Because it’s a tragicomic collegiate novel about racism (hey! I wrote one of those too!), I’ve been looking forward to reading Welcome to Braggsville for a while. And, praise be to the local library, I finally got my chance! Thank you, library. Thank you, T. Geronimo Johnson, for caring about these issues enough to write your book.
One thing that felt strange to me as I was reading, though, was the stark contrast between the collegians’ perception of racism in the Bay Area versus in Georgia. And, yes, I realize that irony is a central theme of the book, so it’s important for the protagonists to be naive and oblivious …
LONG-ASS PARENTHETIC ASIDE STARTS HERE: (which is a major source of the book’s humor. But not my preferred style, I must admit. It’s obviously a valid style of comedy — satirizing the buffoonery of others, in this case over-earnest students who perceive of themselves as liberal without sufficiently understanding the issues enough to make their points correctly — but it’s just not my thing.
Like, have you seen the movie Napoleon Dynamite? I’ve watched it twice. The first time I watched it on my own. I thought it was quite humorous and had a blast. The dude was a loser but able to transcend his circumscribed existence through imagination and dreams; I was smiling often watching him carve out happiness from within a bleak situation. Because I was that same type of loser. I guess the current author picture I have up makes me look rather dissimilar from the protagonist of that film, but, look, here’s another, this one from my freshman year of college, from when my best friend convinced me to join his dance troupe to perform at the South Asian Student’s Association annual gala. That pale-skinned scrawnmonster at the left edge is me.
But then the second time I watched Napoleon Dynamite was when it was shown at the student union of my university. That time, I sat in the audience and felt angry; my fellow students were laughing just as much as I had, but they were laughing at the wrong times. Turns out the movie can be funny two ways, like how the moon might have an old man in it or a rabbit. One way, you can laugh with the guy, celebrate his triumphs. But you could also get your chuckles by laughing at him.
Watching that film in the student union really demonstrated to me that I was going to school with a whole bunch of derisive greed-heads. The undergrads there were generally wealthy, generally good test takers, generally no more or less intelligent than undergrads at Stanford, who tend think they are smarter, or at Indiana University, who tend to think they are dumber. Northwestern was about forty percent greek, and as expected funneled huge numbers of students into economics majors and then into banking or consulting careers [I studied economics too, but I only took one undergrad course, “Intro to Microeconomics,” and it wasn’t fun. In that class, I made no friends. All my other economics courses were grad-level, because the buddy next to me in the picture above made a bet as to whether I could do their master’s series and keep up my g.p.a. We made a lot of stupid bets — the one he was working on was, While taking a full courseload, can you start a lab-on-a-chip microscale low-cost HIV testing company? His was a harder task, but dude very nearly succeeded].
And, here’s an additional factoid about Napoleon Dynamite for you. Back in 2005, when Netflix was starting out and then were offering prize money to anyone who could improve their movie-preference-prediction algorithm, they realized that Napoleon Dynamite was a quagmire. It’s a polarizing film, one that many people love or hate, but that’s not an issue; there are many polarizing movies out there. But with Napoleon Dynamite, they simply could not predict whether people would like it based on the ratings they had given to other films. Many attempted improvements to their prediction algorithm were stymied by Napoleon Dynamite.
All of which is not to say that Johnson’s humor was on the same tier of meanspiritedness as my former classmates’. I’m just oversensitive to that type of humor, so I failed to find the book as funny as it’s meant to be. But most people should laugh.) END LONG-ASS PARENTHETIC ASIDE – NOW BACK TO YOUR REGULARLY SCHEDULED REMARK ABOUT RACISM IN BAY AREA VS. ELSEWHERE
…but the pervasive racism that K and I saw in the Bay Area was a large part of why we left. The department I was in at Stanford had only one black researcher, a post-doc in my lab and a good friend of mine (as in, she sang several times on the holiday record that my family mails out each year in lieu of a picture of us attempting to smile at a booth in the mall), and she was often treated poorly. This wasn’t solely because of her skin; she was French and so spoke English haltingly for her first few years in California, but that doesn’t seem like a good reason to assume someone is stupid either. Or my running buddy, a neuroscientist who was hired straight out of his Ph.D. to a professorship in the midwest. He grew up in the Bay Area and was subject to numerous “driving while black” traffic stops. Or K’s students…
WOULD YOU HAVE FELT SATISFIED IF THERE WAS ONLY A SINGLE LONG-ASS PARENTHETICAL ASIDE IN THIS ESSAY? (There is a well-known narrative about good teachers changing students’ lives. People who say “I never liked history / math / literature / science until ________ made it come alive!” Or movies like Dead Poets Society. But it’s also true, just less often remarked upon, that good students can change teacher’s lives.
