Nerdy D’aron Davenport has never truly felt like he belonged in his tiny hometown of Braggsville, Georgia. He bides his time in high school and sets his sights on getting as far from Braggsville as he can. He’s confident in his decision to attend UC Berkeley but quickly learns that being at the top of his class in Braggsville means little in a place like “Berzerkeley;” it’s a culture shock that leaves him feeling out of his element. Fortunately, he makes friends with three other students early on: Charlie, a Black teen from inner-city Chicago; Louis, a Malaysian comedian from San Francisco; and Candice, a hippie-ish white woman from Iowa who sometimes claims to be of Native American descent. After one of their earliest PC-policing encounters at Berkeley, the four end up calling themselves the “4 Little Indians.”
Coming from a tiny town in the South, the hyper-awareness with which liberal Berkeley students treat political correctness is at times mind-boggling to D’aron. Then, in a radical history class that’s been blowing his mind all semester, he volunteers some information that freaks everyone out: his town still holds Civil War reenactments every year. Suddenly, the 4 Little Indians have a class project on their hands. They’ll stage a “performative intervention” — aka a mock lynching, complete with slave costumes — at this year’s Braggsville reenactment. In their minds, it’s just the kind of protest that people need to see the error of their ways.
Once they’re actually in Braggsville, however, things change for the two Black men in the group. D’aron’s parents don’t know what he and his friends are up to, but they ask him not to do it. It’s one thing to theorize about staging such a protest in the South; it’s another to actually be back home amongst people he’s known his whole life and do such a thing. Charlie is also having major reservations about the safety of a Black outsider doing such a thing in the South. The consequences of what happens because of that performative intervention go far beyond anyone’s wildest imagination.
Having attended a liberal arts mecca on the opposite coast (Sarah Lawrence1 ), I couldn’t help but laugh at ways Johnson pokes at Berkeley. Johnson’s book, driven by dark humor, satire, and a willingness to Go There when it comes to race, does not hold back when skewering this liberal arts type. After name-dropping Judith Butler, this is how they choose to defend themselves to small-town Georgia police officers:
It’s not our idea. We learned about performative interventions in school…Mass marches are inherently exclusive because access is restricted by geography and mobility, thereby fortifying the enduring social asymmetry they seek to undo. Instead, imagine a thousand performative interventions wherever injustice occurs, whenever it occurs. It’s social justice meets vaudeville. Or the troubadour. It’s the poetry of performance. You, me, black, white. It’s all an act, Sir. Vershawn Ashanti Young says even race is a performance, Sir.
I couldn’t help but laugh at that entire chapter (it was one of the more “non-traditional” chapters in the book). That said, sometimes the humor was too over the top, especially when Louis and his “kung-fu comedy” was at the helm. That type of over-the-top humor is just not my thing, and as it played a huge part in about half the book, getting through that was probably the most challenging aspect of the book for me. Johnson also occasionally uses a stream-of-consciousness form of writing, which may or may not work for people, but that wasn’t an issue for me.
Bottom line: no one is safe in this book. Pretty much every group you can think of gets skewered. If you like your social commentary laced with sharp sarcasm and dark humor, this is the book for you.
Welcome to Braggsville was released on February 17, 2015 by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins. This book is on tour right now, so check out what other bloggers are saying about it.
1 Don’t get me wrong. I loved Sarah Lawrence and consider it one of the best times of my life, but the echo chamber of clueless, theory-driven students trying to be liberal artsy race-conscious in a majority-white environment sometimes leads to major #FAIL. See: whites-only racism discussion group. This was an actual (short-lived) thing.