My Monticello by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson

Review by Max Dunbar

The House of Tradition

The grand houses of American history attract plenty of visitors wanting to learn about the Civil War, slavery and the founding fathers. Or not, maybe. Kelly Fanto Deetz, public historian at the old Lee residence of Stratford Hall, writes that

Visitors’ expectations often collide with reality, creating tense moments on tours. Some visitors want answers and stories that sit comfortably with their ideas of slavery and of America as a whole.

‘Were the Lees good slave owners?’ is a frequent question.

Many visitors comment on how the slaves were treated like family, or how their housing doesn’t seem that bad. Some would rather skip the whole slavery thing altogether and just comfortably learn about the decorative arts and the often luxurious lives of the white families who lived there.

Stratford Hall, Virginia – Home of the Lee family

English heritage, too, is bogged down in what we call a ‘reckoning’ with our part in slavery and empire. Eleanor Harding, curator at Penrhyn Castle, described visitor reactions to the Trust’s acknowledgement of Jamaican plantation slavery that built the barony’s wealth.

We have people who are frustrated at the way the world is going and changes to the status quo, who are coming to Penrhyn, knowing what they’re going to see and almost needing it as a place to vent their anger,’ she says. Others let rip anonymously on TripAdvisor, where ‘Shropshire Lad’ from Shrewsbury complains of ‘an amazing building, gardens and history ruined by an unremitting display of wokeness’, while Alan M compares ‘the narrow (and oh so fashionable) angle taken to present a complex subject’ to communist rewritings of history. Mike from Tonbridge rages: ‘Give us what we visited for and paid for – History!’

As the Rhode Island professor Tom Nichols said, people really want history to make them feel good about themselves.

To one of these grand American houses Da’Naisha Love flees, with her boyfriend and family, after white supremacists attack her neighbourhood of First Street in Charlottesville. Da’Naisha knows the Thomas Jefferson house well – she has worked there part time, and is even a descendant of Sally Hemings, Jefferson’s slave with whom he fathered children. She knows this through ‘DNA analysis connecting Jefferson’s known descendants to one of Sally Hemings’s known descendants. But mostly I knew my lineage the way most families know theirs; I knew because Momma told me, because MaViolet told her.’

Charlottesville made international headlines in 2017 when the ‘Unite the Right’ demonstration took place. Clean-cut men marched through the streets waving tiki torches, shouting ‘Jews will not replace us!’ A paralegal named Heather Heyer was murdered by a far right activist who ploughed his car into a group of counter demonstrators. In My Monticello, this foul act of violence, rather than being an aberration, became the beginning of a racist street movement that is constant and finally overwhelming.

Da’Naisha’s exploration of Monticello gives us that rare thing, an actual ‘reckoning’ with history, ‘seesawing again between density and lightness, between Momma’s disavowal of this painful heritage and MaViolet’s cautious regard.’ On the first day, Da’Naisha cuts the ribbons that cordon off chairs and also corridors, the heritage industry’s prim reminder that the house of tradition has many rooms and some doors that should not be opened. She reads Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, ‘some of Jefferson’s thoughts on human bondage. Slavery was ‘a moral depravity’ he wrote, brutal to Black people and a means to make tyrants of white people. But then he also wrote that Blacks were inferior to whites, in body and mind, that we stank, that we were like children, unable to look after ourselves.’ This is the true reckoning – the evil of good men, the good and the evil entwined at the heart of the American dream like coiled wires. 

My Monticello is a short novel, but it’s a long short novel, and a grim one. Outside Monticello, civil society has pretty much disintegrated, and terror is everywhere. From Jefferson’s orchard, Da’Naisha sees ‘Past the heads of the trees, a haze obscured our view, smoke funnelling out from someplace that felt close to the road below us’ – the furnace that Charlottesville has become. The threat has been climbing for most of Da’Naisha’s adult life – ‘Waves of men have surged into our town from all over the state, the country.’ The white supremacists are an enduring, routine presence: ‘It was not unusual to see their shiny procession on the strip next to campus – dark SUVs awash with flags, driving at a crawl – still it startled me every time.’ These men are faceless – we never meet them as individuals or hear their spoken voices, we only know them through their flyers and chants, the propaganda these men have vanished into. A beaten-up Black man is dumped into Monticello to warn Da’Naisha’s group of impending attack. The man, obviously tortured and prepped, recites: It is my privilege to be allowed to speak for the True Men, the Patriots… We are chosen to redeem the great state of Virginia from darkness… We pledge to do what must be done, to restore our Legacy! Our Monuments! Ourselves! 

There is plenty of love on the mountain, too, particularly in Da’Naisha’s relationship with her grandmother, and with her two rival lovers, Knox and Devin – a white college progressive versus the Black lover of her early years, either one of whom could be the father of Da’Naisha’s unborn child. For all the warmth and lyricism of My Monticello, however, it’s clear that the story will only have one ending and that no one will be spared. History is not there to make us feel comfortable, and neither is this book.

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Max blogs at maxdunbar.wordpress.com and tweets as @MaxDunbar1.

Jocelyn Nicole Johnson, My Monticello, (Penguin, 2021), 978-1787303027, 182 pp., hardback.

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