Splitting Racial Atoms: Mythology and Identity in T. Geronimo Johnson’s HOLD IT ‘TIL IT HURTS

T. Geronimo Johnson will read along with Khaled al-Berry and Lucy Fricke at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 27, at Melvin’s (2112 St. Claude Ave.) as part of the Room 220 LIVE PROSE reading series. Details here.

By Kristina Robinson

Hated it. Remember that phrase from “In Living Color,” the sketch comedy series of the much more race-conscious nineties? Even if you don’t, I think it’s easy to tell where I’m going with this. Hated it. That’s how I felt about this book, Hold It ’Til It Hurts, before I had even read a word.

I admit that I am prone to snap judgments. As it went, I received my reader’s copy, flipped it over on the back, skipped all the pleasantries from other writers, and went straight to the summary/description.  I was willing to forgo my own assumptions about a character named Achilles, but this author was barking up a pretty rough tree with me. He was writing about New Orleans, my turf. Writing about Katrina, the disaster that took my life’s possessions with it. And then, there it was, the line that put the nail in the coffin. This book, it seemed, “explores how people who do not define themselves by race make sense of a world that does.

That does it, I thought. So this is a love song for post-racial America. A character who’s not all bogged down in the fact that he’s black, if only he could make others cease to see it that way. Yuck. Nice try, but you don’t just get to undo 400-plus years of racism, colonialism, and exploitation with a nice compound adjective that says it’s all over now.

Hold It ’Til It Hurts is the story of two black men, adopted as children, renamed after the heroes of Greek mythology and raised by white parents. After returning from military tours Afghanistan, and upon the death of their adoptive father, their adoptive mother gives them envelopes containing information about their respective birth parents. Troy disappears soon after, and our protagonist, Achilles, sets off to find him. The journey brings Achilles, the darker of the two brothers, through the Southern landscapes of New Orleans and Atlanta. In the South, Achilles encounters tragedy—as well as love, by way of a wealthy Creole, Ines. Through his relationship with Ines and other bonds he forms and rejects, Achilles’ beliefs about himself and others are shaken to the core.

Characters don’t exist in a vacuum—especially characters of color. The social and political realities of their lives matter, particularly in fiction that addresses such charged topics as Hurricane Katrina and the war in Afghanistan in the context of supposed post-racialism. But I tried to temper my prejudices with a little hope. I’m not a total pessimist, nor ass, and the fact that this author even attempted to discuss the buried narratives of Katrina and Afghanistan had to count for something, right?

“Achilles, is that you?”
“No, children. I am Agamemnon. Enjoy your bottled water.

The war in Afghanistan, now nearing the end of its eleventh year, has been amazingly absent from popular representations of our country—it seems to this culture consumer, at least. When it comes to comes to Katrina, it’s interesting. There is an ugly rumor—a supposition—being propagated out there. It’s being put forth that all that needs to be said about Katrina has already been said. I mean, Jesmyn Ward wrote about it and won the National Book Award—enough said. I was once told by an instructor that Katrina stories made her eyes roll. People are tired. They have “Katrina fatigue.” That’s what it’s being called, and it infuriates me.

Disaster, like war, has a ripple effect on the people and the generations that follow it. It’s absolutely ridiculous and anti-intellectual to even suppose that it’s been written about sufficiently at such an early stage in its history. Our country was re-made with the waging of the war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq, and the umbrella “War on Terror” that encompassed them (and persists to this day). New Orleans has been washed and dressed up as something new by Katrina. But has anybody tackled what Katrina did to the black “middle-class” of New Orleans?  Has any significant work considered the implications of the fact that government money to rebuild homes was awarded based on the appraised value of homes? The story of Katrina hasn’t even begun to be told.  So, that Hold It ’Til It Hurts meshes the story of disaster and war gave it some footing with me, even if I already had my daggers out for it.

As I jumped into the book full-swing, I found myself alternately engaged and enraged with both Achilles and my construction of the author who created him. It’s safe to say that, at least for most of the novel, describing Achilles as the whitest black man in America would not be inaccurate. I had my feelings, and still do, about these kinds of narrators. I know that writing as a person of color is a balancing act. Presenting authentic realities while maintaining readability to a “wider” (whiter) audience is tricky. Often, I feel like these kinds of narrators offer white people a cushioned ride through worlds they otherwise might be afraid—or not bother—to enter. As I moved through the plot and pathology of this novel, I was both looking forward to and dreading the day when I would get to call T. Geronimo Johnson up and hash things out.

Narratives that leverage Greek mythology, especially when they’re written by people of color about people of color, induce an unpleasant visceral response in my body when I encounter them. The resistance to using our own mythology both vexes and perplexes me. The names Achilles and Troy are not the kind chosen at random, or for no reason. They are both huge names, names that carry a lot with them onto the page, baggage that can overwhelm a narrative. The epically named characters of this novel also play out their stories against the landscape of one of the greatest disasters in American history. If I was to forgive Achilles and Troy and the author for further afflicting us with the Greek myths and read this novel despite them, there had sure better be a good reason.

Names like “Achilles” and “Troy” are often drenched in historical context, and sometimes in Brad Pitt’s flowing golden locks.

