"My Monticello"| Reviewed by Bill Schwab
“My Monticello” is a chilling, strident, intelligent collection of short stories that depict the vulnerability of Black Americans and the persistence and strength necessary to live in a nation with a continuing history of making them feel unwelcome.
The opener, “Control Negro,” is a story about Cornelius, a Black university professor who conducts a social experiment to determine if his Black son, raised with the same advantages as “ACMs” (“American Caucasian Males”) would equally enjoy the benefits received by White men.
“What I aimed to do was to painstakingly mark the route of this Black child too, one who I could prove was so strikingly decent and true that America could not find fault in him unless we as a nation had projected it there.”
The story is reminiscent of the 2009 experience of Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who was arrested for “breaking” into his own home.
Other stories address institutional racism in schools (“Something Sweet on the Tongue”) or the trauma suffered by immigrants before leaving their homelands (“King of Xandria”).
The final and longest story in this volume is Johnson’s superb title novella, “My Monticello.” Set in the near future, it was inspired by the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. After white supremacists burn their homes and pillage downtown Charlottesville, Da’Naisha Love, her White boyfriend Knox, her asthmatic grandmother MaViolet, and other BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) residents seize an abandoned city bus to flee the white militia.
They find refuge at Jefferson's Monticello where they wait for 19 days, hoping the siege of the city will end. During this extended time, a strong desire to preserve the old plantation home wells up within them. The source of that yearning becomes clear when Da’Naisha and her grandmother reveal they are descendants of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.
Throughout this striking narrative, Johnson raises questions of racial identity, post-racial society, and the vestiges of slavery. Her complex characters project our racially charged societal reality back to readers while articulating Jefferson's ideals of freedom, justice, and liberty. The author’s precise depictions provide a “you are there” quality which is very compelling.
This formidable debut volume powerfully reflects on today's social climate as well as the centuries-long history of the Black experience in the United States.
About the Author: Jocelyn Nicole Johnson's writing has appeared in Guernica, The Guardian, and elsewhere. Her short story “Control Negro” was featured in Best American Short Stories 2018. The former longtime public school art teacher lives and writes in Charlottesville. Henry Holt and Company is the publisher of this 210-page book.