Excerpt from My Monticello by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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My Monticello


by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson

My Monticello by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson X
My Monticello by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2021, 224 pages

    Oct 2022, 224 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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About this Book

Print Excerpt

But then, the next week, I stood before all of my bright young students. For the first time in a long time, I felt, if not settled, then at least situated. Soon afterward, in a morning seminar, I remember feeling hopeful as I collected an early set of in-class writings, our topic: nineteenth-century thinkers. I discovered a hand-drawn cartoon among the shuffle, no name in the corner, passed in on purpose or by accident—it was hard to tell which. It was nothing really, just a single frame of itchy graphite titled "Irony." Within its borders, a history professor leaned over a lectern, looking quite like me—same jacket and bowtie—except with something primitive about his face. A thought bubble hovered over the room of students: "Darwin Taught to Men by an Ape."

It's nothing, I told myself as I walked back to my apartment that evening, though, in truth, I felt—tired. What does it matter, I remember thinking. What does it matter how much I achieve, or how clearly I speak, or how carefully I conduct myself, if the brutal misjudgments remain regardless? What if, even here, they cannot bring themselves to see me, and instead see something oblique reflected where I thought I stood? Mother used to tell me, Work hard, Cornelius. Work twice as hard and you can have something. But there I was, a grown man, wondering what it was I could have, and what would forever be withheld.

What I needed, it occurred to me then, was to watch another man's life unfold: a Black boy not unlike me, but better than me—an African American who was otherwise equivalent to those broods of average American Caucasian males who scudded through my classrooms. ACMs, I came to call them, and I wondered how they would measure up with this flawless young man as a watermark. No, it wasn't them exactly—I wanted to test my own beloved country: Given the right conditions, could America extend her promise of Life and Liberty to me too, to someone like me? What I needed was a control, a Control Negro. And given what I teach, it wasn't lost on me, the agitation of those two words linked together, that archaic descriptor clanking off the end like a rusted shackle.

Those words struck in me and, from them, you grew.

That was the start of my true research, a secret second job hidden inside of the rigors of my first one. Evenings and weekends I searched library stacks, scoured journals and published studies. I focused on contemporary ACMs, looking for patterns, for cause and effect. An ACM's access to adequate childhood nutrition up against disciplinary referrals resulting in primary school suspensions. An ACM's expected time with his father (watching the game, I imagined, practicing catch), versus police reports of petty vandalism, of said balls careening through a neighbor's window. I was determined to measure the relationship of support, to action, to re-action, to autonomy in these young men. At some point it occurred to me to work backward. I gathered a more intimate sample: twenty-five case files borrowed from the university's records, culled from a larger random pool. Each of these ACMs came from families of high middle income, had an average or slightly above average IQ, had a face that approached symmetry as determined by his student ID photo. In my pursuit to better understand them, I called suburban high schools, interviewed teachers, coaches, parents even, always over the phone—I was less than forthright, I concede. My ACMs were all "good" promising young men, but they were flawed too, if you scratched the surface. My dredging uncovered attention deficit disorder, depression, vandalism, drug and alcohol abuse. In several cases, I found evidence of more serious transgressions: assault and battery; accusations of sexual misconduct. Not one of these young men was perfect, yet each held promise, and this promise, on balance, was enough to protect them and to buoy their young lives into the future. Five years of my life spent marveling at the resiliency of theirs.

Excerpted from My Monticello by Steven Johnson. Copyright © 2021 by Steven Johnson. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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