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  • Writer's pictureNia Forrester

'My Monticello' by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson

If you're Black and know the story of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, you've probably wondered about that episode in history, and given some consideration to what may have become of her descendants. She was 14-years-old and Jefferson, one of the so-called founding fathers was 41 when he is believed to have first taken notice of her. She went on to bear him, I believe it was five children, the first having been born when she was only 16. Most of her children, once freed, left the Commonwealth of Virginia never to return. 'My Monticello' is about the stain and legacy of Thomas Jefferson in the blood of his Black descendants, and the ways in which the world has changed, and the ways it has stayed the same since he took a young Black girl, Sally Hemings to his bed, without repercussion, because she was his "property", gifted to his wife as her personal maid (who was also incidentally her sister).

It was hard to read this book, comprised of five shorts and a novella, without feeling enraged. But the writing was so good, it was also impossible to put down. In the first short, 'Control Negro' a university professor who, despite living an exemplary and respectable life finds himself compared to an ape by one of his students, and decides to conduct an experiment, making his own son a living example of Black excellence. His thesis is that, despite this, his son will never be exempt from the dangers and prejudices visited on Black people of lesser excellence, and never benefit from the same things bestowed undeservingly on mediocre white men.

Others that stayed with me are the short, 'Virginia is Not Your Home' wherein a young woman named after the state she works hard to escape, finds that despite herself, she carries it with her no matter how far and wide she may go. In another, an immigrant father forced into a different kind of servitude than the enslaved who came to America involuntarily, struggles to maintain his dignity through his only son. And in the novella 'My Monticello' for which the book is named, unrest reaches Charlottesville, not unlike the actual unrest we saw in 2017. In this version of events, referred to as 'the Unravelling', a descendant of Hemings and Jefferson flees with her ailing grandmother and a motley crew of their neighbors, seeking refuge in, of all places, Monticello, where at one time Thomas Jefferson owned several hundred enslaved.

The conflict I felt is the same one I always feel when I read debuts like this from Black writers. On the one hand, I think, 'how many other voices like this are there, which we may never hear because of a still white dominated, one-note publishing industry?' And yet, how wonderful that we get to hear thisvoice? This one is highly recommended.

Audiobook note: I got both the audiobook and galley from NetGalley and was blown away by the narrators. Particularly exciting was hearing LeVar Burton read 'Control Negro'. Pulled me in immediately and made my emotional investment in reading or listening to the rest of the book a certainty.

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