Friday, February 10, 2017

Review: Welcome to Braggsville

Welcome to Braggsville
From Welcome to Braggsville, by T. Geronimo Johnson:
Open quote 

It's not that the Davenports had never had black people around their house before, or even a Chinese guy once, but never a Malaysian who looked Chinese to some and Indian to others, fancied himself black at times, and wanted to be the next Lenny Bruce Lee; a preppy black football player who sounded like the president and read Plato in Latin; and a white woman who occasionally claimed to be Native American. They were like an overconstructed novel, each representative of some cul-de-sac of idiolect and stereotype, missing only a handicapped person — No! At Berkeley we say handi-capable person — and a Jew and a Hispanic, and an Asian not of the subcontinent, Louis always said."

Those four diverse characters are the self-identified "Four Little Indians." They meet at UC-Berkeley and travel together to rural Georgia on school break. An "incident" there changes all their lives.

After the jump, my review.

Grade: B+

This novel is multi-faceted. It's a coming-of-age novel. It's a satire on West coast academia. It's a searching look at the unreconstructed South. And it's a self-analysis of what it means to be torn between your roots and your broader ambitions in life.

The main character's name, D'aron, shows the tug-of-war going on in his heart. He's a white college student from rural Georgia with a stereotypical black name. What??? It turns out his father named him after his best friend in the Gulf War (a black soldier from Detroit) who saved his life, twice. Throughout the novel, D'aron alternates between explaining the spelling as "Irish" and avoiding the issue by spelling his name "Daron."

D'aron enrolls in UC-Berkeley to get as far away from rural Georgia, geographically and culturally, as possible. There he meets the diverse group of friends that end up calling themselves the "Four Little Indians." When D'aron brings his friends home on school break, he asks his parents to hide the two statues flanking the driveway, what his father called the Charleys, the black lawn jockeys, and what D'aron considered deeply embarrassing. D'aron can't bridge the gap between his roots in rural Georgia and the new world he's found in California. He says, "Bezerkely and Braggsville were two worlds on opposite sides of the sun."

The first third of the novel sets the stage for the "Four Little Indians" visit to Braggsville with the intent to stage what they called a "performative intervention" at a Civil War re-enactment — a not-completely thought-through plan to dress up in slave costumes and stage a mock lynching in front of mock Confederate soldiers. The "intervention" does not go as planned, changing all of their lives forever. Much of the rest of the novel deals with D'aron's attempt to understand...his hometown friends and neighbors, his parents, his college friends, himself. I can't say he ever does fully come to terms with all of the issues in this tangled story, but his attempts should have a lot to say to the rest of us, whether young or old; white, black or brown; rural southern conservative or urban coastal elite.

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