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Issue 006 Fall/Winter 2023 Essays

Transness As Metaphor: On ‘Kokomo City’

We, as Black trans women, know too much, especially considering that we are like no other living being.

By Fatima Jamal

October 10, 2023

Liyah Mitchell in Kokomo City (2023), dir. D. Smith, all images courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

And I want them to hear me. 

I want them to be able to hear me! 

And for the girls that can’t speak,

I wanna be the girl that speaks for them. 

—Rasheeda Williams (aka Koko Da Doll, Hollywood Koko)

What exactly happens to a dead or dying language?

It must be translated. One must diligently attend to it by performing what scholar Christina Sharpe calls “wake work,” a theoretic framework that asks how we consider, remember, and care for the dead. That is a recitation, providing breath where it has been taken. In her 1993 Nobel Lecture, Toni Morrison shares that a wise woman was “convinced that when language dies, out of carelessness, disuse, indifference and absence of esteem . . . we are all accountable for its demise.”  

How is it that we stand firm, audacious, and steadfast in pursuit of a self reimagined, a self otherwise distinct from the trauma(s) of the wound—from waters ocean deep to waters betwixt the thigh of the mother? How can we make ourselves from the ashes of the eternal flame of captivity? How is it that we escape the catastrophic violence of gender-assigned-at-birth—an impending death—only to live towards another death, one social, psychological, and theological? How is it that refusal becomes euphoria through speaking love, beauty-making, and prayer? How is it that the already subjugated body-mind attempts the subjugation of another, gesturing towards freedom? How is it that I might arrive at this page split in two as narrator and witness? 

Koko Da Doll in Kokomo City

My first attempt at an answer begins with transness through a lens ideologically, perhaps epistemologically (after Thomas Allen Harris). That is to say, the self as an idea made flesh, the self as a way of knowing, the self as a body of knowledge. I investigate this through the award-winning film Kokomo City (2023), a stunning directorial debut by artist D. Smith. From beginning to end, Kokomo City does language. I consider language as the way we enunciate and express the matter of our being. As Morrison declares, “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” She arrives here through the tale of a Black American woman who is blind and said to be a very wise member of her community. A formerly enslaved person, the woman is visited by children who attempt to play a trick on her by testing the limits of her knowledge. They ask her if a bird in their hands is alive or dead. Morrison uses the bird as a metaphor for language and the woman as a writer who sees “language partly as a system, partly as a living thing over which one has control, but mostly as agency.” Let us consider Black trans women as the bird and me as the writer. 

Once upon a time, four Black girls created themselves through blood and magic in the city of Kokomo. Their names are Daniella, Koko Da Doll, Liyah, and Dominique. I learned their stories through a practice of looking: “They hold nothing back while breaking down the walls of their profession.” They are transgender and sex workers navigating Black publics¹ and private scenarios in New York City and Atlanta. They begin speaking from the privacy of their homes and later move outside. In each of their voices, I hear and read soliloquies and radical poetics, that of a sermon delivered before a crowd of people thirsty to hear from heaven—not quite the heaven-up-above but the heaven-here-and-now-among-the-sacred-Black-trans-woman. They are convinced that they have critical visions to offer to this dying world, and we ought to listen. 

Liyah Mitchell in Kokomo City

We are not just girls who die powerless, without breath, without a voice, without commitment, without resistance, and without a gaze all our own.

It is Liyah our eyes encounter first. She sits on her bed, sharing the story of two guns. She sets the tone for a narrative uncovering the thrill and danger of desire through the question “You still want to do that?” She’d just finished fighting a man, “a piece of trade,” over a gun during a hookup interrupted by the threat of danger. On the one hand, Liyah becomes afraid for her life and decides to move to take his before he can take hers; on the other, he is afraid of being “extorted” and found out. He carries a gun out of this fear, willing to kill a girl after engaging sexually with her to avoid surrendering to any possibility of loss—be it of his family, social life, or ego. I want to read Liyah’s decision, her refusal, as an interruption to the narrative of the girl who dies. She wanted to construct a grammar not always available to the dead or dying, a grammar that brings across the truth-of-the-living translation. We are not just girls who die powerless, without breath, without a voice, without commitment, without resistance, and without a gaze all our own. 

