by Jordan Anthony Elijah Barnes
Jamal sat in a white t-shirt and blue jeans, his small brown hands shaking, listening to the radio. His apartment embodied clutter. CDs, cassette tapes, clothes, comic books, it seemed as if everything he owned was strewn across the floor. He slumped his broad shoulders, sighed and traced his cornrows with his fingers. The radio played some Stevie Wonder song — Jamal knew it, but couldn’t place it. He looked at the table in front of him and on it were a telling smattering of his possessions: pens, a few small bags of marijuana, some Gil Scott Heron tapes, and a picture of a younger version of his Granny, her long, relaxed, black hair set neatly into curls. She wore wide-brimmed glasses, and her smile stretched all the way across her face. Her skin was the color of pralines, and they failed to come close to being as sweet as she. Jamal lit an already rolled joint and thought of his childhood.
He was a precocious child of the 70s — Soul Train was the soundtrack to his world. Curious, he often got in trouble for asking too many questions. He usually ended up with a switch tearing into his hide for asking his favorite query: ‘Why?’ He was always a short kid, a darker brother, too.
Jamal spent much of his youth in the church. Granny would pray over he and his siblings for what seemed like an eternity everyday. Bible verses were tattooed into his brain. On Sundays, Granny would take Jamal and his siblings to church with her. The inside of their church was ornate. The carpets were red and the pews were wooden, lined with red cushions. On Sundays the church swelled with noise and praise. He and his siblings would watch in awe as the congregation boomed their praise to their Lord. When they felt the spirit, their bodies lurched forwards and backwards, their muscles tightened, and out of their mouths lept yelps and screams.
“Thank You, Jesus!”
“Oh, precious Lord, we thank You!”
Some of the Lord’s flock fainted, and out the saints rushed, covering the Lord’s supplicant with blankets and olive oil and prayer. Jamal was always confused by the fainting. When he asked Granny about why she did that, why she yelled and shook, she — somewhat cryptically — replied with a few simple words: “You’ll understand, by and by.”
Jamal wouldn’t ever understand. As he grew up, the holy church existed in stark contrast with the life his father led. The laws that the church followed and taught were all but shattered by his father, Ernest. He was a taller, fairer skinned Black man, with skin so fair he could have passed. His lighter complexion gave him advantages in his world, the access afforded to him was greater than that which would be given to his darker son. Ernest was a bully. He was a longshoreman, who, unsatisfied with his life, came home to drink and terrorize his family. At night, Jamal would wrap himself in a thick blanket as his father wreaked havoc upon the house, breaking both glass and bones in equal measure.
There was another boy in Sunday school, named Stephen. By the time they were eleven years old, Jamal and Stephen were inseparable. They spent hours together, playing foursquare in the street and Atari games in the arcade. They traipsed their neighborhood and competitively climbed trees and ran endless races in endless cul de sacs. Stephen was taller than Jamal, and stronger, too. Their friendly rivalry extended into church as well — their apathy for their sacred religion being their own personal Olympics. They considered their lack of fealty to the Lord a sport, the number of times they could say His name in vain their score. They spent their evenings after church lambasting the structure, the hypocrisy, and the prostrating in the only ways they knew how at their tender age: listening to “worldly” music records, like James Brown, Earth, Wind, and Fire, and Teddy Pendergrass.
When Jamal was thirteen years old, Granny gave him a journal. He’d write interesting things from the comics he read, he’d write about things he saw, and he’d write about his feelings. One night, Ernest, stumbling through the house in drunken self-loathing, found the notebook and read it. In the notebook, Jamal had written that he wanted to marry Stephen. He drew hearts with Stephen’s name in them throughout the notebook. When Jamal got home from jamming to The O’Jays with Stephen, his Father was sitting at their kitchen table, Jamal’s notebook open in front of him. As soon as he saw his son, Ernest charged at him, slamming Jamal on the ground with one hand, shoving the book in his face with the other.
He began to yell incoherently, drunkenly. He bashed the notebook — the lecherous, sinful notebook — against his son’s face and body, becoming more enraged with each strike. Jamal could do nothing but cover his face and beg for mercy. He lie, his body on the ground, in supplication to this man, his father, who now lorded over his body like a tyrant. His father was exacting the Lord’s justice; he employed the rod with reckless abandon, teaching his son that his sin — his carnal, salacious sin — is paramount to the loss of his body. In his intoxicated rage, Ernest ferociously continued to beat Jamal, exclaiming with righteous indignation “Ain’t no boy of mine gon’ be no faggot!”
The news of Jamal’s sin seemed to spread like wildfire, the world around him seemed to burn with disappointment and fear. He and Stephen were forbidden from seeing each other. Stephen dissolved into that mass of church-goers and strangers, leaving Jamal alone in a sea of confusion. The saints revamped their already industrious efforts to save his fledgling soul. They — Granny, the pastor, and other elders in the church — stood around him, swaying, hollering, and beseeching the Lord to forgive Jamal. Granny, who never moved very quickly, was spry in her prayer. She sprang to her feet, shouting, her knees buckling, her body prostrated in humility. Granny’s deep voice boomed over the others, tears in her eyes, begging the Lord to save her precious grandson from sin. The cacophony of prayer quaked the church; it shook the walls and the floors and the pews. The saints tried to move the Earth itself in an attempt to save this boy from himself. Jamal sat in the middle of this circle of twisted divine intervention and waited. He waited for the shouting and the praying and the beseeching to end. He waited for the olive oil to stop dripping down his forehead, for the backs of those saints to straighten. He waited for his father’s wrath to subside, for the belt to take its last swing. He waited for silence.
He continued to smoke his joint. He thought of Granny, now passed, her specter now eternally bound to the ether, and began to weep. He cried out, but not in exaltation — in anger. He fell to his knees and pounded his fists into his carpet, cursing The Almighty.
“Jordan is a comic, a singer who loves the way words sound. ‘all i gotta do is stay Black and die'”
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