So, when it was time to call T. Geronimo and ask him what exactly he was up to, we started with the names. He was prepared—probably before this character, Achilles, had even been fully realized—to defend this name. He argued that language is so totally arbitrary, yet naming remains significant in our culture. Naming and re-naming is important. Both of these actions played a key role in transatlantic slavery, and continue to do so in the traditional process of adopting children. Johnson discussed his own name as it relates to both the arbitrary and significant: “T.” stands for “Tyrone,” it turns out, which is Irish. Geronimo is probably a mispronunciation by those white men who were trying to capture him. And Johnson? Who’s that? T. Geronimo Johnson says he never knew anyone named John who had a son, at least as it would relate to him. So, he said, is his name any more far-fetched, any more colonized, than the name Achilles? Johnson pointed out a sentiment that I wholeheartedly agree with: The only truly indigenous African-American names are names like Shanequa and Trayvon, and these names are often shunned. They are the names of outsiders in our society. So what better names to draw from? What names better symbolize the hegemony of the conquering mythology than the names of the Greek myths? I could get with that. He was employing a trope in order to subvert it.

Cultivating inside and outside readerships is a complex dance, one that involves giving something to both sides. I still feel like using Greek mythology is a huge give-a-way in a story with black characters, a see they are like you offering to white readers. However, I also recognize that re-telling these old stories is important, too. Using myths or archetypes that apply to characters in untraditional ways can be a practice in splitting oneself into multiple parts, of looking at yourself from outside yourself, and then trying to write in the voice that lives inside. It is confusing and murky. When writing about race, you are never sure if you are doing the right thing, presenting the story as it should be. As Johnson said, he often asks himself: Am I being fair to us, to people of color? The reality is that the experience of race in the United States of America has left many people with a fractured consciousness.  If we are aware of the fracture, we might be lucky. The journey Achilles takes is a journey into all the pathos that hegemony creates, and it ain’t pretty.

Among many things, Hold It ’Til It Hurts is a novel about shame, and just how dirty and ugly it is. I told Johnson that I despised Achilles for most of the book, that I hated everything his mentality stood for and the consequences that this mentality has in my own life.  Achilles views black people as inferior and responsible for the fact that they find themselves on the bottom of the socio-economic totem pole. He views black women with particular fear and disdain. But as Johnson rightly pointed out, Achilles’ attitude is a real and a pervasive attitude. Through the course of the novel, we see Achilles unable to show to himself truly to Ines, the rich, near-white black woman he falls in love with. During our talk, Johnson diagnosed his protagonist: It’s Achilles’ own deep shame that prevents him from empathizing with other black people, a shame he hides in his belief about their inferiority and “fault” in their place in the economic hierarchy of the United States.

The more I considered all the ways war and race and shame are confronted and conflated  in this novel, I wondered even more about the prospect that Achilles—or Ines, because of her appearance—might live without racial definition. They may not be traversing or transcending the binary division of black and white, per se, but their lives are deeply defined by the ways their bodies have crossed those boundaries. Shame is a dirty topic for many of us in the black community. Many of us are ashamed to say we have felt shame about our bodies, the conditions of our lives, and the way we are viewed from the outside. Viewing Achilles as a representation of the worst kind of race shame didn’t make me “like” him anymore than I did, but it did make me appreciate his value as a character.

Johnson said he feared that people wouldn’t see that he was not condoning what he presents, but offering it to be examined. I told him, because of that, as much as I fought Achilles, Hold It ’Til It Hurts was a brave book to write.

Achilles follows a long history of black characters with confused racial identities on a journey to the South, arguably the most explicitly un-post-racial region in the United States.

The South has long been fixed in literature as a sort of domestic yet exotic locale, unchanged by modernity—however that modernity is constructed at the time. Achilles is an outsider come home to the South looking for something—his brother, but also, ultimately, himself. He falls in the tradition of James Weldon Johnson’s protagonist in The Autobiography of Ex-Colored Man, the mulatto body of the narrator of Jean Toomer’s Cane, and many black outsiders who come to the South hoping to find that missing piece. For the racially ambiguous characters of Autobiography and Cane, it is unadulterated “Blackness” that they hope to find on their journeys below the Mason-Dixon line. Nowhere in this country is post-racial terrain, and certainly not the social-political landscape of the South, which makes it an understandable venue for such searches.

Achilles embarks on his own quest for the courage necessary to search for his “before-time,” before he was renamed, for the concept of “home.” He ends at the beginning of his journey. It is far too simplistic to view his journey only in the context of the Greek hero’s epic—other characters, peoples, and their deities have made their ways across this Earth. When you get right down to it, I don’t think Odysseus has anything on the journey from Africa—the Middle Passage, Jim Crow, Civil Rights, all the way to this fairytale land of a “post-racial” society. This is a journey that has landed one of our multi-raced Black bodies in the White House, as the President of the United States, albeit with empty chairs being lynched in Texas (in an homage to Clint Eastwood’s now infamous RNC speech) and a spike in hate group membership gun-ownership. Alas, as with an Obama presidency, there is no happy ending in Hold It ’Til It Hurts, but there is true sentiment. If nothing else, I think it makes this case: Even when we step outside of tradition, our history is really everything that we are.