MY MONTICELLO is an impressive debut that wrestles with the past, present and possible future of being Black in America

My Monticello: Fiction

By Jocelyn Nicole Johnson

Henry Holt, 224 pages, $26.99

Remember the name Jocelyn Nicole Johnson. If her debut collection is any indication, you’re going to hear it a lot in the coming years. My Monticello, comprising five short stories and the title novella, is a commanding performance by a “new” author in full possession of her writing powers.

Johnson grabs your attention with the opening story, “Control Negro,” and holds it for the next 200 pages. In this story, a university professor has a child with a married grad student and decides to use their son as a sociocultural experiment, anonymously providing him with all the advantages of the “average American Caucasian male.” He plans to “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.” Not surprisingly, things don’t go quite as the professor planned. Beyond the premise of the story, what makes it so impressive is Johnson’s complete control of the narrative voice and piercing insight into growing up Black. Roxane Gay selected “Control Negro” for the Best American Short Stories 2018 collection, calling it “one hell of a story.”

The stories that follow aren’t quite up to that standard but nonetheless display Johnson’s range and talent. “Buying a House Ahead of the Apocalypse” is a biting bullet list of items a Black woman needs to consider in the process of this major purchase. The title character in “Virginia is Not Your Home” decides to change her name and escape her poor rural family. In “King of Xandria” a Nigerian widower who immigrated to Alexandria to provide his children a better life succeeds but ends up feeling disconnected from their lives and American culture.  

The heart of the book is the title novella, which is a riveting piece of quasi-dystopian fiction set a couple decades hence in Charlottesville. Taking the “Unite the Right” rally of 2017 as a starting point, Johnson imagines a societal breakdown that leads to white supremacist gangs taking over the city, forcing residents of color to flee. A group of sixteen mostly Black neighbors decides to head up to Monticello, using it as a fortress with a view to the violence below.

The protagonist is Da’Naisha Love, a college student and former Monticello employee who is a descendant of Sally Hemings. She has her hands full caring for her ailing grandmother and keeping her pregnancy secret from her supportive white boyfriend, Knox. The group manages to create an effective division of labor and scavenges the gift store for food and other supplies. They split up to sleep in various bedrooms in the house or camp in the gardens between the house and the former slave cabins. While the novella could have been simply a page-turner, it is also an absorbing character study of the relationships among these friends, lovers, and families, and an examination of the legacy of life at Jefferson’s Monticello 200-plus years later.

It might sound like “My Monticello” and the accompanying stories are clever, high concept pieces, but Johnson writes with such empathy for her complex characters and the many challenges they face that the collection’s heart remains with you as much as its intellect.

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