JULY 27, 2015
I INTERVIEWED T. Geronimo Johnson just after police officer Eric Casebolt’s use of excessive force against a teenage girl at a McKinney, Texas pool party and edited the transcript amid growing calls for the removal of the Confederate flag from statehouses across the South. Johnson’s novel Welcome to Braggsville, published in February, addresses the long history of racial violence in the United States, of which these recent events play a part. The novel features four friends, all first-year students at UC Berkeley, who travel to their classmate’s hometown of Braggsville, Georgia, to interrupt its annual Civil War reenactment. They plan to force the town to re-examine the history of “the War for States’ Rights” by performing a fake lynching, but something goes terribly wrong, and “real” and “reenactment” quickly become indistinguishable.
Johnson writes primarily from the vantage point of Daron Little May Davenport, a white college student from the rural south. Worlds collide twice over: when Daron arrives at the multicultural haven of Berkeley and finds himself the Other, and again when Daron brings his three classmates back to Braggsville and sees his own community through their eyes (as well as seeing his friends through the eyes of his community). In one memorable scene, the budding intellectuals attempt to explain Judith Butler’s theories on performing gender and race to a rural sheriff in no mood for funny talk. The novel allows neither self-satisfied liberalism nor the racism beneath the surface of American life to escape without being examined or refigured.
The titular town of Braggsville is named for Braxton Bragg, a historical Confederate general best known for being unsuccessful, unlikable, and unimaginative. Johnson’s novel has an interest in naming — birth names, nicknames, and the slurs used against groups. Braggsville opens with a list of names that Daron has been given by his peers and family: “DD to Nana,” “dat Wigga D who like Jay Z,” “Turd Nerd when he aced the PSATs for his region.” The list traces both a capsule biography of the novel’s protagonist as well as the biases and obsessions of the community in which he grew up. Daron’s shifting monikers signify the way language morphs, paralleling the novel’s implication that even when a racist word becomes unacceptable in public discourse, the underlying attitude will find a new way to manifest itself.
Johnson grew up in Columbia, Maryland, a wealthy and racially diverse “planned” community that opened in 1967 outside of Washington, DC. After time in Atlanta, New Orleans, Palo Alto, and Iowa, Johnson wrote Braggsville while working toward a PhD in UC Berkeley’s Education Department.
BEN BUSH: To research the novel, did you go to any Civil War reenactments?
T. GERONIMO JOHNSON: None.
“No Civil War Reenactments were injured in the writing of this novel.”
When I was living close to them, they were objects of curiosity, but I didn’t feel safe. I’m sure that I could have gone, but it didn’t seem like a party I was invited to. I understand that these reenactments serve many different purposes — acting as memorials or history lessons or even inciting dedicated citizenship — but in an environment where people are talking about how the South will rise again, reenactments feel like wishful thinking taken to a dangerous extreme. The truth is that often they are held in places where people of color already feel uncomfortable.
Like these reenactors are wondering if they could win the war this time?
But they never change the outcome! There is this fidelity to history.
In the novel, this white kid Daron returns home to rural Georgia after a couple semesters at UC Berkeley. He sees his father’s lawn jockeys as if for the first time, and he hides them before his new friends come to visit. You moved around to many different parts of the South when you were growing up and then later to the West Coast. Did you end up feeling like an outsider in all of these places?
When I moved to the West Coast, the South was a distant cousin that nobody wanted to claim — like we are not really part of the same country. In the Bay Area, I learned that I am definitely Southern. I say “please” and “thank you” far too often, and sometimes people look at me as if to say, “What the hell is wrong with this guy? You don’t have to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ every time I refill your water.”
In the South, there is this practice of acknowledging people when they enter your space. I have to admit that I like that. It sounds like a burden, but actually it isn’t. When I first moved to Atlanta from Maryland, it made me uncomfortable. “Why is everyone talking to me? Why won’t you just let me buy my groceries and shut up and let me leave?” The first time it happened I got really nervous. I was in a gas station late at night and I kept thinking, “Why is this guy still talking to me? Why are you trying to keep me in the gas station? What’s going on here?” but now I’ve come to like it.
I think I’ve come to feel protective of the South — if for no other reason than all of the other regions seem to think they’re so much better than it.
Braggsville takes an evident delight in many of its racist, classist, sexist jokes. How do you manage to turn them around, jujitsu-style, so that their thrust is against those types of oppression?
I wanted to tell people what they think they already know but to tell it at enough of a slant to force them to move beyond easy intuitions. The novel is trying to process things in a way that will pull people beyond that quick kind of pithy moral pronouncement — “Oh, I get it. Racism is bad.” “I get it. Sexism is bad.” — that often serves as a barrier to further contemplation.
It is hard to get satire right. I don’t know that I got it right, but I know that you have to think about it harder than many people do. Many people seem to think, “Oh, I’ll just be offensive, tell people I’m joking, and people will understand what I mean.” Like, “Here’s a communion wafer. It’s called ‘Offense, the Body of New Thought.’”
