by Kofi Opam
Today I’m too angry to know what to do with myself, so I take a very hot shower and listen to loud music over the speaker: a song by La Dispute that I have a complicated relationship with for reasons that I hope will become clear. Five minutes of buildup before the frontman, a white boy named Jordan Dreyer, screams, twice, in quick succession, like he’s trying to shred his vocal cords: Will I still get into heaven if I kill myself? Will I still get into heaven if I kill myself?
I think a lot of folks misinterpret this song, for reasons that I hope will become clear. I’ve watched videos on YouTube of the band playing this song live, and their crowds — almost all white boys like Jordan Dreyer — come alive when the first chords play. Howling, faces contorted, teeth gnashing, foaming at the mouth.
WILL I STILL GET INTO HEAVEN IF I KILL MYSELF?
WILL I EVER BE FORGIVEN ‘CAUSE I KILLED THAT KID?
The story behind this song, which is called “King Park,” is interesting. Interesting is the wrong word, but it is the first word that comes to mind. It goes like this: There is a park named after Martin Luther King in Ottawa Hills, a neighborhood in southeast Grand Rapids, Michigan.
King Park is a little postage stamp of green space, flanked by Franklin and Alexander Streets to the north and south. It can’t be larger than three square blocks. I click through the photos of King Park that accompany its Google reviews, and feel a little less angry. A small boy with cornrows clutches a lollipop, green as the new grass around him, surrounded by the stalls of what looks like some playground health fair; he’s wearing bright red United Healthcare-branded sunglasses. A girl who must be no older than eight based on the size of the clear baubles in her braids puts down some relative’s smartphone in the water fountain to smile for a quick picture. Said relative is caught in motion, brown hands flailing comically, running to scoop her up before his iPhone 7 is ruined, the Coyote to her Road Runner in her endless Looney Toons game of childhood in King Park, Grand Rapids.
The story of the song goes like this, according to the band and the papers, at least: King Park is in Ottawa Hills, and Ottawa Hills is point-blank close-range in the middle of the part of Grand Rapids that is twenty-percent Black African-American Negro Nigger, and in September 2008, a 20-year-old Black boy named Kyle Keenan drove through King Park and shot a 16-year-old Black boy named David Witherspoon in what was called a drive-by of mistaken identity. Kyle didn’t know David, didn’t mean for his bullet to hit the boy in the chest.
A few days later, Kyle called his uncle from a hotel room at an America’s Best. “He was asking the family… would he still go to heaven if he committed suicide,” Larry Keenan told the local radio station. The recording crackles over my computer speakers, and I cannot tell if it’s my own connection or if Larry is pausing. “We told him… ‘Don’t kill yourself, boy.’”
AND IF I TURN IT ON ME
IF I EVEN IT OUT
CAN I STILL GET IN OR
WILL THEY SEND ME TO HELL?
WILL I STILL GET INTO HEAVEN IF I KILL MYSELF?
Never does the song “King Park” name Kyle Keenan, or the boy David Witherspoon, or his uncle Larry. I suppose Jordan Dreyer cannot be bothered to learn their names. I wonder about Kyle, whether he wore cornrows or red sunglasses. I wonder if David, the boy who was killed, ever dropped his uncle’s phone in a fountain while running to take a photo too fast. It must have been chilly that day in September. I wonder if he was wearing a sweater.
There’s a story here: white boys in bands are angry, so they sing about dead Black boys, nameless bodies in black bags. Jordan Dreyer and La Dispute scream to crowds in sold-out ballrooms.
There’s a story here, another one: Black boys are angry, so they flip through Google reviews and see if they can find out about themselves. Black boys are angry, so they listen to white boys ask the questions they wish they could.
Do you understand? Into my headphones in an Iowa City coffee shop, I ask, “What will you sing for me, Jordan?”
Arline Geronimus is public health researcher at the University of Michigan; she first proposed the weathering hypothesis in 1992, in an issue of the journal Ethnicity & Disease. An overly simple explanation of the hypothesis is this: the health of Black people — Black women in particular — deteriorates much more quickly than others’ might, as a result of what Geronimus calls “cumulative exposure to socioeconomic disadvantage.”
Twenty-six years later, in a 2018 interview with National Public Radio, Geronimus gives her origin story, which you will repeat here in brief. As an undergraduate at Princeton University, she worked at a high school in Newark, New Jersey, for pregnant teenagers. She quickly noticed that the high school was ninety-nine percent Black. She recounts that her students were “suffering from chronic health conditions that her whiter, better-off Princeton classmates rarely experienced.”
