Why You Need to Read: “Riot Baby”

Riot Baby

By: Tochi Onyebuchi

Published: January 21, 2020

Genre: Speculative Fiction/Contemporary

            The look on her face, that’s what people told me today wasn’t no kind of victory. That when people joke and call me Riot Baby for being born when I was, it ain’t with any kind of affection, but something more complicated. The type of thing old heads and Mama and other people’s parents tell you you won’t understand till you get older, (II, Harlem). 

            Our world is not a utopia, but it’s not a dystopia either. Our world is balanced between the good and the bad, and the beautiful and the ugly. As humanity’s technology emerged with emphasis on the visuals, humanity preferred to use: cameras, camcorders, and videos to capture moments and/or events in life. Although technology is used for selfish reasons, it cannot be denied that we’ve used it in order to capture moments of both the beautiful and the ugly. Yet, it cannot be said that the ugly moments provided elements of truth which details moments of life for all individuals around the world. In the 21st century, this technology serves as a reminder that life is beautiful and ugly due to humanity, and that art imitates life NOT vice versa. 

            Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi is an allegorical narrative about the treatment of “minorities”—specifically Black Americans—in contemporary America. I’m not going to use the sub-genre—dystopia—because it implies, “a very unpleasant imaginary world in…a disastrous future,” (p. 417). Riot Baby focuses on the present, so to categorize it in the dystopia subgenre would be an insult to the many victims of the societal practice. This novella reiterates numerous key moments in America during the last 60 years, most of which there is evidence in the form of both photos and videos. While several outlets of mainstream media and history texts continue to gloss over past and recent events, victims and witnesses know better due to the fear and the knowledge that such events: Rodney King, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Colin Kapernick, McKinley, Charleston, etc., can and will happen again. Riot Baby is Childish Gambino’s, “This Is America,” presented from a similar perspective in a different format. 

            There are two protagonists, but the story starts with Ella who is around 7-years-old. She lives with her mother in South Central Los Angeles. The year is 1992 and her mother is pregnant. Ella is a very perspective child. One of the reasons for this is because Ella has ESP abilities of an empath and powers that rival Scarlet Witch from X-Men. One day after school, as the Rodney King Verdict is announced, Ella’s mother goes into labor and they have to get to a hospital. After her brother, Kevin, is born, Ella begs her mother to have them move to Harlem believing her rage, and her abilities to feel everyone else’s rage, won’t be as volatile on the East Coast as it is on the West. Several years later, Kev spends his time after school hanging out with his friends outside of a bodega on a street corner, avoiding the notice of both the police and his mother and sister. Some things are easier said than done because Ella cannot control neither her “gift” nor her rage, and Kev can’t do anything to stop himself from becoming another statistic in American society. Soon, Kevin is in jail and Ella “jumps” all over the world observing the ways other people live. The brother becomes indifferent and the sister becomes even more enraged.

            As Kev serves his (exaggeratedly long) sentence in Rikers State Penitentiary, Ella experiences rodeos in Louisiana, horse races in Belmont, the shooting of Sean Bell, the police “raid” at a pool party in McKinley, Texas and the mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. Kev, in his youth, becomes worn down in prison and Ella becomes so angry that she seeks advice from her mother and her mother’s acquaintances. Kev is comfortable with the “life” provided for him in prison and on parole. Ella explains to him how both are restrictive forms of freedom, and the only way to achieve freedom is to act on their anger. 

            Throughout the narrative, readers witness the events and the treatment Ella and Kev experience throughout their lives and the helplessness they feel over and over again. From Kev’s point-of-view and stream-of-consciousness, readers witness how Black Men are treated in America’s systematic racism from racial profiling to prison (and juvenile detention) to parole. From Ella’s point-of-view, readers experience the world beyond Black America, and moments from the past, including the ones her mother lived through. Ella’s stream-of-consciousness (and empathic powers) allows for readers (and Ella) to feel all of the emotions everyone else is expressing, which leaves her (and us) wondering why more people are not upset with this treatment within society. Given the pace and the moments in U.S. history and society, both Ella and Kev are reliable narrators. 