There are many forms of racism in the novel — both explicit and implicit. The Berkeley students throw around tongue-in-cheek racist jokes, while the members of Braggsville’s fraternal order refuse to use the N-word, even though they follow white supremacist dogma. What kinds of distinctions are you drawing between externalized racism and the complexities of institutional racism that are often harder to portray?
Identifying our inherited institutional memory when it manifests as one person doing one very bad thing is easy, but it shuts down the conversation. I wanted to avoid that oversimplification.
Inherited institutional racism allows you to say you are merely upholding tradition. That passive position — “I’m only doing what people have already done and always done” — is what allows institutional inequity to continue. The institution distributes responsibility. We become like this ant colony, where no one person stole the picnic. Everyone just took a morsel, or everyone is just carrying a morsel of the oppression. It seemed to me like the novel had to turn away from saying, “Here’s the bad guy,” to open up the space instead and say, “This is how things are working in society.”
One of the voices the novel mimics and satirizes is academic writing. You are currently in a PhD program for pedagogy. How did writing this novel while in a PhD program affect your thinking about language, both in your literature and in your teaching?
Being in that environment affected so many things — namely, the notion of irony, because in a setting that is terminally sincere, what do people do with irony? How do they interpret it? It is always offensive. How do you say, “I was joking?” It’s too late. Someone feels like you shot them. “Oh, here’s a Band-Aid. I was joking.”
The novel contains an academic paper on the rituals and traditions of Southern barbecue. It cites a range of sources including Michel de Certeau, Judith Butler, your previous novel Hold It ’Til It Hurts, as well as itself — page numbers from Welcome to Braggsville. What were you trying to describe through this use of academic citation?
It is standard in the social sciences to quote yourself from paper to paper. You cite yourself as another source, introducing knowledge based on your other knowledge. It always strikes me as a little bit odd. It is like a bifurcation of self. How you and yourself are not the same person.
I was thinking about that and what it would mean for Daron to go through everything that happens to him — a re-examination of his own origins, a botched protest that leads to a friend’s death, and the criminal investigation that follows it — while he is learning these new world views. I overlaid his experience with this strange feeling I had my first year in the pedagogy PhD program. I was reading scores and scores of papers on linguistic theory and language acquisition. Some of them would be wholly about African-American students, so suddenly there were all these papers that were about me, but not about me. It was unsettling. There is no other way to put it. It was very, very unsettling. A lot of that has to do with asymmetrical power dynamics: who investigates whom, who researches whom, and so forth. I brought that feeling of disorientation into the novel, and I gave it to Daron so that I wouldn’t have to carry it any more.
When you say the papers were about you, you mean not you Geronimo Johnson but black students in the academy?
But it sort of is me Geronimo Johnson. That’s the thing. I have lived in all of these different places, so I can’t say, “Oh this paper isn’t about me, because I only went to this great suburban school in Maryland,” because I also went to this school in New Orleans that was not so great. So when I read these academic papers, I think, “Well, that is sort of about me, but it is not what it was like when I was there.” There are all of these ostensibly objective accounts of my experiences from America that I found just disorienting and puzzling.
Because so much of public education is about redressing the inequities between mainstream education and urban education and educating language minorities, I invariably start to feel like I am one of the objects of study. So it is like I’m working in the museum, but I’m also on exhibit.
You mention being kept in the museum. In the novel, these four friends end up releasing the so-called ashes of Ishi — a historical figure, the last of the Yahi, a northern California Native American tribe — who lived out his final days in a UC Berkeley museum.
Ishi wandered out of the woods in the early third of the 20th century, and he was promptly taken into custody for his own good. For his protection, he was installed in an apartment in the San Francisco museum of anthropology, which was owned by UC Berkeley at the time. He fell under the charge of Dr. Alfred Kroeber, who was doing what he thought was best at the time. Ishi ended up dying there in captivity, rather young.
Ishi’s story is — for obvious reasons — sad and disturbing. It also was not very unusual at that time for indigenous peoples to be exhibited. I am reading Spectacle: The [Astonishing] Life of Ota Benga now. In 1906 or thereabouts, this self-styled scientist Verner loaned a Pygmy to the zoological park of New York City. The head of the zoo, Hornaday, put this Pygmy, Ota Benga, on display with an orangutan, which caused quite an uproar. Everything around these individuals — Hornaday, Kroeber, the zookeepers — is so interesting. What is the environment that creates space for such practices to happen? This culture is what the students in my novel are responding to. The students are anachronistic — in expecting that people in the past should behave as we would now — but they are right to be angry.
I have heard you talk about how the books you most admire are “undeniable” — which you explained to mean that whether or not a reader likes the book, she or he can’t deny its power. Can you describe what makes an undeniable piece of writing?
It is a physical reaction to the way something is written — which then becomes a legitimate emotional experience. Morrison has it. García Márquez has it. Borges has it. It is an ability to get ahold of the thinnest thread and follow that idea all the way through to its logical emotional conclusion. I think of it as an unwillingness to look away. So that means the work is somehow able to crystallize some undeniable truth or experience that resonates authentically with the reader. It is a refusal to avert your gaze.