Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi (Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 4/5

This was a hard book to read — not because of the ugly truths it laid bare (that too) but because of the ugly truths the author calls for: black revenge in the form of “Apocalypse sweeps the South. Vengeance visits the North.”

It’s the story of two siblings. Ella has her “Thing” — a deep and growing power that she spends years learning to control: clairvoyance, astral projection, and the ability to destroy with a glance. Her younger brother Kevin was born into violence: he is “Riot Baby” — born just as the Rodney King riots sparked. Kevin’s life is supposed to represent that of a typical black urban youth. We strobe through it: a smart kid doing well in school; a kid taunting cops; a failed armed robbery attempt; 7 years in Rikers waiting for an ever-delayed trial; parole release into a “sponsored community” with a chip in his thumb to keep him both tracked and drugged as necessary (the author extrapolates seamlessly into this future vision of released prisoners). The word “n**ga” is ubiquitous in the dialog as in every single sentence.

Onyebuchi’s writing is phenomenal — he brings the people, culture, and environment to life. He illustrates societal issues via Kevin’s life while Ella serves as the symbol of black anger and black power — the former slowly coming to a boil as she learns how to control it and turn it into the latter.

Reading this book you are immersed in the author’s feeling of what life is like in this environment. And it’s horrible and depressing. He doesn’t hide the fact that individuals are contributing to their own problems: Kevin didn’t have to try to try to rob a bank, he didn’t have to harass the cops when they patrolled, he could have stayed in school and taken advantage of what appeared to have been a good brain. But Onyebuchi appears to lay the blame squarely in White America’s lap calling out (fairly) the police brutality and discriminatory justice system. Like most fiction, the information included is emotionally powerful but also anecdotal. While the studies definitely show the discriminatory patterns, is it really the case that every black urban youth is destined for this future? Is there nothing short of the revolution he calls for that would help? Is every policeman who goes into these neighborhoods an a*hole bent on harassing the residents? Could we not try to do something about the bangers who commit far more murder of black residents than any number of cops? I know these are complicated issues, and I know as a white middle class woman I can’t possibly know what it would be like to be born into this life — but I also know it is the rare revolution (I can only think of one) that doesn’t just cause a lot of murder and destruction and end up in a similar situation with just another set of people with power.

Bottom line — powerful book, worth reading but very disturbing. One pretty dark picture of modern urban black life — I hope in future books Onyebuchi can come up with some positive actions towards improving things rather than revolution and rebirth. Definitely an author to watch — I’ll have to go back and look at his young adult fiction; this is his first adult novel.

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