You read the interview and it is absolutely fucking lousy with beautiful language, all of this stunning imagery and extended metaphor: “[Geronimus] meant for weathering to evoke a sense of erosion by constant stress. But also, importantly, the ways that marginalized people and their communities coped with the drumbeat of big and small stressors that marked their lives.” The emphasis is mine.
You think of yourself and your mother and grandmother and grandfather, and you think of erosion, glass turned to sand, dust so fine you don’t even realize it’s suffocating you.
My new psychiatrist has spent the last few weeks trying to prescribe away my ghosts. Two-tone capsules, cobalt tablets, sweet white strips. Lately I’ve been taking my new pills, and feeling like someone could be grabbing fistfuls of my brain and pulling it apart into chunks of meat and blood and tissue. I wring my hands, shake them out, puff out warm breaths of air, blink and blink and blink.
Yesterday, I returned to Iowa from two weeks in New York, where I spent most of the time with my mother and sister. My second day in the city, I walked into the living room smelling sweetly of gasoline and fire. Mom had a small water bottle of amber liquid she kept by the fireplace to start fires. Not lighter fluid; pure gasoline. I looked in the kitchen and saw a red gas tank sitting sentry, not less than five feet from the stove. When I went back to the living room, bent on asking what she meant to do with the gas tank, she was gone.
Mom tells me that she can’t sleep at night, that she hears crickets and they keep her up; she had an oak tree in our backyard cut down not a month ago. She is afraid to open the living room blinds, feels watched by our neighbors. Her mother died this past summer, ran out of air on her flight back from Haiti. She is a Black woman in the middle of white Queens, and I see the sea, my eyes, her smiling, the two of us, askance.
Today I’m too angry to know what to do with myself, so I wrap myself in thin blankets and watch Netflix: the second season of a show called You, which I first started last winter. Today, one of the new characters is a charming boy named Will. Will is kept in a cage for most of the episodes I watch, and at least once he mentions how badly he needs his medication. The consequences of their absence are felt acutely at the climax of one of the storylines; Will has no idea where he is and screams at the main character and at himself, refuses to touch or take anything in his heightened state. He looks like he could set the whole cage aflame. This is all very familiar to me, in a way that makes me angrier. Another mentally ill white boy: the face of disordered thinking, of delusions.
There’s a popular idea in the American imaginary, that Black folks don’t believe in mental illness. That we don’t talk about it, that we think craziness is something reserved for those who are more melanin-deficient than us. This rings true in my family, but let me tell you why I think that might be.
I live in a world of shadows. That sounds very cliché, and it is, but it is also true. Let me tell why I think that might be. Could someone show my mother to me? I search for schizophrenia, paranoia, delusions on movie databases and television aggregators: Joker, Maniac, Fight Club, Split, American Psycho, Black Swan, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Donnie Darko, The Invisible Man (the 2020 version with Elisabeth Moss), A Scanner Darkly: a parade of Noble White Men with the occasional Noble White Woman scattered atop like a garnish, a beautifully damaged Natalie Portman or Angelina Jolie.
I pick the skin all over my body, arms back legs chin cheeks forehead belly thighs ankles. I find pimples and squeeze, tear skin from my cuticles in thin brown strips, wash my blood down the drain. I’ve Googled this many times — excoriation disorder. It sounds like the breath in before a whistle. I have no formal diagnosis but it does feel satisfying.
to hear what she heard, hum with your mouth open, slightly, hold two fingers against your throat and push, harder, still, again, until
Thanks again for flying with JetBlue. We received your lost item report and have begun our search to match your item’s description to found items we have received.
Marie Denise is on JetBlue Flight 634, PAP to JFK direct. She is in Seat 25D — an aisle seat at the back of the plane, so it doesn’t recline. Her grandson checks her in for the flight the night before. “Dear Kofi Daniel,” he reads from the email, “Thanks again for booking a flight with JetBlue for your dear relative, Marie Denise. We wanted to inform you that the TSA is changing the way that they do their screening.” Eyes scan the page. No electronics larger than a cell phone, no liquids. The flight departs at 11:14 in the morning and is set to land at 3:12 in the afternoon. It does not arrive on time. The next morning, Marie Denise’s grandson thinks he receives another email from the airline: Thaaaanks aggggain for flying with JetBlue. We received your lost item report and have begggun our search to mmmatch your iiiitem’s description.
