It’s fitting that Tochi Onyebuchi’s first adult novella, Riot Baby, comes out the day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The roots of activists like MLK run deep through the story, not the sugar-coated, hand-holding, civil rights Santa Claus version the majority likes to champion but the impassioned preacher who wrote fiery words decrying those who stood in the way of progress. Onyebuchi’s story is a clarion call for action and an indictment of pacifism. And it’s a damn good story, too.
Ella and Kev are Black siblings raised, as many of us are, under systemic racial oppression. Kev was born the day the Rodney King riots exploded across Los Angeles. All he knows is police brutality and state sanctioned violence, but Ella, a few years older and with inexplicable superhuman abilities, sees the shift, sees what happens when the oppressed rise up and the oppressor pushes back down. Unable to control her powers and not yet understanding how she might use them to upend the system, Ella goes into self-imposed exile.
Meanwhile Kev is arrested and tossed into Rikers to await trial. Days, weeks, months, years go by and he becomes one of the thousands trapped in the criminal justice system. His own powers are slighter than his sisters, or perhaps merely less developed, but they allow the two to secretly communicate. Ella dreams of shattering the whole system while Kev just wants to survive. But what if survival means destruction? What if the only way to move forward is to burn everything behind you to the ground?
To call Riot Baby “dystopian” is to undersell it. Yes, it depicts a not-too-distant future full of plausible yet preventable horrors inflicted on the masses by greedy oppressors. But dystopian fiction often features characters experiencing for the first time hardships that BIPOC in the real world have been surviving and fighting against for centuries. State sanctioned suppression of basic human rights? Check. Extreme exploitation of labor by business and industrial entities? Yup. Herding people in concentration camps and company towns and prisons? Oh yeah. Passing laws and empowering the already powerful to choke dissent and smother grassroots organization? You betcha. We’ve been there and done that and are still doing it and unless drastic change happens soon we will continue to indefinitely.
For BIPOC in a white supremacist society, the dystopia is past, present, and future. And that’s what makes Riot Baby so impressive. Onyebuchi shows a world that is frightening only if you’ve been exempt from mass oppression. For those of us dealing with it every moment of every day, Riot Baby isn’t so much of a warning about what might happen if we aren’t more vigilant and more of a thinkpiece about where we’re already headed.
Ella and Kev are threats to the state, but they suffer for it in different ways. For Ella, she is #BlackGirlMagic made literal and it is both a blessing and a curse. She is the living embodiment of power in a world that wants to make her feel powerless. Black women are expected to save us all but the moment we exert any authority over the majority we become a danger. We are the mammy and the enemy, the pet and the threat.
Her mother’s rejection of her powers isn’t so much about Ella as what happens to Black people with the power to topple white supremacy. Every time we have gathered together to instigate change, the status quo descends with tone policing and demands for civility and assassinations and imprisonment. That’s why the pastor she meets later advises her to work for peace instead of fight for change. Some progress, minuscule though it may be, is better than none, right? They say we should take what we can get—or what the majority is willing to give—and be thankful for it. So Ella holds her powers back and seals herself up in a metaphorical prison. She dreams and waits.
Ella passes through the world unseen and disregarded by the majority compared to Kev who isn’t just noticed by the majority but sought out by its enforcers. Kev is arrested for the crime of being a Black boy existing in a public space. He knows what white society thinks of him; after all, he was born the night Los Angeles’ brown and Black people took to the streets when white cops were acquitted after being videotaped beating and tasering a Black man. Jail was in Kev’s future just as being gunned down was in the future of the boy Ella met on the street. Whether in South Central or Harlem, both boys were doomed before they were born to be crushed under the heel of a society that sees them only as brutes and thugs. With lighter skin he might have been able to pursue his interest in technology and put his own powers to good use, but instead he becomes the next boy run through the New Jim Crow grinder.
Kev, too, dreams and waits. After so long in a cell, all he wants is freedom. What he gets is a simulation of it. The post-jail neighborhood in Watts—the site of the 1965 rebellion when African Americans fought back against racial discrimination and police brutality just like they did 27 years later—is little more than an open air prison. No visitors, a tracking monitor that can dictate his behavior, a job working for the same people imprisoning him that pays off the debt incurred by being imprisoned.
To bring it back around to MLK, Riot Baby stands “between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the “do nothingism” of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist.” Stretching the comparison even further: Kev is the “Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom,” and Ella is the “something without has reminded him that it can be gained.” Onyebuchi could have ended the story on a note of desperation and cynicism; instead he opts for hope. Well, it’s hopeful if you’re BIPOC. Maybe not so much if you like being in power.
With an eviscerating and eloquent style, Tochi Onyebuchi tells a profound story about resistance. The narrative moves from South Central to Harlem to Rikers to Watts and jumps between Ella and Kev as they grow up. This allows Onyebuchi to tell two vast stories with the same concise theme. It’s a clever trick that manages to give this novella a novel-like breadth.
As much as I love his young adult fiction, I hope this is not Tochi Onyebuchi’s only excursion into adult fiction. Riot Baby left me gasping for air and ready to take to the streets.
Alex Brown is a teen services librarian by day, local historian by night, author and writer by passion, and an ace/aro Black woman all the time. Keep up with her on Twitter and Insta, or follow along with her reading adventures on her blog.