            The style Tochi Onyebuchi uses for Riot Baby is a social commentary of recent events told with the lenses of speculative fiction. The mood in this novella is rage from mistreatment and oppression in a society. The author makes several references referring to race relations in the U.S.: Rodney King and the L.A. Riots, Sean Bell, Charleston, McKinley, Spike Lee, Black women and childbirth, George Washington Carver, the Confederate Flag, hoodies, neo-Nazis, music—particularly rap, etc. The tone reflects the way one should feel about all of the mistreatment Ella learns and that it is okay to feel anger towards this mistreatment, the same mistreatment which converted her brother into a docile servant of American society. Using superpowers, the author illustrates what will eventually happen if these practices continue.  

            Riot Baby will appeal to fans of both speculative fiction (i.e. comics, manga and graphic novels) and history (i.e. social commentary). Systematic racism continues to be an issue throughout the world, and fans who want to read about this issue in a different style of writing should read this book. Anyone who has read: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and the MARCH Trilogy by John Lewis will appreciate the themes and the message found within Riot Babythe most.  

            Riot Baby is a parable (“a very short narrative about human beings presented…with a general thesis or lesson that the narrator is trying to bring home to his audience,”) about systematic racism and its practices throughout America (p. 9). Both the story and the title emphasizes that anger continues to build up due to mistreatment, oppression and fear and it’s all felt by one and many. Tochi Onyebuchi presents a believable story about the risks society takes when they ignore the harsh practices and restrictions of a group of people. Riot Baby uses the concept of mutant powers in order to deliver another approach to contemporary American society.

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!!

                                                                        Works Cited

Abrams, M.H., and Geoffrey Galt Harpham. A Glossary of Literary Terms. Tenth ed., Wadsworth, 2005. 

Why You Need to Read: These Essential Reads for Black History Month

Black History Month can be a repetitive; this is because we honor the accomplishments of black people in the United States, and the rest of the world. And yet, we tend to recognize the same people: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Jackie Robinson, Harriet Tubman, and we glance at Alex Haley, Madam CJ Walker, and Matthew Henson. I have nothing against honoring the same people every year, but we should honor the “hidden gems” as well. A few of those figures are still alive. 

            At most, schools assign students to read Frederick’s Douglass’ biography and Maya Angelou’s memoir, and memorize the speeches by both Sojourner Truth and Dr. King. The Civil Rights Movement is glanced over to the point where many people do not know what influenced Rosa Parks’ actions and why. Now, I’m not saying that U.S. Citizens should know every black person in history, but they should attempt to broaden their historical knowledge. Who else can we learn about? How can it be done?

            The books mentioned below are biographies, autobiographies and memoirs of a few obscure figures that influenced many lives in the United States and in the rest of the world. Some you may have heard of, some you have not, and one “controversial” selection (with good reason). These are recommendations, which I have read, or started reading. A few of these selections are denser than others, but that means that there is more to read and more to know.

Older Releases

            These selections include a couple of familiar names, a narrative from a runaway slave, a figure from the Reconstruction Era, and a white man in black face on a mission to expose the harsh reality of Black Americans right up to the Civil Rights Movement. These books will give you insight into how Black Americans were treated from slavery to the Civil Rights Movement.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) as told to Alex Haley

            Everyone has heard of this book and its biopic adaptation by Spike Lee, but how many of you have taken the time to read it? Malcolm X’s autobiography not only looks into the treatment and the struggles of poor African-Americans—and he does a great job distinguishing the various ethnicities and socioeconomic statuses of African-Americans throughout the U.S.—but also, points out how easy it is to corrupt religion. Yes, Malcolm X became a Muslim, but his journey of knowledge through self-education is one that can inspire everyone who reads his life story.

Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1986) by David J. Garrow

            This Pulitzer Prize winning biography is the most informative and in-depth look at Dr. King’s life and participation in the Civil Rights Movement from the Montgomery Bus Boycott to the Poor Peoples’ Campaign. This biography of Dr. King stands out because it includes Dr. King’s personal papers, FBI documents, and interviews with Dr. King’s (then) surviving associates giving readers one of the most comprehensive looks into Dr. King’s career as an activist. 

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) by Harriet Jacobs

            Many of us have heard of Frederick Douglass and Solomon Northup. Harriet Jacobs’ memoir—which was published in serials—tells us what slavery is like for females. Her slave master not only sexually harass Harriet to the point where she had to go into hiding, but also those experiences left Harriet feeling paranoid and insecure even after she escaped to the Free States. 

