Surmounting the Hill

A debut at 50: one Charlottesville teacher’s stunning investigation of heritage and history.  


My Monticello, by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson. Henry Holt and Company. 224 pp. $26.99.


A few pages into reading Jocelyn Nicole Johnson’s debut, My Monticello, I found myself held by the mysteriousness of the opening story. “Control Negro” was picked by Roxane Gay to be featured in Best American Short Stories 2018, and now I know why. The premise of the story is simple at heart: it is a tale of scientific inquiry. A Black professor at an unnamed, esteemed Virginian university (take your pick…) decides to run a little experiment to see if society has changed. That is to say, Professor Cornelius Adams wants to see the “burden of Race” in action. And his test subject is his own son.

All during the setup—of pitting this “control negro” against “the broods of average American Caucasian males”—I wondered if I was the right person to read this story, this nerve-wracking, incredible, harrowing, brilliant story. Being a “Caucasian male”, my first response was a vague maybe not, but then it doesn’t matter if you can relate to the characters; literature goes further than that. It’s about investigating the delicate organization of the human interior.

The narrative is swift and steadfast, and I didn’t have much time to dwell on such ponderings because the writing was so moving and controlled. My Monticello is not a novel; it’s made up of five short stories and one long story—a novella nearly. Each story leading up to the main feature discussed Blackness in various shapes and forms. One character is named Virginia (though she despises the eponymous label) and tries to escape her origins through education and then traveling to France, but she returns in the end, and the average middle-class life takes possession—something that Anne Tyler or Alice Munro could have written perhaps. Another story, in list form, discusses how to “Buy a House Ahead of the Apocalypse,” which is a fun and more experimental foray that comments on housing and, for me, subverts the connotations  attached to farming, specifically, for African Americans in this country. In each story, the question that Professor Adams initially brings up—“could America extend her promise of Life and Liberty to me too?”—is considered, is interwoven within the texts.

Finally, we arrive at Monticello (after the “surreal and collapsing weeks” of society’s breakdown), and Johnson sustains this longer narrative wonderfully after such shorter fictions. A busload of “mostly brown and Black people” flees from their homes following an attack by men with rifles in dusty Jeeps. “My Monticello” is narrated by Da’Naisha Hemings Love, a descendent of Sally Hemings and, you guessed it, Founding Father Thomas Jefferson. So, on the lam, Da’Naisha with her boyfriend Knox (one of those average American Caucasian males), her grandmother MaViolet and the others from the neighborhood arrive at Monticello. Not only do they raid the giftshop (the audacity!), but they enter the historical house—after some dithering—and MaViolet even sleeps in Jefferson’s own bed, a quartet of pillows, stiff white sheets, and all (which was probably more than her ancestor ever did…). Da’Naisha says it “was like breaking a seal.” The past pushed against, illuminated by someone else’s searchlight and voice.

The story feels a bit like an episode of The Walking Dead, but with fewer zombies and better plotting. There is a façade of normalcy for a while—planting a garden, standing guard—but then life barges in, chaotic and haphazard (though in fiction we know it’s never random, though in good fiction it wears a convincing disguise). The men with their hate and firearms are back. Though the group has grown, they are still undecided. Do they flee, “find some other town […] camp in a field,” or do they fight, defend their domicile on its hill, full of history?

“He that would make his fellow creatures wise, should always gild the philosophic pill.” My Monticello is full of wisdom and the woes of our neighbors and our fellow humans. But there is no need for gilding here; everything is raw and beautiful—in its terrifying truth. Instead, Jocelyn Nicole Johnson takes her pen (Seamus Heaney’s fabled shovel) and digs into the dirt, the history of Virginia. Like a museum, a book can hold treasures, but these insights and artifacts are not behind glass; they are before you, living and occurring in the present day. Johnson furthers the Southern tradition, widening its scope and giving us something new to examine and learn from.

But a copy at The Bookshop.

Konstantin Rega
A graduate of East Anglia’s renowned Creative Writing MA, Konstantin’s been published by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Poetry Salzburg Review, www.jonimitchell.com, the Republic of Consciousness Prize (etc.). He contributes to Publisher Weekly and Treblezine.
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