Flight 634 does not arrive on time. It circles the air above the ocean for several hours, finally alights at the Charleston International Airport in South Carolina. It is August in Charleston. The high is 97 degrees — two degrees hotter than in Port-au-Prince. The airport is 91 years old. It is across the street from the North Charleston Shopping Mall, a Taco Bell, a Wells Fargo bank, and a Little Caesars Pizza. It is flanked by two rivers: Ashley to the west and Cooper to the east. It is 45 feet above sea level. It is 12 miles from the sea.
Her grandson knows that there are three major plantation estates near the airport. Boone Hall is a 30-minute drive from the main terminal. It has been featured in eight movies, including The Notebook. He looks through the photos online. Two smaller, but still large, plantations — McLeod and Magnolia Gardens — are also popular and are also near the airport; the latter offers tours and a petting zoo. Bon Secours is the hospital in Charleston — a middle dot in a triangle of halls and gardens. It is an 11-minute drive away from the airport. The phrase “bon secours” is French for “good help.”
Bon Secours is where Marie Denise is pronounced dead.
Her grandson knows this from a phone call: she is dead and is being kept at Bon Secours.
On the phone, she circles the air above the ocean for several hours.
Mpaka pran souf. Au secours.
She gasps for air. South Carolina, so beautiful:
the palmettos like miniature palm trees.
She is 86 years old and circling the air above the sea.
I think I need a new pill organizer. The day markings (S, M, T, W…) have long wiped off and the lids no longer snap fully shut. My medications and I have a complex relationship, but don’t mistake the complexity for ingratitude. They may not make me happy but I am here, alive, free to pick and squeeze and tear another day.
My mom is nervous for me. Whenever I take my drugs at her house, she frets about the side effects. She asks me what they give me for sleep. “When they put me on Ambien, the side effects were terrible,” she tells me. The way she says they makes me wonder.
This semester I finally started working on a script. The idea has been kicking around my skull like a pinball for years; I’d already gone through a dozen one-liners and clever pithy pitches: Haitian zombies in Brooklyn. Buffy with Black people. That sort of thing.
What does it mean to cast a shadow?
I have a character whom I have no idea how to write. I’m trying to make this make sense: He is Black, and queer, and transgender, and he just wants to make friends. That’s his, like, existential goal. And I have no idea how to write him. Isn’t that something? He is a character who shares all of the same identities that I do, and I have no idea how to write him. I read screenwriting books about building people from the ground up, people with hopes and dreams that we are shown and not told. And I don’t know how to do that. Isn’t that something? I have no idea how to write someone who is just like me. He’s a boy, right? Black but cisgender. Queer or trans but white. How’s it feel to be a ghost? I swear it wasn’t meant for him. But if I turn it on me, if I even it out, will I still get in or will they send me to hell?
“He and I”
Can I still get into heaven if I kill myself?
His constant proximity to death is exhausting.
On a Tuesday night in November, Kofi Daniel has a severe allergic reaction. He is sitting on the couch in his living room in Iowa City, feeling anxious, when his face begins to itch and itch until it feels unbearable, like his cheeks and forehead and chin are on fire. Difé. He is home alone.
He fumbles for the phone, his fingers slick with sweat while he dials the number for his roommate Amelia, a white girl. She suggests he call 911. “I really don’t want to.” He walks to the bathroom to soothe his burning face. There is a moment where he looks in the mirror and slips. Falls. Sees someone so unrecognizable he almost throws up. Swollen eyes, lips, tongue, and neck, unable to take deep breaths, skin brownish-red and shiny.
“911, what’s your emergency?” 911 tells him to stay on the phone while he wheezes, asks him to count. To wait. The EMTs and fire truck arrive. Amelia and the ambulance arrive around the same time, and a white male EMT sits next to him and shines lights in his face and asks him questions: What kind of medication are you on?… Okay … Do you think this might be a panic attack? The questions turn into statements: Well, you look like a healthy young man to me. Well, you seem fine. Well, you are most likely just stressed.
Amelia interjects: No, you don’t understand! That’s not what Kofi looks like, he is having trouble breathing and he is swollen.
The EMT looks at her, and after a moment he nods a bit.
“Yes, yes, I can see it. The nose, right?”
And so, because he is lucky enough to be saved again by his proximity to whiteness (and his Big Nigger Nostrils), Kofi Daniel gets on the ambulance and rides to the hospital, where they shine bright lights in his dark wide face and make him cough on an exam table. You are fine, they tell him, you are probably fine why don’t you go wait in the waiting room. Their teeth white and happy.
