Moving back to my old hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia in the summer of 2021, I was aware that a lot had changed since I left 16 years ago. No book chronicled and processed those changes better than the debut collection of stories by Charlottesville writer Jocelyn Nicole Johnson. My Monticello, particularly the included novella with that title, presents questions of race, class, and history with texture and narrative suspense.
The novella imagines a sequel to the Unite the Right rally that scarred the city in August of 2017. The details of the incident are left intentionally vague, but it’s clear that marauding bands identifying with the alt-right have come to town, uprooting traditionally Black neighborhoods and sending the residents into flight. Da’Naisha ‘Naisha’ Love, an African-American descendent of Thomas Jefferson, flees her downtown home with her frail but wise grandmother MaViolet and a multi-racial group of refugees on a Jaunt bus. They take shelter on the mountaintop grounds of Monticello.
Eventually they move into the old house setting up camp and returning the museum back into the lived space it had been. The failing Ma Violet occupies Jefferson’s own bed and Naisha can’t help but see the resonance in the descendants of former enslaved people, who lived as much as possible out of sight in Jefferson’s architecture, moving upstairs and above ground. Meanwhile the architecture of the nation Jefferson helped design is coming apart as is clear from the reports of scattered people who show up on the mountain.
Despite the apocalypse going on in the city below, the focus stays on the relationships of the little community forming on the old plantation. Naisha navigates relationships with Knox, her white UVA student boyfriend, and Devin, whom she has known much longer from her neighborhood. MaViolet is dying and the whole group feels the stress. You feel throughout that this can’t end well, but the story closes with drama and an attempt at dignity.
Johnson is a great writer and her long experience in Charlottesville, where she has taught art in city public schools, gives this an authentic feel. She gives voice to things we are feeling but can’t seem to put into words and the words we do find for them are too often jargon-y. You can talk about these things in the language of white supremacy, wokeness, and centering stories on the experience of the marginalized, but Johnson just gets about it, offering a thought experiment that is more tangible–what if we tried living in the spaces of the past and reclaimed what we could while we got about the messy busy of building a new community that sees more clearly and talks more honestly?
It’s great to see this book and its author get national attention. Both are also gifts for a city groping toward a new story to tell itself about what it is.