Jocelyn Nicole Johnson’s debut presents a chilling vision of a future civil war in America, but it is not about the future. Instead, this collection of short stories, told through a lens of Blackness, excellence, sorrow, and futility, is a mirror that shows us the many blemishes and scars that mark our soul. It’s a heartbreaking, piercing work.
My Monticello is a collection of short stories, each of which is built around the mythology of Charlottesville; that is, the municipal body in which Thomas Jefferson’s Academical Village serves as the beating heart. Charlottesville’s mythology is America’s founding myth: that through hard work, anything is possible. The stories in this collection all handle the topic of scholarship, but more specifically, scholarship through the lens of Blackness. And it’s through this lens that we can see that the mythology of Charlottesville, and by extension America, is nothing more than a paper-thin lie.
I am not qualified to comment on the experiences these stories convey, experiences of success, and of futility despite success, and the uphill treadmill of Black life in white America. I can recognize them, because these are the experiences that one sees every day in Charlottesville. These stories are painted on the streets and the roadsigns, they’re the fragrance wafting off the slow-cooker, they’re the hollers of the basketball games every weekend at Tonsler Park.
The title story, which occupies the latter two-thirds of the book, is less a story, and more a warning. Or maybe a prophecy.
Set a few years in the future, maybe five or ten, the story starts with the last veneer of American democracy finally chipping off. A white supremacist raid on a Black neighborhood, clear from the story but not named as Friendship Court, sets the protagonists on the run. They steal a Jaunt bus and escape the torch-bearing militia and head off to safety. The protagonist herself is a descendant of Thomas Jefferson, and the refuge they seek is in the same building where Jefferson repeatedly raped Sally Hemings: Monticello.
Johnson’s protagonist interned at the historical site in the summer before the story takes place, the summer before she started classes at the University. “I let them see what they wanted to see: a local brown girl made good.” But in the story, little of that matters. The climate apocalypse has come, heat waves devastate the country, thousands die in riots nationwide. It sets the stage, but truly the stage has already been set. “As girls, we all heard about the young white woman killed by an outraged white man who sped his car into a crowd of marchers raising signs in our defense.” Heather Heyer appears, and along with her, the post hoc justifications and conspiracy theories so many white people so eagerly adopted, lies about her weight, or that she had a heart attack. “I took it to mean that young women could die of wanting too much.”
“In the years that followed,” continues the story, “the men came again and again.”
Indeed, the story of Charlottesville is not what has happened, but what has not. Charlottesville, Virginia, the birthplace of American democracy, the home of Thomas Jefferson, the owner of slaves, the city that stood by and let the Nazis come, the city who can’t admit what it did wrong, the city that continues to lie by omission, to oppress by omission. The city where men have already come again and again. and where they’ll come again, too. Charlottesville, the heart of the new civil war.
In the story, the protagonists wait in Monticello for the militia to come for them. Just like today, in the real Charlottesville.
Estimated Reading Time: 4 minutes