reconciliation. And people don't want to do that."

"You're always going to have racists, you're always going to have homophobes, you're always going to have these idiotic people," he continues. "What you can do is you can change the power of those people; you can change the power of those beliefs so that the opposite of those thoughts and beliefs is what becomes the norm."

Silence has kept much of our history one-sided. In the lynching episode, Smollett uncovers truths seldom seen or heard, including that when a man was lynched, up to 5,000 people could be present to treat it like a fair or carnival. He also points out there were numerous black women who were lynched as well -- challenging the idea that women were mainly raped, while black men were lynched. Knowing these details, Smollett argues, is crucial.

"Without telling the truth and reconciling what actually happened, we'll never all be free," he says. "Those white southerners that want to keep up those monuments, they are not mentally free. They have never been physically shackled, but guess what? Their ancestors did the shackling. Mentally, they are shackled."

As executive producer, Smollett says his mission in America Divided is to show that most people are inherently good, but still he says we've become a "desensitized nation."

"I really do think that as a nation, we think too highly of ourselves," he says. "I think that with the progress we've made, it is wonderful. This is a great country and we could be even greater. However, what we're failing to realize was that Obama was the anomaly. Donald Trump represents a lot of our country! That's fact. This is the truth that people don't want to accept. He represents a large mental instability and mental disorder of our country. We are a mentally ill nation. Look at what we were built upon, this place we call home, think about what this country was built on. It was built on stealing, murder, and thievery -- stealing, murder, and the termination of an entire people."

He continues, "We need to be trying to change instead of saying, 'Oh, it's a great place, we just have to do XYZ.' No. We have to make it good from the ground up. Something has to be dismantled and rebuilt, point-blank period. And the only way it's going to happen is if the people that want to love and the people that believe in equality and peace talk louder than the people that want hate."

Season 2 of America Divided premieres Friday at 9 p.m. Eastern on Epix (check local listings) with Carlson's episode, "Washington's War on Women." Smollett's episode is scheduled to air May 25.

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