If you read my ‘Most Anticipated Books of 2020′ post then you know that this book was at the very top of my list.
And while I was so very excited to read this one, I approached Riot Baby with no expectations at all, just a desire to see how Onyebuchi would tell the story of loving siblings forced to live in an unforgiving world of racial divide and injustice.
I don’t really know how to classify the novel but I can say that there are elements of fantasy, science fiction and the underlining theme that brings it all together is the persecution of African Americans and the desire for change that does not come. Unfortunately this sounds familiar.
When the story begins we’re introduced to little Ella who is taken care of by her grandmother and her very pregnant mother. From the very beginning we learn that Ella is special, she has a ‘Thing’ as they call it. She frequently gets nose bleeds that are accompanied by visions of the future and the people around her.
Also during this time the unrest began in South Central LA after a trial jury acquitted four officers of the LAPD for usage of excessive force in the arrest and beating of Rodney King.
Shockwaves we’re felt across the country and even in Toronto, Canada where a few hundred Canadians marched in solidarity with King but also to protest police brutality in the city, historically known as the Yonge Street Uprising.
The streets of LA turned into mayhem and during the riots Ella’s mom goes into labour and brother Kev is born, thus known as the “Riot Baby.”
It’s important to note that traditionally African names often have unique stories behind them. From the day or time a baby is born to the circumstances surrounding the birth, several factors influence the names. And although this is not his real name I have to wonder by people calling him this, did that put a bad omen over his life and the direction it went. Just a thought.
But if nothing else I think this is one of the most beautifully brilliant display of foreshadowing I’ve read in a long time, probably since, the green light in ‘The Great Gatsby.’
Shortly after this the family moves to Harlem and over the next few years Ella and Kev attempt to navigate their world and the injustices that surround them. Ella’s Thing begins to get stronger and in an attempt to protect her, her mom puts rules on how and when she can use it.
As her powers grow Ella leaves home in order to follow her own path but continues to check on her brother.
In a turn of events Kev ends up in jail at the infamous Rikers island where he’s abused by guards and inmates, and Ella visits him both physically and with her powers.
The entire story is told through both Kev’s and Ella’s point of view, and while the are brother and sister they have two very different paths and different realities. While Ella’s journey is one of physical freedom and fierce anger to change the world, Kev on the other hand is held down by shackles and even when he is on parole he’s free but not really.
‘When people joke and call me Riot Baby for being born when I was, t ain’t with any kind of affection, but something more complicated,”
As Martin Luther King Jr. said in 1966, “A riot is the language of the unheard.”
What made the story absolutely brilliant for me is that it told the essential story of the black man and black woman in America and how the systems of oppression break both the man and the woman in different ways. While Ella is free, she isn’t truly, she lives with anger and the need to still help and protect her brother who is in bondage. While Kev is just broken by the system. Although in the beginning of the book we see that he is a good student and a good boy that stays out of trouble, still he is thrown into a cage, demoralized and abused by the system, forced to live in fear.
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