By Freddie Allen
NNPA Senior Washington Correspondent
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Before he was Jamal Lyon, the sensitive, talented gay son of drug dealer-turned-music mogul on the hit television show, “Empire,” Jussie Smollett, was a social activist.
Smollett, 31, said that the root of his activism, his ability to speak openly and honestly about sex was always his mother, because she set the tone for who he was, what he was and what he believed in.
“My voice has always been linked to this fight before anybody new anything about my voice,” said Smollett, adding that you don’t need a television show or a hit record to make a change in the world your community.
Smollett continued: “The work doesn’t start with ‘Empire.’ My mother didn’t give us a choice of whether or not we wanted to be activists or not, that was built into us.”
His father, Joel, emigrated from Russia and Poland. His mother, Janet, is mixture of African, Native American and European. In addition to Jussie and Jurnee, an actress, the couple had four other kids: Jake, Jocqui, Jojo and Jazz
All six Smollett children appeared together in the ABC TV program, “On Our Own,” which was broadcast 1994-1995. The Smollett siblings played a family reared by the oldest brother after both parents had died in a car accident.
Jurnee starred in “The Great Debaters,” “Eve’s Bayou,” and appeared in episodes of the Cosby show.
Jussie, a native of Santa Rosa, Calif., currently serves on the board of the Black AIDS Institute (BAI), a Los Angeles-based think tank focused solely on ending the AIDS epidemic in the Black community.
Smollett recently sat on a panel on HIV/AIDS and the role of the Black family in fighting the epidemic at the Essence Festival in New Orleans. Smollett was joined by Otis Harris, a 28-year-old gay man living with HIV from Dallas; Harris’ mother, LaTongia Harris-Amadee, and Leo Moore, a clinical scholar with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation at the University of California at Los Angeles. Award-winning journalist Soledad O’Brien moderated the panel.
According to national surveys by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 66 percent of Black Americans say HIV rarely, if ever, comes in family discussions– including 30 percent who have never talked about HIV with anyone in their family.
According to the Black AIDS Institute, more than 60 percent of parents of Black children said that “they are ‘very concerned’ that their son or daughter will get HIV,” compared to about 20 percent of White parents.
“Families in general play such an important part in the fight against HIV and AIDS because families,” said Smollett. “It’s not just Black families but the family as a whole – the village. It takes that village to get rid of the stigma to get rid of the shame so that people feel like they have someone to talk to.”
In 2013, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), launched a national campaign that identified stigma and complacency as two critical challenges to ending the AIDS epidemic in the United States.
Declining awareness and concern about HIV among the American public may lead some to underestimate the continued need or action to fight the epidemic, a fact sheet on the campaign said.
“Young people who have grown up without seeing the epidemic’s devastating effects may be particularly vulnerable,” the fact sheet said. “For example, a study among young black gay and bisexual men in 20 major cities found that among those who thought they were at low risk of infection, nearly one in five was, in fact, already infected with HIV.”
The fact sheet noted that in 2011 the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that not only are people reporting that they’re reading and seeing information about HIV in the U.S. 30 percent less than they were in 2004, but less people also named HIV, “as the nation’s most urgent health problem.”
According to the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW), HIV-related stigma can result in the loss of income, loss of marriage and childbearing options and the loss of hope and feelings of worthlessness.
“We live in a nation that we’re about shaming,” said Smollett. “Cultural shaming, religion shaming, sexuality shaming and gender shaming, there’s so much shame. It’s time for people to step up and say, ‘enough is enough.’”
Smollett added: “We have to remember that Black lives matter. We also have to remember that we can not pick and choose when Black lives matter.”
Phill Wilson, the president and CEO of BAI, agreed.
“If we’re serious about the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, we need to talk about all the things that are important for us to live longer healthier lives,” he said,
And that dialogue must include decreasing the number of new HIV infections, getting people into treatment that need it and ending the AIDS epidemic, said Wilson.
Smollett said that even though Black people have been oppressed since we were enslaved and shipped to this continent, we still helped build this nation and this world.
“We can not sit idly by while our children, our fathers and mothers, our sisters and our brothers, our nieces and nephews, and our uncles and our aunts are dying and are being left to feel ashamed for who they are,” said Smollett.
Smollett said that ending the AIDS epidemic is not about gender or sexuality or race it’s about taking responsibility for you and yours, which is the human race.
“Everybody wants somebody to oppress, let’s not be that way,” said Smollett. “Lets spread love. Let’s make sure that everybody knows that they have someplace to go in life, so that they don’t feel alone.”