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Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Welcome to Braggsville

The notion of a post-racial America, and how incorrect that notion is, has fueled a lot of writing. It certainly is at the heart of T. Geronimo Johnson's novel Welcome to Braggsville, which sees a collision of culture when students travel from Berkeley to a small Georgia town to a Civil War re-enactment so they can re-enact a lynching. Bad things happen.

With an unarmed black man killed almost every day and social media acting like a sewer hole to allow the bile of racism to run free (when Prince died many posted, "Just another n*gger dead) or attacking President Obama's daughters, anyone with a working brain knows the U.S., where we said over two-hundred years ago that "all men are created equal," is full of hypocrites. We also know that there are people, not just those in the South, who fly the Confederate flag proudly (here in Las Vegas a person flies theirs, a very large one, on a tall flagpole).

So Welcome to Braggsville didn't really tell me anything I didn't know already. The opening of the book is comic, as we learn about D'aron Davenport, a native son of Braggsville, a racist town in Georgia, and his expatriation to Berkeley, where he becomes part of a foursome of friends--Louis, a Malaysian comedian wanna-be; Charles, a black kid from Chicago; and Candice, a girl from Iowa whom they all seem to be in love with. D'aron (he's white, despite the apostrophe, which he later loses) tells them about the Civil War re-enactment. As a class project, they decide to visit and re-enact another part of Civil War history, the lynching.

The book turns quickly when a tragedy occurs (or perhaps just a death--D'aron doesn't believe it fits the literary definition of tragedy). This happens fairly early in the book, and then Johnson spins his wheels for a hundred or so pages before we get to the climax, in which a rock is lifted to show the worms and beetles underneath.

I give this book three stars out of five for sporadically excellent writing, such as this: "D’aron thought it beautiful, never mind the nag champa, never mind the crusty hippies and gutter punks in greasy jackets stiff as shells lined up on Telegraph Ave hawking tie-dye and patchouli and palming for change. On clear days, a pageantry of wind and water under sun, the bay a sea of gently wriggling silver ribbons, and the Golden Gate hovering in the distance like a mystical portal." But you'll notice that his writing is like jazz--it doesn't follow a lot of rules, especially of punctuation and spelling. At times Johnson's style gets away from him, and it just seems like noodling.

There are lines that made me laugh out loud, such as: "Louis beamed like he’d found a buttered Olsen twin in his bed" or pointed out truths about rural Southern white America: "Then there were his older female cousins—the stripper, the trucker, and the elementary school teacher—referred to as no-count because they’d never married" or his humorous asides, such as "Freud—Nineteenth-century cocaine enthusiast."

But too often I found myself reading something and having no idea what was going on, as Johnson's transitions were almost non-apparent and he seemed to telling a private joke. This book needed a stronger edit, for clarity and coherence.

I do agree with the central premise, though--we are still a racist country, a country that is full of people who lament the loss of the South in the Civil War, and who think that blacks had it good in slavery. One of Johnson's most trenchant comments is: "States’ rights is not a convincing argument. If we say the Civil War was not about slavery, next we will say that slavery was not about race. Even if we get generous and say it wasn’t about race—at first—what else could it become about? How else could you live with that cruelty? If we deny that, then we’ll say that it was actually a beneficent institution, an early model for the welfare state."

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