So Kofi Daniel is fine and he sits in the waiting room with his white roommate Amelia and he pulls his black hoodie up tight to cover up his hideous black face and sobs and sobs and sobs.
I’m stupid crazy stupid dramatic. He thinks in circles now. Whatthefuckiswrongwithme.
And soon, because he is fine, he leaves without being seen.
I’m crazy, I’m stupid, I think. I think in circles now. I’m so dramatic. What the fuck is wrong with me.
I take a bunch of Benadryl and he falls into the shadow of my bed, still wheezing, unsure about whether I would wake up. The next day, my primary care doctor puts me on emergency corticosteroids; the Benadryl had eased some of the symptoms, but I definitely had an allergic reaction and ran a real risk of going into anaphylactic shock.
He almost smiles, almost thinks of a white woman named Arline Geronimus, almost says, “I guess it’s just the weather.”
to hear what she heard, rest one knuckle on the skin and breathe, again, again, until, I wonder, what, you waiting are for, to breathe, out, what, are you walking into street for, outside plane window for, head falling for, taping tubes for, monoxide, for, cyanosis or, Nigger nostrils, until, yes, the technicians who say, that wide nose: i understand how you might think you’re dying, but, you see are misunderstanding,
The plane is set to land at 3:12 in the afternoon, lands, early, in another city. The plane asks, “When am I?” Her grandson receives a phone call — it is August in Iowa City. The air burns. The high that day is 97 degrees. The grandson asks, “When am I?” The grandson receives an email from the airline. The plane stretches its blue wings and takes flight.
to breathe how she breathed, gurgle. or, if you want to, see how this could end, not with a bang but, to be, collected / gurgle or soft wet or, two degrees or, spill, to oxygen tank, yes, yes, or, or is this what they call, paranoia? or, asphyxia? or Black and dark, scream and so, Black and gasps and is this what they call ?
A month later, her grandson Kofi Daniel receives the last email from the airline: Thanks again for flying with JetBlue. During the past 30 days of searching, we are sorry to report that, despite our best efforts, our search for your lost item was unsuccessful and the report will now close. We are grateful for your business and we hope to welcome you onboard again, soon.
In the basement of the Bon Secours Hospital, she waits.
We are grateful for your business and we hope to welcome you onboard again, soooooooon.
The Bon Secours Hospital is in West Ashley, Charleston.
It has three stars on Yelp.
It is 12 miles from the sea.
I ask myself, what does it mean to be a shadow? At least I think so. I don’t know. Is that right? What is the opposite of a mirror? Did you see that movie that came out last year, Kofi? It was called Us. It was about a girl who had a shadow. I see myself in my mother more and more each day, and that used to cause me a lot of fear and anxiety, a pit viper twirling somewhere in my lymph nodes, a Pandora’s box at the base of my spine, rattling. I still feel that fear, but it is lessening, sometimes, I think. I am not as ashamed as I once was, to see her bright eyes shining in my sockets when I look in the mirror, or no eyes at all, just black buttons where hers and mine used to be, my grandmother’s, blank, flying above the sea, forever. I count up and down every time I take the stairs in my small house —- one, two, three, to seven on the first flight, to eight on the second. It’s a salve, I think, is the best way I could describe it. Order. In the mornings where I do not have to leave the house immediately to teach, I clean the house. I sweep, unload and load the dishwasher, wipe the countertops. I do this three mornings in a row after I return from New York, and I feel cold sad panic thinking of my mother, cleaning and cleaning but never sterile, bleached, a success. My mother’s house is a fallen-down tree, a collection of ghosts, a dream. I read Carmen Maria Machado’s new book, In the Dream House, and think of our home, the broken flower beds and the sawn-off oak tree, the painted walkway, the shuttered windows, button eyes, the flies and cockroaches, the death, and I think of my mother, cleaning and cleaning and cleaning, a full gas tank waiting by the oven to catch light and sigh our memories to ash.
What does it mean to cast a shadow?
A few months ago, the state of Wisconsin declared that racism is a public health crisis. There’s a 20-minute piece about it on Wisconsin Public Radio, but I snap off the radio, can’t tell whether to put on La Dispute or something even louder to drown out the noise inside my guts because I’m too angry to listen to something I already know.
Kofi Daniel Opam is a Black transgender writer from Queens, New York. A recent Iowa Arts Fellow, Kofi has seen their writing published in The Atlas Review and The Gallatin Review. Their work explores mythology, surrealism, and horror in the Caribbean, West Africa, and North America, and they are a second-year in the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa.
Featured photo courtesy of Alan Levine.