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'My Monticello' grapples with the past, present and future of American racism

Nov 2, 2021
Originally published on November 2, 2021 12:02 pm

My Monticello, by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson, is a striking debut collection of fiction that resists categories. There are five short stories that are sort of realistic, plus the superb title novella, which I'd label "dystopian lite," because it's too close to present day racial realities in America to be quarantined within the realm of fantasy.

"Control Negro," the standout short story, is about a Black college professor who still finds himself mistaken for the janitor. So the professor decides to conduct an experiment:

What I needed, it occurred to me then, was to watch another man's life unfold: a Black boy not unlike me, but better than me — an African American who was otherwise equivalent to those broods of average American Caucasian males who scudded through my classrooms. ACMs, I came to call them, ... I wanted to test my own beloved country: Given the right conditions, could America extend her promise of Life and Liberty to me too, to someone like me? What I needed was a control, a Control Negro.

That "control negro" will turn out to be the professor's own son, whose interactions with white society the professor clinically observes, at a distance, for years. The power of this lead short story derives, not just from its ingenious punch-in-the-gut ending, but from the realization that racism has so profoundly damaged our professor that he'd even sacrifice his own son to test its outer limits.

The characters in "My Monticello," Johnson's novella, take a last stand against the forces of racism high atop the "little mountain" that gives Thomas Jefferson's plantation its name. This novella, which is set in the near future, is something else entirely — a rich and strange riff on American mythology that's imbued with the eerie menace of a survivalist tale of terror, a bit like Josh Malerman's ominous Bird Box, which I made the mistake of reading early in the pandemic. Here, though, the monsters aren't aliens, but rather homegrown white supremacists.

The premise of "My Monticello" spirals out from the real-life reality of climate change and the violent "Unite the Right" rally that took place in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017. Fast forward some years ahead: As ocean tides rise and electricity fails, armed white men in jeeps, blaring "The Star Spangled Banner" and shouting "OURS!" set fire to a mostly Black neighborhood in Charlottesville.

In the thick of the onslaught, our narrator, a Black University of Virginia student named Da'Naisha Love, pulls her asthmatic grandmother aboard an abandoned city bus and, with her white boyfriend and assorted neighbors, drives off to take refuge at a deserted Monticello.

Da'Naisha recalls this time was the beginning of a "dark new unraveling when everything ha[d] been set free again. ... It was unclear whether we were under siege, or whether the world was toppling under its own needless weight."

The refugees take shelter, at first, in the outbuildings at Monticello, but, eventually, cold weather propels them into the mansion proper, heated by fireplaces. The terrible irony here is that hiding out in Monticello represents a sort of homecoming for Da'Naisha and her grandmother because they're descendants of Sally Hemings, the woman who was enslaved by Jefferson and who bore several of his children.

Johnson's precise, pictorial writing style gives this American nightmare its "you are there" quality. The group, for instance, liberates "bags of old-timey dark chocolate drops covered in white sprinkles," and "many tins of Virginia peanuts," from the gift shop. They head into the mansion led by one of the men who's traded in his dirty shirt for "a novelty T-shirt ... made to mimic the scrawl of the Declaration of Independence. As he moved ahead of our group, Thomas Jefferson's words undulated across his back: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." And the group even pens their own declaration of purpose using "a quill pen," and "parchment-colored stationery" from the gift shop.

Nineteen cloistered days go by. "What if nobody comes," asks Da'Naisha's white boyfriend who's signaled for help; "What if somebody comes," replies Da'Naisha in a stark encapsulation of their different racialized life experiences.

The terrible tensions Johnson dramatizes so acutely in this extraordinary novella reflect those of the American project itself: the promise, captured in Jefferson's deathless words, of justice and freedom for all, smashed against the "little mountain" of his own racism and hypocrisy.

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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Jocelyn Nicole Johnson has worked as a public school art teacher in Charlottesville, Va., for the past 20 years. Now, at the age of 50, she's the author of a new fiction collection called "My Monticello," and Netflix is slated to make a film of the title novella. It's a heady debut, but our book critic Maureen Corrigan says Johnson's talent is the kind that rightly attracts lots of attention.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: "My Monticello" by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson is a striking debut collection of, well, fiction that resists categories. There are five short stories that are sort of realistic, and the superb title novella that I'd label dystopian light because it's too close to present-day racial realities in America to be quarantined within the realm of fantasy. "Control Negro" is the standout short story here about a Black college professor who still finds himself mistaken for the janitor, so the professor decides to conduct an experiment.