Daniella enters the screen next, through the looking glass, shaving her face with commentary on the mirror she is using. “I guess it’s a good thing to see toothpaste on the mirror,” she begins, adding, “At least you know the girl’s got a fresh mouth.” In her self-criticism, she is already ahead of the viewer, further articulating how we all live under the crushing male gaze. She appears a very thoughtful race woman who conveys, through her Black trans lived experience, what the world has been for Black trans women in the light and the dark. 

In the light, she offers a metaphor of a broken-down car making a lot of noise to spell out the audacity of “broken-down” trans women. Daniella verbalizes, “Maybe I’m lying to myself here, but it’s kind of funny, that moment with the car going by broken down but making a sound like it’s a Mustang or a Porsche. That’s what we give. We are good at being broken down, but before people see us, we have a great way of making ourselves stand out, having that loud roar. . . . It’s like we have to be the bitch in the room with the 28 inches, the biggest boobs, the biggest body.” 

Daniella Carter in Kokomo City

Meanwhile, in the dark, Daniella asks, “Are you really at peace with yourself knowing that the best of you is only seen when you are a survivalist?” In her words I hear a figurative capacity—this marks my second attempt at answering the aforementioned questions of refusal, subjugation, etc. 

We, as Black trans women, know too much, especially considering that we are like no other living being. It’s as if the world wants us to carry the burden of slavery and colonialism, as if the project of gender hasn’t always been tricky. Transness only reveals, or rather exposes, the truth, perhaps the inside meaning, of a being. In reproducing the body, Black trans women understand transness as a racial category. We know and claim our agency within the radical Black tradition of writing and rewriting the self for ideological, theological, and philosophical reasons. This project of finding a voice, a narrative strategy, underscores transness as a “Negro Way of Saying.” And this is why some want us dead. Because, in their minds, a dying language cannot tell the truth or be critical. But they don’t know that to be absent from the body is to be one with the Holy Ghost. A ghost that lingers until it finds its way into the homes and hearts of people willing to translate matters of the spirit. What does it mean to be treated like a dying language when you are an architect of the living language? When you are a translation living, a living translation? It is to keep the secret, the tradition, and to pass it on to those who understand and will archive this. It is also to find a loophole of retreat for the sorrow, heartbreak, pain, and isolation this paradoxical world engenders.

Knowing this, I turn to Koko, a bird whose death we are all accountable for. I can’t wrap my head around how someone could take away a girl who so loved the world that she was willing to break her body into pieces for consumption, so that she and her family might have life more abundantly. The first words she utters on-screen are, “The only reason I started sex work was because my mom, my sister, and I was homeless.” Because there is a dominance that governs how we might constitute a life, we are left daily to consider the precarious nature of how we labor. There is oppressive language all around us, yet we insist on love. Yet we find a way to make meaning of the women we are, so that others might know what it is to be us. I believe this was the measure of Koko’s life and performance in the film. She left us language, desire, and yearning that is felt in the way hairs rise on the skin in chills. She was clear about the ways men feast upon and exploit the kind of language she produces. “But trade’ll also kill you too, so you have to be careful,” she warns, marking an eerie, ghostly presence. She goes on to say that she doesn’t have a heart for men or the people who have discarded her, but she did have a heart for survival. What happens to language when the body has been ruptured by the gun? It transcends. 

Dominique Silver in Kokomo City

In Kokomo City, Dominique posits, “Violence doesn’t happen before the orgasm. It happens after.” She argues that “men only act out because their masculinity is threatened.” And I wonder how small and frail a masculinity, or choreographed a language, if it can only be read through violence and destruction. It cannot be heard through the courage, vulnerability, and grace of Black trans women soldiering the battlefield of unending opposition. The problem is that this devastating language is the one we are routinely taught, while transness begets a new language. How do we forge a path forward knowing this? By the film’s end, the image of Dominique’s unconcealed body might suggest an answer as it bares all, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body!”

Let us consider Black trans women as the bird and me as the writer. No! I do not trust this precious bird in the hands of this world. I only trust the language it brings across, breaking the silence of death. A dead or dying language sings the blues. It laments for all that has been lost. What craft of care will we endeavor to tend to it? It must be heard!

Kokomo City is now streaming on various platforms.


1. I consider “Black publics” (after Jafari Sinclaire Allen, “Re-Reading Brother to Brother: Crucial Palimpsest?”) to be institutions and social networks like “the Black community, the Black press, the Black church, Black academicians, the Black literati, and the Black left,” etc… (after Joseph Beam, “Brother to Brother: Words from the Heart,” In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology).