In the last post, I wrote about the mother and son in P. Djèlí Clark’s Ring Shout who finally see the monstrous effects of racism on an individual at the end of the novel. I taught Clark’s Ring Shout in my Multiethnic American Literature course a few weeks ago, and we followed up Clark’s novella with David Walker, Chuck Brown, and Sanford Greene’s Bitter Root, a comics series that has numerous parallels with Ring Shout. I don’t have time, or space, to discuss those similarities here; instead, I want to focus on this post on Johnnie-Ray Knox, the white boy from Mississippi that assists the Sangeryes in Bitter Root, specifically his death at the end of issue #10 when Adro impales him through the chest.
John Jennings contacted me in early in 2020 to write a backmatter essay for Bitter Root, and of course I jumped at the chance to do it. For my essay, I focused on Johnnie-Ray Knox’s role within the series, specifically on his movement from some who could easily get sucked down by the roots of racism that attempted to strangle him to the Sangeryes’ ally in their fight against the Jinoo and hate. That essay appeared in issue #10, so I had no clue, when I wrote it, that Johnnie-Ray would die at the end of the second story arc. When I read that issue, those pages gutted me, notably Greene’s illustrations and the silhouetted panels where we see Johnnie-Ray impaled on Adro’s spiky arm and falling to the ground as Cullen looks on. I did not have the opportunity to write about this moment, or about Cullen’s comments to Johnnie-Ray immediately before his murder. I want to hone in on these pages, looking at Cullen’s and Johnnie-Ray’s comments then ultimately at Adro’s comments as she kills Johnnie-Ray.
As Cullen charges at Adro during the battle in Georgia, Johnnie-Ray reaches out to stop him, to protect him from Adro’s power and to hopefully save him. When Johnnie-Ray places his hand on Cullen’s shoulder, Cullen stares at him, face twisting in anger, and tells him to get away. At this, Johnnie-Ray looks at Cullen and says, “There was a time when maybe you and me would’ve been enemies, but not no more. I’ve changed and I wanna help. I gotta help.” To this, Cullen points his finger in Johnnie-Ray’s face and responds, “This isn’t your fight!” Cullen’s claim seems reasonable, especially considering that the fight is against white supremacy, racism, and hate not against whites but against Blacks, Asians, and more. However, Adro is a different entity all together, kind of like the Grand Cyclops in Ring Shout. Adro feeds on hate and the psychological effects that racism enacts within individuals.
Johnnie-Ray simply looks at Cullen and says, “It’s our fight. I’ve changed from how I used to think–seen this world for what’s really happen’.” Over the course of the series, Johnnie-Ray has changed. He’s in the background at points, helping the Sangeryes and those in Harlem rebuild and carry on after their fight with Sylvester. He mops and serves soup. He stands on the front lines, going into the tunnels underneath New York with the Sangeryes. He volunteers to go to Georgia, alongside some of the Sangeryes, to confront Adro and the hate sprouting forth from the soil. He is the hopeful extension of the mother and son in Ring Shout whose eyes have opened to the frame that chokes their own existence as well as the existence of those they oppress.
Johnnie-Ray continues, “It ai’t about white folks or Black folks. Only one thing any of us can do.” Before Johnnie-Ray can finish, telling Cullen what everyone needs to do, Adro impales him. We see a closeup of Johnnie-Ray’s face with black fluids spewing forth against a red background as his eyes open wide and he lets out a painful, “Urk.” The next page begins by showing what happened. Greene’s first panel shows Adro impaling Johnnie-Ray, holding him aloft in the air as souls circle behind them, and Adro asks Johnnie-Ray to finish his thought. However, Johnnie-Ray can’t complete his thought because he is dead, lifeless on the end of Adro’s spiked appendage.
The final two panels, the ones which gutted me the first time I read the issue, show silhouettes of Adro on the left, Johnnie-Ray impaled, and Cullen standing on the right looking on. In the first panel, Johnnie-Ray remains impaled as Adro proclaims that “so much pain and fear” exist within Johnnie-Ray, and then Adro asks about a hint of something else, “what is this emotion I taste?” The next panel shows Johnnie-Ray falling to the ground as blood spews from his body as Adro answers the question, “Ah, yes. Hope. Delicious.”
There are two things going on here. The first is that even with all of Johnnie-Ray’s “wokeness” there hate and fear still exist within him. Some of the roots that fed Johnnie-Ray initially still engulf him. He has not extracted all of them, even though he outwardly appears to have done just that. This is why Berg’s statement on the drive down to Georgia is important. During the drive, when Cullen asks what a white kid is doing with them, Berg says that Johnnie-Ray has proven himself, but he continues by saying, “I assure you, this equanimity is tenuous at best.” That tenuousness doesn’t come from Berg. Rather, it comes from the dormant fear and hate that still reside within Johnnie-Ray, the fear and hate he has not completely uprooted.
However, while those things still exist within him, something else has sprung up, another feeling that Adro react to, hope. The hope that things will be better. The hope that he will continue to move on the right path. The hope that hate and fear will die. That moment, where Adro tastes the hope that resides with Johnnie-Ray reminds me of Lillian Smith from The Journey, a book she wrote as she was coming to terms with her cancer diagnosis and her own mortality. At the beginning of the book, she asks,
And hope? What is this stubborn thing in man that keeps him forever picking the lock of time? that drives him to measure his puny size against the unknown —and win? The odds are against him, the odds have always been against him, and he knows it but he has never believed it. And because of his refusal to believe it, because of his crazy unconquerable hope, he alone of living creatures has learned to outwit fate and to enjoy the job so much that even on holidays from stern necessity he keeps challenging his antagonist. It is a strange talent, and strictly human.
Why do we hope? Even amidst all of the things that bombard us, wound us, scar us, infect us on a daily basis why do we grasp so tirelessly to hope? What is that hope? In the case of Smith, she writes about the effects of white supremacy on whites and Blacks alike, yet there is a hopefulness in her voice. She hopes that things will change, quickly. She hopes that the voices of those who oppose white supremacy will rise up and silence those support it. She hopes that the world will become an equitable place for all.
This is the hope that resides within Johnnie-Ray, the hope that we see through his actions and through his comments to Cullen. While the “hate and fear” still exist, he battles them internally, choosing hope instead of hate and fear. He chooses to fight the roots within them, pulling himself upward as they attempt to drag him down underneath the soil to nourish the hate and fear of the world. He chooses to stand beside the Sangeryes because he realizes that what they encounter seeks to destroy them all. He chooses to fight because he knows it is his fight as well, a fight for his own soul. This is the hope that Adro tastes, the hope that Adro mockingly calls “delicious” hope.
There’s a lot more that could be said, but I’ll leave it here for now. What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.