Jussie Smollett’s name has been all over the news since he reported that a homophobic and racist attack was committed against him in Chicago in January. Although Smollett was later charged with 16 felony accounts on March 8 for allegedly lying about the attack, his family stayed by his side, asserting his innocence.
After Jussie Smollett’s charges were dropped earlier this week, his family released a public statement, saying “Our son and brother is an innocent man whose name and character has been unjustly smeared. Jussie is a son, a brother, a partner, a champion for human rights, and a genuine soul who would never be capable of what he was falsely accused of.”
Here’s what you need to know about Jussie’s mother, Janet Smollett:
1. She Is a Mother of 6 & Prioritized Building a Close Family
In addition to Jussie, Janet has 5 other children, all with J names that coordinate with her and her late husband, Joel: Jurnee, Jake, Jazz, Jocqui, and Jojo. Jojo is the oldest and Jocqui is the youngest; Jussie falls in the middle of the pack as the third oldest Smollett sibling. Jurnee Smollett-Bell is an actress best known for her TV roles in True Blood, Parenthood, and Underground. According to the New York Times, Jazz is a part of Jussie and Jurnee’s production company (though her Instagram bio labels her a “Mom + Food/Lifestyle Author, Blogger, & Personality), Jake is a chef, Jocqui works at a tech firm and JoJo works at a non-profit.
Together, Jazz, Jake, Jurnee, and Jussie published a cookbook in 2018 (entitled The Family Table: Recipes and Moments From a Nomadic Life) in honor of the food-centric traditions their mother made sure her family upheld in spite of the fact that their family moved thirteen times across the US. The cookbook’s description reflects on Janet’s efforts to keep her family connected through shared meals:
“No matter where they lived, two things remained constant: their incredible family feasts and the long, wooden kitchen table where they shared food and lived their lives. Each time they arrived in a new home, their mother would transform planks of hard wood into a smooth, varnished butcher block table in a beloved ritual that took three days. That hand-crafted table would become the heart of the Smollett clan, where the most important and cherished events and accomplishments, no matter how large or small, were honored, and where holidays were celebrated… With a mother from New Orleans and a Jewish father from New York who met and married in California, the Smollett kids were exposed to diverse culinary heritages and grew up open to all the deliciousness the world had to offer.”
2. Janet Was Jussie & Jurnee’s Acting Coach
In an interview that Jussie and Jurnee did with the New York Times in 2016, they opened up about how their mother encouraged creativity in their household, remembering how “everyone would have to get up and sing” for birthdays and Mother’s Days. It comes as no surprise, then, that their comfortability performing alongside one another led to all six children being cast together in the sitcom On Our Own, which aired on ABC for one season. They also revealed that they consider their mother to be their “only acting coach,” in part because of the classic films she exposed them to as they grew up.
According to Billboard, Jussie revealed that Janet remains invested in his acting career as a fan of Empire, saying “She calls me every single Wednesday and I know that we have to stay on the phone at least for 30 minutes to an hour of just hearing her break down what Cookie did, what the brothers did, which song was her favorite, you know? So, yeah, it’s fun. It’s good fun.”
3. She Taught Her Children to Be Activists
Jussie told the New York Times that Janet campaigned for civil rights with his father, Joel, in the Bay Area (where they met), saying “My mom was in the movement with Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, and one of her first mentors was Julian Bond. To this day, Angela Davis is one of her dearest friends. We’ve spent Mother’s Day with Angela.”
Janet’s devotion to being an activist for causes that she found important permeated into her children, who the Times says speak out for causes like HIV/AIDS prevention, ending apartheid, and the Black Lives Matter movement.
4. She Is Not Related to Kamala Harris
Since Janet’s maiden name is Harris, there was some speculation that she and Kamala Harris could be related. According to FactCheck.org, there is no credibility to the social media conspiracy theories which linked Harris to Jussie after police accused him of faking his reported hate crime; they report that Kamala Harris only has one sister, named Maya.
When the alleged crime was first reported in January, Harris referred to it as “a modern-day lynching.” When reports came out suggesting that Smollett had faked the attack, Harris wrote on Twitter that she was “sad, frustrated, and disappointed,” stressing the seriousness of making a false claim to police while doubling down that hate crimes are on the rise in America.
5. She Lost Her Husband, Joel, to Cancer in 2014
Janet and her husband Joel raised their six children together, moving their family of eight many times back and forth across the country. Joel lost his battle to cancer on January 7, 2015, at the age of 58.
After Joel passed, Jussie shared a throwback photo of him and his father on Instagram, writing “Yesterday, January 7, 2015 my family lost our king but we gained a righteous angel. You showed the deepest strength and dignity until your very last breath. You are not just a fighter… You are the CHAMP. As I try to make sense of our own grief, I smile in my heart with the words that your oldest daughter, @jazzsmollettwarwell told us all “Daddy was here to help transition us into the world… We are blessed enough to be able to help transition him out of the world.” I love and honor you. I will continue to work hard to make you proud and will always & forever be your son. You live on. Fly high Daddy.”