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‘My Monticello,’ by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson: An Excerpt | tnewst.com Press "Enter" to skip to content

‘My Monticello,’ by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson: An Excerpt

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We rounded a small loop and rolled up on the welcome pavilion— a complex of stone and wooden buildings around an open patio— as if arriving for some rare evening tour. We jerked to a halt in our lost-and-found Jaunt, pockmarked by bullets: The men on First Street had shot out a set of windows, so we arrived with glass glittering on our scalps.

[ Return to the review of “My Monticello.” ]

We were mostly neighbors, mostly brown and Black people, sixteen of us in all. The youngest among us was three months old. At seventy-eight, MaViolet was the eldest. She floundered in her seat, her arms splayed for purchase. Knox helped her to her feet, his glasses speckled with what turned out to be someone else’s blood.

We came with whatever we could grab or hang on to. The Yahya family, who had two young children and a baby, brought yards of colorful fabric tangled in Papa Yahya’s arms. Ms. Edith, who was well into her sixties, but spry and owllike in her downy brown tracksuit, carried a leatherette book of psalms. The white couple from the white house across the road, Ira and Carol, carried two snowy hens, clucking and bristling in their grasps. KJ, who was slight for ten and on his own, carried a drab pea-green suitcase with a rip running along one side. Our neighbor LaToya— who we all knew sold herself— carried her own gleaming body, her rust-colored hair and near-white skin, her cheeks doused in rose-gold blush.

Among other things, Devin carried a bright seed of anger. His cousin Elijah, who was built like a wall, hefted a large duffel full of handguns and clips. Elijah’s twin, Ezra, the smaller of the pair, carried one handgun, along with the smell of reefer in his hair. The guns had belonged to the twins’ father— Devin’s uncle— who’d been decorated police out in the county.

We stepped down cautiously, testing the new ground.

We came with nine pocketknives, five sets of keys, and seven useless cell phones, which sank like stones in our pockets. Knox carried the same messenger bag he’d brought with him from campus days earlier; it held a toothbrush, a gridded notebook, a copy of Morrison’s Song of Solomon that I’d lent him some time before. MaViolet carried empty trembling hands, and beside her I held no more than the clothes on my body: high-waisted cutoffs and a navy T-shirt touting the university’s emblem in orange. Months earlier, I’d cut a hopeful scoop from the once-tight collar, but standing there, I tried to tug one fallen edge back onto my shoulder.

Three guards hurried toward us from the ticket office, moving together through the thickening dark. Unshaven men, well into their sixties, the trio wore khakis and cranberry polos, the same uniform I’d worn the summer before. Up close, they did not look like guards exactly— more like drivers, or docents maybe, who’d been begged or commanded to defend the historic house. They looked weary though, their pant cuffs hemmed in mud. The shotguns they raised struck me as ancient, as if they’d been pulled off the wall of some exhibit, as likely to jam or explode as fire. One white guard and two Black guards; the white one stepped forward. Keep driving, he said, but our feet had already touched the ground, and we’d gotten here on fumes.

Off to one side, Devin raised his chin, his dark locs cascading toward his shoulders. He made no move whatsoever for his gun, though it glowed in his waistband. Never mind that he’d been a gentle kid, and an A/B student all the way through his senior year when he’d been expelled for fighting. Ezra and Elijah stood behind him, with Ezra’s handgun threatening only the asphalt at his feet. Still, I don’t believe our weapons were the reason the old guards let us stay. One of the Black guards— the one with the Afro gone feral, like a modern Frederick Douglass— looked hard at me.


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