For years, Uncle Charles had rhapsodized about our Snell family roots in tiny Oconee, Georgia, stop #14 on the Central of Georgia Railroad between Macon and Savannah. Oconee (population 280) is the heart of Georgia and site of the Civil War Battle of Ball’s Ferry at the Oconee River Bridge. When I decided I wanted to explore my family history, Uncle Charles contacted Mrs. Rebecca Smith Hodges, the town historian, to serve as tour guide.
Now there’s not a lot to see in Oconee. In 1921 a cyclone took out much of the town, but long before then the family manse, Snell House, a boardinghouse for drummers, had burned to the ground, replaced today by a nursing home. Not so different, if you think about it. Anyhow, we were a car stuffed full of kinfolk—Uncle Charles, his nurse Audrey, my cousin Jimmy driving, me, and, of course, Mrs. Hodges, who engaged Uncle Charles in a talking contest. (Never bet against my family when it comes to talking.)
Being from Atlanta, I was amazed at how friendly everybody was. We were constantly waved over to the side of the road to say hello, be introduced, and tell about our mission. Only later did I realize that the townsfolk were keeping a weather eye on this foreign vehicle from Macon to be sure we had not kidnapped their favorite daughter.
I mention this trip because it reminds me of my recent literary visit to Braggsville, Georgia, The City that Love Built, population 712, also the Heart of Georgia, its history celebrated annually during Patriot Days, when the entire town takes part in a Civil War re-enactment. You can read all about it in the novel Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson, just published this February.
Welcome to Braggsville is the uproariously funny and devastating story of four Berkeley students (that’s Cali located in Berzerkeley), who, shocked to learn that anyone—anyone!—would re-enact the Civil War, arrive for Patriot Days to put in practice what they’ve learned in class: a performative intervention, a “theatre of the real,” a “form of 4-D art”—a mock whipping and lynching of a slave, played not by a black person, but by a Malaysian kid in blackface and a bad wig, and the Mastah, played by a blonde girl from Iowa, intended to awaken the morally dormant town. Everything that can go wrong does go wrong, and the only lessons learned are learned by the students themselves.
One of the functions of college is to give young people a chance to try out different roles to find their true selves, and the “4 Little Indians,” as the friends term themselves, are hot on this quest. The central character, D’aron Little May Davenport, a native son, hates his own name, in particular the apostrophe (its origins a mystery), claiming it’s Irish or it’s a typo. His many nicknames underscore the central theme, that he doesn’t know who he is: Daring, Derring, DD, Doo-doo, Faggot (“when he hugged John Meer in the third grade”), Dim Ding-Dong (“when he undressed in the wrong dressing room”), Faggot again “more times than he cared to remember,” and Brainiac “when he aced the PSATs for his region.” Even the novelist, T. Geronimo Johnson (Nimo), says he pronounces his protagonist’s name differently at different places in the book—sometimes Darren, sometimes Da-RON. D’aron “shits on his own shoes” when he invites his three best friends—his only friends—home for Spring Break to excoriate the town. Why he does this is one of the many puzzles he needs to figure out.
The second little Indian is Candice Chelsea, whose claim of being one-eighth Native American apparently gives her license to speak for all oppressed minorities and to stick it in the eye of all perceived bigots by instigating performative interventions. You may call her Candy, Can-Can, Candyland, Candy-Pandy, or Candy Bear, and her three male friends have a “blonde spot” as they follow her in lockstep.
The third little Indian might indeed pass for Indian. No, the other kind. He’s Malaysian-American, often mistaken for Chinese, from across the SF Bay. Louis Chang, D’aron’s roommate, dreams of being the first Kung-Fu comedian. Call him Lenny Bruce Lee or Loose Chang.
Last (aren’t they always last? sitting in the back of the bus?), there’s Charles Roger Cole, an enormous young black man (size 15 shoes), who grew up in Chicago’s projects and attended a pricey elite prep school. Sometimes he whistles Vivaldi so that strangers won’t find him threatening. He has no nicknames, save Charlie, but a secret identity that he’s already well aware off. Do not confuse Charlie with the numerous blackface Charleys that stand expectantly, their right arms extended, by the mailbox of every home in Braggsville.
Just as Oconee kept close watch on me and my family of interlopers, Braggsville immediately distrusts the 4 Little Indians. Upon arrival, their first stop is Lou Davis’s Cash-n-Carry Bait Shop and Copy Center, where, cell phones furiously flashing, they Instagram, Tweet, and Facebook Lou’s collection of bumper stickers for sale: “I Don’t Like His White Half Either,” “Keep Honking—I’m Reloading,” “Guns Don’t Kill People, Dangerous Minorities Do,” and more. These are signs that D’aron has never paid any attention to or questioned. The next morning at Waffle House, where they are perplexed by the menu and huddled over the table trying to decide what they can eat, the friends are viewed as scheming to hatch a plot, which, of course, they are, though at the time they are more concerned with scrambled and over easy. Clearly, this town deserves a Zombie Dick Slap, the hashtag Louis uses to send out his discoveries to the world. And soon enough, the world arrives on Braggsville’s doorstep, the KKK on one side, the Nubians on the other, and the Rainbow Coalition of gay folk in the middle, but, as with the Ministry of Truth in 1984, the Charleys have vanished, and the offensive bumper stickers replaced with “Jesus Loves You.”
I used to tell my students, when they scratched their heads in befuddlement over poetry: If you get everything on a first reading, then there wasn’t much to get. Welcome to Braggsville is just the kind of book I love—compelling enough to propel me through an initial reading and complex enough to reward a second, pencil in hand. I know you’d like to experience some of these eureka moments for yourself, so I’ll limit my observations to a few of the many things I liked. Obviously, the novel’s humor and satire. Its characterization of D’aron as a callow youth is so spot on it made me wince. Also its take on tragedy, which, D’aron learns, arises when a person faces two different claims of equal magnitude, a situation he doubts he’ll ever encounter. He has not yet reached the awareness Huckleberry Finn attained when he knew he’d have to go to Hell to save Jim. And then there’s irony, the sophisticate’s favorite literary device. To Louis, everything is ironic. But, D’aron asks, is it irony if no one gets the joke?
Is it irony if the hero has to go to Hell to save himself?
As Johnson said at a recent book signing, “I can ask questions, but not always give answers.”
This is one of the questions T. Geronimo Johnson posed: “How do we learn to think of people who are different from ourselves?”