Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound! “Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane!” It’s Superman!…” Yes, it’s Superman … strange visitor from another planet, who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men!
–Opening intro for the fifties TV show “Adventures of Superman”
Because I was the child of a manic depressive, severe schizophrenic, the idea of secret identities was not new to me. I understood why Superman needed Clark Kent, the mild-mannered reporter. There was more to life than bouncing bullets, ironic twists, and dastardly deeds. Superman fought for all the right platitudes, “truth, justice, and the American way.” He was defending “A Leave It To Beaver” existence, a Norman Rockwell painting. As a child, I added my own subtext. Superman fought for his own illusion, trading the cape for the tie of Clark Kent. He longed for a day without expense; he tussled for the right to be normal. It was a struggle my mother dealt with—each and every day of her life.
In my family, we all had our secret identities. Obviously, we didn’t travel around in tights. At times, I patrolled the house in electric blue Superman Underoos. I leapt over the couch in a single bound like leaping over very tall buildings. No, we wore disguises to hide my mother’s illness. Clark Kent wore glasses and slicked back his hair and in my family—we accentuated the positive. I was the dimpled child who received good grades; my father was the husband who toiled at two jobs and my mother—she was the soft spoken, oriental house frau. For a time, we had our enemies fooled.
I. Secret Origin.
Sa-joe-nah. Si-john-nee. Sa-gi-na. These are only a few of the ways my name has been slaughtered since childhood. Even my own family shortened or simplified the name to make it user-friendly. For all intents and purposes, I became John or Johnna or John-boy (I’m sure we weren’t the only blacks who watched ‘The Waltons’). For the most part, I grew up entirely with the black side of my family—all of whom called me a variation of John.
Later, when I found out that “John Doe” was the designated name for an unidentified corpse, I was morbidly pleased. Johns were the universal everyman and Johns did not stand out—unless picking up prostitutes. If anything, they harmonized like backup singers, motioning from side to side but never taking the lead. I was an awkward, round, and freckled Black Asian living in suburban Ohio. It was the seventies, I saw blacks, I saw whites, but the only Asian I saw was the “geisha-like” housekeeper on “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father.” Her name was Mrs. Livingston. In accordance, I was more than happy to be plain old John.
What I mean to say is that I didn’t want people to notice the slant of my “chinky” eyes, the frizz of my half-breed hair, or the smoker’s teeth complexion of my skin. As if to solidify my genetic pox, my entire head was covered in freckles. I wanted the paleness of my classmates with their straight “Barbie” hair. I longed for the skin of my father’s family which I recognized as a parallel dimension of normal: brown like tree bark, brown like the earth, and of course, brown like Martin Luther King Jr. I wanted a head of tiny black curls which I could brush into suave waves like my cousins. I wanted to be either/or, anything but this stuck-in-the-middle mix of kimchi and fried chicken.
Unfortunately, there was no escaping Sjohnna. It’s pronounced “Suh-john-na.” Sjohnna. The beginning part is often mistaken for “Sir” and I am frequently called “Sir John” like “Sir Elton” or “Sir Paul.” In my case, I was knighted by an auspicious nurse in Ohio and not the sovereign Queen of England. When I finally stopped hiding from my name, I figured I was never going to be Daniel or LaMar, I asked my father how they arrived at such a delicate epithet. I say delicate because I am always being taken for female. The “na” at the end of Sjohn-na can lead to gender reassignment in most cases.
Colorful catalogs from Lane Bryant or Dress Barn are always busting through the mail slot for Ms. McCray. Local businesses shamelessly campaign to lure Ms. McCray with unlimited toppings. Hello Pizza Hut, Domino’s, and Cici’s! Sometimes, the Lucky Golden Buddha Moon Palace will offer Ms. McCray a free single can of Coke and an eggroll to go with her single lady meal. Some days, bad news will come for Ms. McCray. Dear Ms. McCray, The New York Atlantic Hipster Review regrets to inform you that your work is not suitable for our publication at this time—or ever. Dear Ms. McCray, are you having trouble making ends meet? Try Dancing Sun Casino Payday Loans/Quick Cash today—all you need is a job. We mean a real job, not that adjunct job, and a bank account! I don’t know what’s more disturbing: that I’m a woman or apparently that I’m a single, overweight woman with a writing problem and negligible credit.
I was in college when I asked my father about my name. No one really cared in high school but it caught people’s attention at Ohio University. Girls would tilt their head and gush, “That’s so pretty.” I would blush and smooth out the wrinkles of my imaginary floral-printed sundress. Guys would swing and miss and force me to repeat it a couple of times. If they saw me across campus the next day, they would almost always get it wrong again. I don’t know whether this was Midwestern “dopiness” or alpha male amnesia but I focused on my happy place, which included the sundress, and slowly repeated my name. Again.
