BASS 2018: Jocelyn Nicole Johnson, “Control Negro” from Guernica, July 2017

Guernica art by Jia Sung

Guernica art by Jia Sung

In 2014, years before Charlottesville became known for a deadly white supremacists’ rally, a black University of Virginia student was detained by local law enforcement after he was turned away from a bar near campus. Moments later, a video showed Martese Johnson pinned to the ground, blood pouring down his face. “I go to UVA!” he shouted, as if he’d once believed those words would shield him. The next week, I recognized his image in the local paper: a boy in a suit, flanked by lawyers, his forehead marked by fresh sutures. Looking on, I received some share of this young man’s bewilderment and heartache; it collected in me. A year later, “Control Negro” spilled out.

~ ~ Jocelyn Nicole Johnson, Contributor Note

I was very nervous about my impression of this story. A quick tour around the internet made me more nervous: yes, the few people who were discussing it at this time were talking about what I considered the substory. Then I visited Jake’s blog, and was shored up; he, too, saw what I saw.

There’s a front-and-center story about the extra level of scrutiny black men (and women) must endure, about the automatic 50% boost given to the clean-cut white male from the middle- and upper-class family, the degree to which white people get second (and third, and fourth) chances, are seen to somehow be innocent even in the face of damning evidence (if you have any doubt about this, let me introduce you to a brief, highly relevant news satire produced by journalists Chris Hayes and Cord Jefferson back in 2013), while black people start from a place of suspicion. This is, in fact, what Toni Morrison meant meant when she called Bill Clinton the first black President: “’People misunderstood that phrase,’ Morrison would later say. ‘I said he was being treated like a black on the street, already guilty, already a perp.’”

This front-and-center story is compelling, as a young man, innocent of any wrongdoing just as Martese Johnson was, is arrested and beaten, just as Johnson was. I don’t mean to imply this is trivial. But, as infuriating and visceral as it is, I thought it was the setting, not The Story. The Story is the father.

My ACMs were all “good” promising young men, but they were flawed too if you scratched the surface. My dredging uncovered attention deficit disorder, depression, vandalism, drug and alcohol abuse. In several cases, I found evidence of more serious transgressions: assault and battery, accusations of sexual misconduct. Not one of these young men was perfect, yet each held promise, and this promise, on balance, was enough to protect them and to buoy their young lives into the future…..
What I needed, it occurred to me then, was to watch another man’s life unfold: a black boy not unlike me, but better than me—an African American who was otherwise equivalent to those broods of average American Caucasian Males who scudded through my classrooms. ACMs, I came to call them, and I wondered how they would measure up with this flawless young man as a watermark. No, it wasn’t them exactly—I wanted to test my own beloved country: given the right conditions, could America extend her promise of Life and Liberty to me too, to someone like me? What I needed was a control, a Control Negro. And given what I teach, it wasn’t lost on me, the agitation of those two words linked together, that archaic descriptor clanking off the end like a rusted shackle.
Those words struck in me and, from them, you grew.

Complete story available online at Guernica

This piece connects to other African-American literature via techniques and tropes from several recent books by black men about similar issues of suspicion and the father-son inheritance. I recognized the Letter to my Son style Ta-Nehisi Coates used to such good effect in Between The World and Me; the very idea of a father setting up his son as an experiment is part of the setup of Paul Beatty’s acclaimed satiric novel The Sellout; and the Only Black Boy in a Private School shows up in many places, but among them is the recently published They Come In All Colors by Malcolm Hansen. And that’s just the stuff I’ve read; I suspect there are more Easter eggs for those who are better-read than I.

Unlike Beatty’s character, the son in this story is unaware of the hidden hand of his biological father (or, for that matter, of his biological father, as he has no idea he is an experiment) at work throughout his youth. While some of that hand is observatory, some is also determinative via a cooperative mother and various subtle techniques. Instead of letting him continue with basketball (a “fraught cliché”), he’s encouraged to try swimming, but when he excels a little too much, he’s steered away from that, lest he become too exceptional. Dad has a fairly narrow range of experience in mind for his developing son.

When the boy is in college, Dad decides the preparation is done, and it’s time to flip the switch, to conduct the actual experiment. This seems to be a somewhat spontaneous decision, but was always part of the plan, and now we encounter the Martese Johnson event: when the police receive a call about a suspicious young man at a particular place, of course they grab the black guy, and of course he ends up bleeding.

I can’t adequately explain it, but I must tell you now that I was the one who called the precinct, claiming to have seen a “suspicious young man” at the corner of University and Second. I called but I did not specify your height, your color. Afterward, I hurried home, reassuring myself. Nothing will come of this, I tried to tell myself—and I will finally be able to let it go, or be let go by it. Son, please believe this, if you believe nothing else I’ve written: this was a test for them—for the world!—not for you.

It may have been a test for the world – a test the world failed, no shit, Sherlock – but it’s the kid who does the bleeding.

Parents go to all sorts of lengths, most of them well-intentioned, to give their kids the best possible chance at success and happiness in life. But that isn’t what Dad is doing. Presumably, the father-son bond never took; he has no more emotional connection to his son than he would to a mouse in a medical lab. He must know there’s a chance his son will be killed.

And this, then, is for me The Story: a father who betrays his son to what could have been the point of death. And why? Of course, Dad offers a self-absolving explanation: “But here, again, we must take a step back, and remind ourselves that this has all been in service to something bigger—that someday our sons’ sons might be spared.”

Does he believe this? Can he possibly believe it, that this incident will wake up America, when so many similar incidents (presumably, we’re not in some alternative universe) have not? If so, does he have the right to sacrifice his son, unaware, to such an aim? Of course not; the question itself is ridiculous. Is this more about a mediocre academician trying to go out with a bang? Does he expect to be admired for this? Or is this revenge on society, using his son as a weapon, for the wrongs done to him? Is it a metaphor for the failure of the Academy to address such inequality? Or a metaphor for the desperate measures that are needed? This – this for me is The Story: What was he thinking? What the hell could he possibly have been thinking? Or am I completely off base, and the son is the story?

I don’t know. I wonder what Johnson’s conception was; I wonder how this story reads to black people, particularly those involved in social justice. It’s almost satire, a man taking matters into his own hands, but it’s a little too realistic. I’m left uncertain, with questions – and very interested in possible answers.

By the way, Martese Johnson is now a law student at the University of Michigan. Now that’s what I call fighting back.

2 responses to “BASS 2018: Jocelyn Nicole Johnson, “Control Negro” from Guernica, July 2017

  1. Such a difficult story to read well. The father isn’t just a bad dad, he’s also a professor, making him a black intellectual. What does that mean? Have black intellectuals let down young people? It’s hard to imagine that, since the father is just pointing out the truth, which is sort of what intellectuals are there to do. But is this a case where the truth doesn’t help anyone? Do young black men need to be able to believe that if they do what they’re supposed to do, it will work out for them? If they can’t believe this, where does that leave young black men? Where does it leave any of us?

    • That’s a really good point, and reminds me that every story is a series of writer’s choices (I often forget). Johnson chose to make Cornelius the biological father, but a “mad scientist” rather than a functional father. She could have done otherwise, which seems to put the focus on a very specific point.

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