Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson is not an easy book to read. No book that seeks to take an honest look at racism in America is easy to read. There is always so much hurt and pain, even when it is packaged with as much satire and humor as The Confederacy of Dunces. For me, though, the real difficulty was with the prose. I set it aside four times, struggling with the prose. I began to wonder if I was too old for the book. The prose is like jazz, scatting wildly through stream of consciousness narratives to academic goo-goo and all over the place. I lost myself in the text and lost my place time and again. And yet…
“He blew time like he had it to spare, like it grew on clocks instead of died there.”
The prose is beautiful and Johnson has so much to say that is important and worthy. So, even if it is a struggle, it is worth it. And perhaps my struggle is caused as much by my head cold that makes my eyes ache and tear as it is by the wildness of the prose. After all, sometimes the words and the ideas just take my breath away.
“The powerful intellect leashed by an impoverished vocabulary is a myth. Without a vocabulary, a language, the intellect cannot develop.”
This is the story of D’Aron or Daron Davenport of Braggsville, GA, pop. 712. He is not at home in Braggsville and escapes to Berzerkley, Oakland because, as he wrote in his application essay, “I like UC Berkeley because the only way I could get farther from home is to learn how to swim.” At Berkeley he forms a tight-knit bond with three other students, Luis Chang who hopes to be the Malaysian Lenny Bruce Lee, Candice who clings to her rumored Native American ancestry to overcome her IA whiteness, and Charlie, a black should-be athlete from Chicago. They get each other and their bonds grow ever tighter as they move through their freshman into their sophomore year.
“A relationship is like a road trip: You get bugs splattered on the windshield. By the time you see them, it’s too late, but you still keep going.”
The trouble began when D’aron’s American History X, Y, Z class takes up the subject of reenactments and he mentions that his hometown does one every year. Candice suggests they do a reenactment, too, one that would rebut the honoring our heritage mask of white supremacy. They decide to go there for Spring Break and in a “performative intervention” play the role of slaves complete with reenacting a lynching. Things go horribly wrong and a national scandal erupts complete with protesters and counter-protesters and national media camped out in front of the Davenport home.
“Micro-aggression—The plastic gun of racism; you can sneak this one through security most of the time because it is comprised of nonracist ways of being racist, nonsexist ways of being sexist, and the like. E.g., You’re not like other BLANK people, or, You speak English very well.”
Johnson skewers academia as thoroughly as anything else in the novel. Of course, that is sort of like shooting fish in a barrel, the taxonomy of academics is designed to exclude. After all, if people can easily understand what you are saying and writing, people might not think you are as smart as you think you are. Never mind that the most important gift of intellect is the ability to communicate with clarity, or as D’Aron’s mother put it, “College makes you smart. It doesn’t make other people stupid.”
He also exposes how deeply racism goes, even many good, friendly, wholesome people. It is not on the surface, instead it is deep in the bone and in every structure of his home, from the de fact segregation of black people to the Gully which is divided from Braggsville by the Holler where no one goes…except that people do go there. D’Aron discovers the iron hand of racial control in the Holler, a horrible insight into the reality of the South.
This is a good book. It has important things to say and says them with heart, humor and compassion. It is not a hopeful book, Johnson does not imagine some post-racism utopia anywhere near our horizon. It is often very funny and engaging. It is also heartbreaking. It is overfull of contemporary commercial and pop culture references, I think. In some ways, it reminds me of Invisible Man, not just in subject matter, but in the way he writes prose like a jazz musician plays music. Invisible Man is still powerful and immediate, but 50 years from now, the specificity of the references will make this book dated. That is a pity, because otherwise it has so much claim to becoming a classic.