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My Monticello is a thought-provoking and damning indictment of race relations in the USA.

Set in a near future, law and order in Virginia – and probably the wider US – has broken down. Rampaging mobs of white supremacists have taken over the streets. They have driven out black and minority ethnic groups – at least those who could run fast enough. A group of escapees end up together on a bus and at the suggestion of one of their number – a university student called DaNaisha – they land up in Monticello, the former home of President Thomas Jefferson. 

DaNaisha, our narrator, explains that she had worked as part of the visitor experience at Monticello. She knows her way around the extensive estate, helping the group to secure the site and bunker in. The story unfolds as a fairly standard tale of a group of misfits forced to shelter in a site that is normally used for other purposes. There are elements of The New Wilderness and Station Eleven as the group battles for survival, repurposing ancient heirlooms to address current needs. DaNaisha’s grandmother, MaViolet, is unwell and needs rest in bed, so she gets Jefferson’s bizarre box bed that straddles two rooms (you have to Google it to really get it – it is too improbable to be described with words alone). 

The beauty of this story is that MaViolet – and hence DaNaisha – believe they are descended from President Jefferson through the children he had with his slave, Sally Hemings. We explore Jefferson’s somewhat ambiguous relationship with slavery. He apparently called for its abolition while owning slaves himself. He had children through what seemed to be an enduring relationship with Hemings, promised the children would be freed, yet they lived much of their lives in bondage. Jefferson believed in the inherent superiority of white people and believed that if/when slavery was abolished, it would be necessary for the emancipated people to leave because he believed the legacy of oppression could only end in violence. So here we are, with Jefferson’s heirs working as tour guides in his estate, now claiming the estate for themselves and for their own purposes. This makes one wonder how we should view the founding fathers; how today’s African Americans can relate to American history; and what their legacy should be in a society that was built on their labour. There are no easy answers, and Jefferson was right, at least, in recognising that master and slave were going to struggle to create a society that was shared on equal terms given the unequal starting points. 

Running alongside these questions of legacy, My Monticello depicts a love triangle as DaNaisha finds herself cloistered with her current (white) partner, Knox, and her former (black) lover Devin. This offers a clear metaphor as DaNaisha has to choose between a future that is true to her heritage or one which gives her a stake in the white entitlement of successful, corporate America. She is genuinely torn, and the denouement of the story is the choice she makes. 

This is such a clever work, mixing despair with optimism; juxtaposing squatting with claiming of rights. DaNaisha is a bright, articulate and very imperfect spokesperson for a generation of young, black Americans trying to reconcile a painful past with hopes for a future, set against a backdrop of an America in which they are often not welcome. Please read this fantastic work. 

Note: it seems the US edition of My Monticello is a collection of six short works. The text I have read contains only My Monticello itself and not the other five works. 

 

*****

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