From Superman to Man (1917) by J.A. Rogers

            Written and published over a hundred years ago by this Jamaican-American writer, Rogers’ method of discussing race relations, prejudice, and misconceptions of history in America versus the rest of the world will have readers recalling the essays written by James Baldwin. Only, Rogers’ books were published before Baldwin’s. This book is written as a conversation between an educated black man named Dixon, and a few white males he ends up traveling with. This book contains information on how all races and all ethnicities of all socioeconomic statues are victims of misconceptions and falsehoods spread by political leaders and propaganda in order to keep “everyone in their place” and to “justify their beliefs” on how they think the world should operate. The historical and the revelations will leave readers with knowledge of what is made ubiquitous and what is limited to everyone. 

Black Like Me (1960) by John Howard Griffin

            The first time I heard of this book was on an episode of Boy Meets World. A journalist decided he was going to go undercover and document what is was like to be an African-American male in the Southern United States during the 1950s. What this Caucasian male witnessed and experienced made him both a best-selling author, and a target to those who opposed the Civil Rights Movement and integration. This book was a wakeup call into how segregationist and racists were able to get away with their violent actions for as long as they did. 

Recent Releases

            These selections were published in recent years—as early as 2008—and they’re all about the struggles of Blacks throughout the world and how, with all of the programs and the public awareness, the struggle remains. We are reminded by these authors that in this list that all is not well. 

March Trilogy (2013-6) by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell

            Congressman John Lewis has lived an interesting and inspirational life. Growing up in the Southern U.S. right before the Civil Rights Movement, readers learn what inspired John Lewis to participate in this movement. John Lewis was one of the speakers at the March on Washington, and he knew Dr. King, Malcolm X, James Baldwin, and other figures from that era. The graphic novel format allows for the appropriate depictions of pivotal events from this moment in U.S. history. 

Between the World and Me (2015) by Ta-Nehisi Coates

            The author wrote this book for his son in response to the verdict of the Trayvon Martin murder trial. The book echoes James Baldwin’s works in that it serves as an informative tale of what modern Black Americans—particularly males—need to be aware of in American society. While racism is acknowledged and visible due to modern technology and coverage, it remains a “blinded” issue because the book illustrates how the accusations and the deaths of many Black people continue to occur in America. 

Men We Reaped: A Memoir (2013) by Jesmyn Ward

            This memoir focuses on how the repetitive struggles of a group of people because of race and socioeconomic status continue to lead to despair within the “upcoming” generation. Jesmyn Ward—2-time winner of the National Book Award—recalls how the deaths of five young black men, including her brother and her cousin, in four years from various causes, which sprouted from limited opportunities and expectations. This book is a cautionary tale as to why believing that times have progressed can lead to crushed hopes for a “good” life due to a lack of education, government spending, history, family expectations, and health. The focus here is how such limitations can lead to an early death instead of incarceration, which is just as bad. This book is a wake-up call to the harsh reality of those who are left behind deliberately. 

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo (2012) by Tom Reiss

            What inspired Alexandre Dumas to write The Three Musketeersand The Count of Monte Cristo? Well, if your father was a general in Napoleon’s army, who was later betrayed and murdered by him, then those stories and experiences would find their way into your stories. This Pulitzer winner looks at the life of General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas who went from a bastard growing up in (what is now known as) Haiti to his rise and eventual fall in the French army. 

Ida: A Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching (2008) by Paula Giddings

            Ida B. Wells-Garnett was a fierce woman who was ahead of her time. While she is remembered during Black History Month, her accomplishments have been forgotten. Born into slavery, Ida B. Wells started her anti-lynching campaign after losing a friend to a lynch mob. In addition, she was one of the first to sue and to win a lawsuit after being thrown off a train for refusing to move her seat way before Rosa Parks did the same thing! And, she was a speaker of the Suffrage Movement in the U.S. and in Britain, and one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (N.A.A.C.P.). Ida B. Wells remains one of the most infamous badasses in American history.

These books are recommendations for Black History Month in how the repetitive struggles of Black Americans continue to affect and to influence the growing demands for change in the United States. Even if the names of the authors are familiar to you, then you should still read the books due to the other names mentioned within these books. These are non-fiction reads, meaning that the people and the history are true whether or not you want to believe it. I believe reading these books will provide a better understanding of how and why people continue to mistreat each other. False knowledge and beliefs can often lead to denial once the truth and the facts are presented, but knowing that there is truth within history will allow the race of humanity to continue moving forward.