When I asked about Sjohnna, my father sat back in his chair. Because my mother left us when I was nine, I never asked questions. Some children keep memories of their mother alive through constant chit chat and imagination but I did not. I let my father keep all the information on Chong Suk McCray along with a brown paper bag of her hair. The first time he sobbed was in my grandmother’s basement with a bottle of gin and this crumpled bag of hair. He said, “You don’t know how much I loved that woman.” He was right; I had no idea.
His eyes sparkled like Tanqueray as he ran his hand along his thigh. He tilted his gigantic head to the side. He had a small afro which he kept neatly shaped and combed. It was parted on the left-hand side. He held onto the arms of his chair like an ill-fitting throne, waiting for the right moment to speak. He had taken his cues from his father, a Korean War vet, who also marched with his memories in his silence.
“Me and two white guys, a couple buddies of mine, had planned on driving up to Woodstock— to sell some dope.” He looked hard to make sure I was paying attention. “We had a lot of shit to get rid of.”
I was sitting on the sofa and I didn’t know what to do with my face or my eyes. Since my mother had left, he had always been straightforward because it was just the two of us. I was a homely nerd with a sense of morality built from comic books, he never had to worry about sex or drugs. Every now and then, he’d say, “John, I know some not-so-nice people; whatever you do—don’t turn out like me.” This was going to be one of those moments.
“But then I got drafted. That really fucked me up. But you know what, getting drafted was the best thing that ever happened to me. I got to see some shit that I would have never seen and go places you can’t even imagine. I would have never done that without the army.” He drifted on about how he could go to the VA Hospital—for the rest of his life—for free. I nodded for him to get on with his story.
“Dad, come on!”
“To tell you the truth,” he said, “I was a mama’s boy. I loved your grandmother more than anything in the world. One of the last things she said before I left was, ‘Don’t you bring home one of those women!’”
My grandmother had found an old photo of a Korean whore my grandfather kept hidden at the bottom of his sock drawer. A woman he’d met during wartime. When she knew her son was being shipped to Korea, granny feared more for his loins than his actual body. Who would cook for him? Who would he talk to? Who would help her when he was gone?
“Boy,” my father growled. “Your mother was a fine-ass woman. I mean a good woman.” He stretched out the word good to give it more emphasis. “She took care of me over there. I wouldn’t have made it without her. She used to bring me these gigantic apples. They were the best apples I had ever eaten. But you know how they fertilize their food over there?”
To his obvious delight, I shook my head no.
“With shit” he said triumphantly. “Human shit.”
I did a double take and he nodded reassuringly. Back then, I didn’t question my father’s stories but let them unfold the way he wanted them to. I filled in gaps with my imagination which only added to his mythology. It wasn’t until years later that I learned my father and my grandfather shared the same passion for a particular type of woman.
“I know you don’t think about your mother too often because of all the crazy shit she did, but it wasn’t always like that. Screamin’ and hollerin.’ She wasn’t always crazy. We had some good times. She used to take me to the movies off base. These Korean movies. I never knew what the fuck was going on. I’d be so tired anyway that I’d just fall asleep and wake up at the end. After two or three times at the movies, I realized I was waking up to the same fucking movie. The same woman kept dying. I was starting to understand the story and each time this actress died, your mother would break down and cry.
“So what does that have to do with me?” I asked.
He seem puzzled for a minute before he smiled. I still hadn’t figured it out. My father loved those moments when he could teach me something I didn’t know. His lips creased in a little Rumpelstiltskin-like grin. “You’re named after the actress.”
“The one who died?”
“Yeah. She was your mother’s favorite.” He shifted on his throne. I thought about this for a minute. The origin of my name seemed fitting somehow: a bit of cinema, a staged death. It was a slightly exotic story with two misfits at its center. The actress portion provided a reprieve for all of those who assumed I wore Lane Bryant to cover up my man cave-sized vagina. If I’m honest, there’s a hint of satisfaction in knowing that my mother wept for this name. That she felt anything—regardless of being provoked by a film—is astonishing.
At some point, she held the pieces of my name in her mouth, Sjohnna, and was moved to tears.
Sjohnna McCray is a University of Virginia and Columbia graduate. He has taught in Arizona, Chicago, New York and Georgia. McCray’s essays have been published in the Watershed Review, Storm Cellar and Carolina Quarterly. In 2015, he received the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets. He lives in Athens, Georgia where he cooks, avoids the gym, and snuggles with his husband and cat.