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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Now all I had to do was monitor a boy who enjoyed, on average, the same lifted circumstances that my ACMs had experienced. Prenatal care and regular visits to the dentist. An educated mother and father (or father figure). Well-funded schools and a residence situated in a "good," safe neighborhood. For his part, this young man would have to keep his grades up, have clear diction, wear his pants at an average perch at his waist. He would have to present a moderate temperament, maybe twice as moderate—just to be safe—as those bright boys he'd be buffed so hard to mirror.

What I aimed to do was to painstakingly mark the route of this Black child too, one who 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.

About this time, I met your mother.

What can I say—she was, in her own way, a force of nature, and the sole woman of color in the graduate program in environmental studies that year. I spotted her one rainy afternoon in a dimly lit classroom. The door half open, she stood at the lectern rehearsing, her PowerPoint blinking furiously behind her, projecting light and shadow on her face. Slide after slide of washed-out shores and water rising. She looked up at me but did not lose her place. It would be only one more year before you were born.

Our first night together, your mother informed me she was married—she intended to remain married—which came as a relief. Those early years of struggle had made me a solitary sort of man. Nonetheless we continued to see each other, sporadically, into the spring. She wanted a child, I knew, and although her husband was likely the source of her childlessness, to protect his pride she alone bore the blame between them. That winter when I found out you were growing inside her, part mine and a boy, we both agreed. I would contribute financially and keep silent about my paternity. She would keep you nearby and take my requests about you to heart. She knew about my ACMs, but never that I needed a boy to balance them. Right then and there, I realized who you would be.

There are many studies now about the cost of race in this great nation. Most convincing is the work from other departments: sociology, cultural anthropology. Researchers send out identical résumés or home loan applications, half of which are headed with "ethnic-sounding" names. They instruct Black and white individuals to watch other Black and white individuals receive a painful-looking shot. The needle digs into muscle and the researchers mark how much sweat leaks from pores of the watchers. They measure who gets the job, the loan, who gets the lion's share of salted, dank empathy. They mark which colored human-shaped targets get shot by police, in study after study, no matter how innocuous the silhouetted objects they cradle. All these studies, I concede, are good, great work, but I wonder, is there something flawed in them that makes the findings too easy to dismiss?

My research, by contrast, has been more personal—challenging me, at times, to reexamine my history. How different my life has been from the lives of my ACMs, and from your life. You grew up on that tree-lined cul-de-sac, while I was born in the back room of a two-room house, in the sand hills of South Carolina. I was a dark-skinned bookish child—we both are only sons. My own mother didn't have much money, but no one had much. Certainly not any of the colored folks we knew, the only point of comparison one dared in those days. Most of my schoolmates had fathers, though, and mine had gone north, to Chicago, for work, and not come back. He was essentially a stranger. Even so, growing up, I felt his abandonment acutely, like hunger. I filled that hunger with reading.

Like you, I played baseball, if briefly. The summer I turned ten I joined the Negro Youth League. I went for the promised uniforms, which turned out to be sweat-stained cast-offs salvaged from a white church's collection. Even so, thick patches had been sewn onto the chests, and underneath mine, my heart felt sanctioned. Our very first practice, I managed a decent hit, a satisfying thwack like an ax cleaving wood. Afterward, I should have walked back with the others, but instead I set off on my own, replaying my minuscule victory in my head until it felt epic and novel-worthy. I wandered down behind White Knoll, crossing Main, still dreaming. I didn't realize where I was until I heard car doors slap shut behind me, felt the chilled shadows of strangers. Three young white men had gathered around me, their bodies blocking each path of escape I darted toward. "Where does this boy believe he's going?" the one in the work boots said.

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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