What I needed, he says, was to watch another man's life unfold, a Black boy not unlike me, but better than me, an African American who was otherwise equivalent to those broods of average American Caucasian males who scudded through my classrooms, ACMs I came to call them. I wanted to test my own beloved country. Given the right conditions, could America extend her promise of life and liberty to me too, to someone like me? What I needed was a control, a control Negro.

That control Negro will turn out to be the professor's own son, whose interactions with white society the professor clinically observes at a distance for years. The power of this lead story derives not just from its ingenious, punch-in-the-gut ending, but from the realization that racism has so profoundly damaged our professor that he'd even sacrifice his own son to test its outer limits. The characters in "My Monticello," Johnson's novella, take a last stand against the forces of racism high atop the little mountain that gives Thomas Jefferson's plantation its name.

This novella, which is set in the near future, is something else entirely - a rich and strange riff on American mythology that's imbued with the eerie menace of a survivalist tale of terror, a bit like Josh Malerman's ominous "Bird Box," which I made the mistake of reading early in the pandemic. Here, though, the monsters aren't aliens, but rather homegrown white supremacists. The premise of "My Monticello" spirals out from the real-life reality of climate change and the violent Unite the Right rally that took place in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017. Fast forward some years ahead - as ocean tides rise and electricity fails, armed white men in jeeps blaring "The Star-Spangled Banner" and shouting ours set fire to a mostly Black neighborhood in Charlottesville.

In the thick of the onslaught, our narrator, a Black University of Virginia student named Da'Naisha Love, pulls her asthmatic grandmother aboard an abandoned city bus, and with her white boyfriend and assorted neighbors, drives off to take refuge at a deserted Monticello. Da'Naisha recalls this time was the beginning of the dark new unraveling when everything had been set free again. It was unclear whether we were under siege or whether the world was toppling under its own needless weight. The refugees take shelter at first in the outbuildings at Monticello. But eventually, cold weather propels them into the mansion proper, heated by fireplaces. The terrible irony here is that hiding out in Monticello represents a sort of homecoming for Da'Naisha and her grandmother because they're descendants of Sally Hemings, Jefferson's enslaved mistress.

Johnson's precise, pictorial writing style gives this American nightmare its you-are-there quality. The group, for instance, liberates bags of old-timey, dark chocolate drops covered in white sprinkles and many tins of Virginia peanuts from the gift shop. They head into the mansion led by one of the men who's traded in his dirty shirt for a novelty T-shirt made to mimic the scrawl of the Declaration of Independence. As he moved ahead of our group, Da'Naisha says, Thomas Jefferson's words undulated across his back. We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal. Nineteen cloistered days go by. What if nobody comes? - asks Da'Naisha's white boyfriend, who signaled for help. What if somebody comes? - replies Da'Naisha in a stark encapsulation of their different, racialized life experiences. The terrible tensions Johnson dramatizes so acutely in this extraordinary novella reflect those of the American project itself, the promise captured in Jefferson's deathless words of justice and freedom for all smashed against the little mountain of his own racism and hypocrisy.

DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "My Monticello," by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson.

Tomorrow, Paul McCartney returns to our show. He'll talk to Terry about his new book, "The Lyrics," a two-volume collection of his lyrics and the stories behind them. And they'll discuss the new documentary, "Get Back," about the three weeks in 1969 when The Beatles wrote and recorded the songs on their final album, "Let It Be." I hope you can join us. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'VE GOT A FEELING")

THE BEATLES: (Singing) I've got a feeling, a feeling deep inside. Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. That's right. I've got a feeling, a feeling I can't hide. Oh, no. No. Oh, no. Oh, no. Yeah. Yeah. I've got a feeling. Yeah. Oh, please, believe me, I'd hate to miss the train. Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. And if you leave me, I won't be late again. Oh, no. Oh, no. Oh, no. Yeah. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LITTLE SIMZ SONG, "OFFENCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.