K had the good fortune of encountering an excellent budding human during her student teaching year in California. When they first met he was failing many of his classes, tangentially involved with a gang, living on an aunt’s couch… the works. But he took the time to meet with K and teach her about the ways school was failing him. The next year, he showed up for parent-teacher night at her new school to translate into Spanish for the parents. He designed several of her classroom exercises. Taught her the importance of having students clearly articulate their motivations. And really sculpted the person she is in the classroom.
But this narrative isn’t as common in the popular imagination — in part this may be because everyone has been a student, but a much smaller number of people have been teachers — so there isn’t a great venue to celebrate everything he did for her. She wrote an article about it for an educators’ magazine, but there aren’t, like, awards for students who change their teacher’s life. She did get to fly out and watch him walk at graduation, and through a massive stroke of luck he was awarded papers — being undocumented was a large part of why he was doing poorly in school. Because, what would be the point? The jobs where a degree matters are going to check. And I hope his ripple travels on to make the world a better place.) THAT WAS THE LAST ONE, I PROMISE. NOW BACK TO K’S STUDENTS AND THEIR EXCITING ADVENTURES NAVIGATING A HATEFUL WORLD!
…whom she would sometimes meet at coffee shops or the like to discuss their future plans, classroom performance, etc. It took her a while to notice, but one day she with her life-changing student, buying some pencils and a notebook at a drug store. K was talking to the cashier and tried unsuccessfully to bridge the conversational gap between said cashier and her student.
Afterward K said to him, “She didn’t look at you at all. It was like you weren’t even there.”
He laughed. “Just watch,” he said. They walked down the street together. Plenty of people smiled at my wife. But no one looked at him.
“I’m not invisible. But they act like I’m not even here.”
Or there was the tract of land just a mile from K’s and my apartment that wasn’t part of any town. Too many Mexicans had moved there, apparently, so the local politicians redrew their town borders to make that area unincorporated space. Police would tear through those streets with lights flashing and sirens blaring, but as soon as they hit the edge of the rich town they’d kill the noise.
And, yes, Johnson lives out there. Obviously he knows his own experiences, and I’m thrilled if he’s been treated better there than he was in the south (unless, of course, he’s treated badly in Berkeley too and is just contrasting that with abysmal experiences in the south, but that’s not the impression I got from his work. Sounds like Berkeley’s been fairly good to him to earn such a kind acknowledgement in his book).
But, for me … the racism in the Bay Area really let me down. I had such high hopes! Thought I would love living out there. Ken Kesey lived in Menlo Park! Well, yes. A long time ago. A lot of that revolutionary spirit has faded away. Berkeley is not the hotbed of protest that it used to be. Sure, people out there do yoga and eat yogurt. But, where we lived especially, they also seemed mean. There was a lot of racism. A lot of ostentatious wealth… but at least the ostentatious wealth in New York City is often coupled with good taste. The Bay Area had a lot of gaudy displays.
So K and I moved to Indiana. It’s cheap. We have family relatively close by. The place does have its problems. There are bilious hate sacks out here, too. But, having done a fair bit of traveling, I’m under the pessimistic impression that there are plenty of mean-spirited people everywhere. The main difference that I’ve noticed is that the bilious hate sacks are more open about who they are here than in California. In a way, that makes life easier. When you know who the evil people are, it’s harder to feel tricked.
Which, here, a treat! From Marcel Proust’s The Captive (trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff & Terence Kilmartin, revised by D.J. Enright), here is one of my favorite passages about feeling tricked:
But this does not exempt the sane from a feeling of alarm when a madman who has composed a sublime poem, after explaining to them in the most logical fashion that he has been shut up by mistake through his wife’s machinations, imploring them to intercede for him with the governor of the asylum, complaining of the promiscuous company that is forced upon him, concludes as follows: “You see that man in the courtyard, whom I’m obliged to put up with; he thinks he’s Jesus Christ. That should give you an idea of the sort of lunatics I’ve been shut up with; he can’t be Jesus Christ, because I’m Jesus Christ!” A moment earlier, you were on the point of going to assure the psychiatrist that a mistake had been made.
This isn’t fun. Neither is attempting to maintain a casual conversation with someone who, apropos of nothing, just launched into a tirade against those Mexicans. Or blacks. Whatever variety of “takers” they feel aggrieved by that day. You feel ashamed for not noticing earlier, you have to revise your interpretations of everything else they’ve said, you have to find some way to gracefully say goodbye and never talk to that person again. Which happened disconcertingly often in California. Whereas the hate won’t catch you off guard if it comes from somebody in a confederate-flag t-shirt.