© 2023 KMUW
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'My Monticello' offers an unflinching view of American racism

The title novella in Jocelyn Nicole Johnson’s debut collection of short stories, “My Monticello,” is a harrowing story of racism in a not-too-distant and not-too-different dystopian world. Inspired by the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, Johnson paints a picture of Black and brown people being forced from their homes by a white militia and taking refuge on Thomas Jefferson’s historic homestead.

The narrator, a Black University of Virginia student named Da’Naisha Love, is a descendant of Jefferson and Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman with whom Jefferson fathered several children. Da’Naisha is newly pregnant, caring for her asthmatic grandmother, organizing fellow refugees on the abandoned former plantation, and wise to the irony of it all.

That’s just one of six stellar stories in this collection. I listened to them on audio, performed by a cast that includes Aja Naomi King and LeVar Burton, and I highly recommend that medium. Johnson delves into issues of race, racism, history and hypocrisy, and she pulls no punches.

While the title novella is a standout, the opening story, “Control Negro,” is also unforgettable. A university professor devotes himself to the study of racism by clinically observing his own son. He hopes to, in his words, “painstakingly mark the route of this Black child too, one whom 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 ending is a gut-punch that lays bare our country’s shameful history and its shocking present.

With this collection, Johnson clearly demonstrates a powerful new voice in American fiction. I can’t wait to read more.

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.