The In-Between: A Discussion with Jocelyn Nicole Johnson about Race and Space in ‘My Monticello’

 by Sarad Davenport | Photos by Billy Hunt

Jocelyn Nicole Johnson describes herself as an ‘artsy, nerdy, and introverted person who is interested in thinking about the world and what it could be.’ In October of this year, she released My Monticello, a book that includes a novella about a near-future dystopian reality where white supremacists violently take siege of Charlottesville. The story is told from the perspective of the main character, Da’Naisha, who has deep Charlottesville roots and is also a descendent of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings.  While the community burns, Da’Naisha and a group of people escape via an abandoned Jaunt bus to Monticello and try to find meaning in their new exiled reality.     

The novella and one of the stories, ‘Control Negro’ has been picked up by the national media in a way that continues to center Charlottesville as the epicenter of the broad intercultural discussion. The audiobook employs Lavar Burton and Aja Naomi King as a few of its narrators and gives the world a look into a reality that is not far-fetched, especially to people who lived through the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in August of 2017. In many respects, Joceyln contextualizes and gives the taste and feel of what it is like to be a Charlottesvillian through time —particularly a Black Charlottesvillian. 

Origins and Belonging
My Monticello continues to command the attention of more and more people even after its initial rollout, and it may have left some people wondering just where did this writer with such soul-piercing prose come from. How did Jocelyn Nicole Johnson come to be, and how did she arrive at this moment?

Jocelyn grew up in Reston, Virginia which is a bustling suburb of Washington, D.C., but she also has deep family roots in South Carolina. “My whole extended family is from South Carolina,” she said. “I kind of claimed Virginia as my home even though I’ve often found myself disconnected from this place,” she said. Jocelyn went on to talk about how Virginia and Charlottesville in particular exist for many people as a place of ‘in-between’ where there are constant reminders particularly for Black people that they don’t belong.

According to Jocelyn, this book tackles the issue of ‘race and class and all of its complexity and draws from things that happened in real life.’ When speaking of the case of Black University of Virginia student, Martise Johnson, she spoke of the pain of seeing him bleeding on the ground and “looking heartbroken.” Perhaps, heartbroken at the fact that he did everything right, so much so, that he was admitted as a student at such a prestigious University, but the brutality of those officers was there to remind him that he didn’t belong. It was a reminder that no matter how controlled a Black man becomes, it does not render him safe in America.

In some respects, writing this book was a way of reclaiming space. “This is my home and should be—unequivocally,” she stated plainly. “My child,” she said speaking of her own son. “How do you protect your kids as a mother of a Black boy? We make Black boys hold more than they should have to,” she said in a way that made it all the more perplexing why we make our children carry so much.

The Teacher Writer
Twenty years ago, Jocelyn became an art teacher in an effort to remain artistic but practical at the same time. Jocelyn just so happened to be an art teacher at James G. Johnson Elementary School in Charlottesville, ironically where I once attended long ago.

“I have the disposition of an elementary art teacher. It gave me access to human beings and all of their idiosyncrasies. When you create a sense of community, it can be a place where it’s greater than the sum of its parts when it works.”

Even while in school and later while teaching, Jocelyn made her artistic pursuit a lifelong quest and has the artifacts to prove it. As a teenager, Jocelyn was invited to UVA in her writing capacity. “I came to the young writers’ workshop at UVA when I was in high school. I met young writers from all over the country,” she indicated. This, in some respect, shows how Joceyln did not just miraculously show up at this moment but has been on her way to this moment for quite some time.

Trusting the Process
As it turns out, the teaching profession is an ideal bi-vocation for the writer, especially because summers are usually free. “I took a class at the writing center here in Charlottesville. I submitted short pieces to The Writers Eye and won once. I also went to a summer writers workshop in Portland called Tin House,” she relayed.

Jocelyn wanted to make it clear that My Monticello comes after years of development and preparation. It came after writing several other works that didn’t sell and never really saw the light of day. This new work comes on the heels of relationships with agents and publishers that just didn’t work out. Jocelyn really loved the craft of writing but had the ultimate intent of having people read her work broadly and “to have an audience” as she put it. 

Everything seemed to come together for My Monticello when New York Times best-selling author Roxanne Gay mentioned one of Jocelyn’s short stories, ‘Control Negro’ in a Tweet. “She ended up being the editor of the collection. Control Negro is included in the book as short fiction. That was the first time strangers really responded to me.” The days of working and creating in obscurity were over and it was time to take things to the next level.

“I knew this time was different from the past,” said Jocelyn. She wanted to make sure that the people supporting her work were as excited about the work as she was. With the engagement of Roxanne Gay and her agent Meredith Kaffel Simonoff, Jocelyn felt like she had the right people around her to build a real audience for the work. Jocelyn said of Meredith that “she has connections and was already whipping up excitement and helped me to have a really successful group of editors.”

The book was inevitably picked up by Henry Holt and Company which is one of the oldest and renowned publishers in America. My Monticello will leave lasting impressions on the collective American psyche as we all grapple with issues of race, class, possession, and dispossession. Find out more at https://www.jocelynjohnson.com/ and be on the lookout for the adaptation that will soon be featured on Netflix. 

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