Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi

Like Doreen, I initially thought that Riot Baby was an imperative phrase, not a descriptive one. Instead of getting his characters to riot, Onyebuchi has them bide their time and keep absorbing the hits that life, in this particular instance life as working-class Black Americans, gives them.

Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi

Those hits start early, and keep coming. Riot Baby opens with Ella on a school bus in South Central Los Angeles when teenage gang members, offended by gestures a school kid made through a bus window, burst into the bus with guns drawn and put the barrels up against the kid’s head. They don’t shoot him on the spot, but “Ella can see in the gangbanger’s eyes that he’s got no compunctions about it, that this is only half an act, it’s only half meant to scare the kid away from the corner, that if it came to it, the guy would meet disrespect with murder.” (Pt. I) Ella lives with her mama, and a woman she calls Grandma (but who isn’t her grandmother) plays a big role in her upbringing in California. Mama is a nurse and works various shifts, and hasn’t stopped enjoying her young life yet either.

Ella gets headaches, and nosebleeds, and panic attacks. And also precognition. “[S]he sees an older Kaylen, filled out and all man, working in a hospital as an orderly, and all his patients are old, way older than him, and over and over, the old patients, when they get slow and know it’s not going to be too long now, ask him to sit with them.” (Pt. I) Many of the other fates she sees for the people around her are much worse, especially the kids she sees not making it out of childhood. Her brother Kevin is born in Los Angeles during the 1992 riots that follow the acquittal of the policemen who badly beat Rodney King the previous year. When Ella and Mama and Kev come out of the hospital a couple of days later, they find that everything has been burned down.

The second part tells the story of Ella’s and Kev’s childhood in Harlem. Ella’s precognition is turning into other powers, what they call her Thing. She can burn things up or cause them to melt. If she’s not careful, she does harm to people nearby. “Rats don’t scare Mama, but folks catching Ella doing her Thing scares her, what they’d do if they found out she could do things like make a rat’s head explode without touching, that scares her, so she smacks her upside the back of the head anyway. A just-in-case.” (Pt. II) Another part of Ella’s Thing is that it seems to protect Kev; cops don’t notice him, gangs let him alone, let him keep doing his thing in school.

“See this kid?” he tells the others. “Smartest fuckin’ kid in the hood, yo. He a cyborg of something. Could fix any computer on the block. I’m tellin’ you, this nigga goin’ to Harvard on some shit. That’s facts.” (Pt. II)

But it doesn’t last, it can’t last. Ella’s Thing keeps getting more powerful, and one day she teleports herself right out of Harlem for good. She tells herself it’s necessary to keep from hurting others, and maybe it is, but Kev’s protection goes with her. He makes some bad choices, the system of policing in New York does what it’s designed to do, and he winds up in Rikers. For years. Sometimes in solitary, sometimes not, but always in danger and under the heel of the system. Ella visits him, at times in person, at times as a projection of herself from wherever she is. She can take Kev’s mind away to where she is, can show him the world. He wonders why she doesn’t tear Rikers down if she’s got all that power. It’s a good question, and one that Riot Baby doesn’t answer until its very end.

When Kev gets out, Riot Baby has drifted into an alternative future for the United States. Many things are run by algorithm, and Kev’s parole is monitored by a chip in his thumb. The chip delivers psychological medications, controls access to the housing he is assigned, and presumably much more. Onyebuchi shows how the reactions honed in prison are a poor fit for life on the outside, and how quickly Kev’s frustrations escalate toward violence. He shows even how second chances get circumscribed, and how Kev tries to look forward. “It looks new. All of it. Which suits me just fine.” (Pt. IV)

The therapy session that’s part of his reintegration work brings the clearest statement of Riot Baby‘s perspective:

“Violence causes trauma,” Calvin had told me just before I slid through the open door to this room. “And trauma causes violence, Youngblood. Hurt people hurt people.” He’d said it in a low, counseling voice. I wanted to tell him to stop calling me Youngblood. Twenty-eight ain’t that young.” (Pt. IV)

Twenty-eight sets the end of Riot Baby squarely in 2020. People have more advanced prosthetics; there’s a whole class of humans known as Augmented. The cacophony of real America is damped down in Kev’s part of Watts; nearly everything is tied to a single, unnamed Company. It’s an odd choice that Onyebuchi makes, particularly after he has taken great care in the first three parts to ground all of the story except Ella’s Thing in regular reality. What has Ella been doing in the meantime?

I see Ella walking through Milwaukee’s North Side, past makeshift memorials to dead black kids … and I know that she’s been touching the ground around those memorials and closing her eyes and seeing the whole of it, whether the bullet came from some other colored kid’s gun or from a cop, watching the whole story unfold before her.
She does the same with the Confederate monuments that rise from the ground in the South like weeds. Tributes to treasonous generals and soldiers serving Big Cotton. She touches their bases, feels their mass-produced faces, runs her fingers over their inscriptions. She wants to know who was hanged here. Who was beaten. In whose name they were violated.
She’s gathering it within her. All of it.

Unlimited power and years of basking in all of those crimes. She pays a final visit to her late mother’s pastor.

“Child, I don’t lie to my congregation.” Metal stiffens his voice, and Ella’s body sings to it. “We don’t get where we’re going by matching hate for hate.” …
“They freed the slaves at gunpoint, Pastor.” She softens. “My brother, Kev. He was born during the L.A. riots. 1992. Mama and I were trapped in the hospital when it happened. When we came out, everything was gone, but I had a baby brother.”
“Violence didn’t give you your brother.”
Ella grits her teeth and remembers it ain’t this church she wants to punish. “But it will get him back.” …
It’s not till she’s outside that she realizes what she was looking for in there. What she realizes now she no longer needs.
I am the locusts. Ella sends the thought out like a concussive wave, so that it hits every surveillance orb in the neighborhood, every wired cop, every crabtank in the nearby precinct. I am the locusts and the frogs and the rivers of blood. (Pt. IV)

As Calvin put it, “Hurt people hurt people.” Ella hurts in proportion to pain that she has witnessed and to the power that she has gained. Since by authorial fiat her power is unlimited, so too is what she unleashes. Unlimited and indiscriminate, and circumscribed by the two pages of the novella that Onyebuchi devotes to his denouement. Brother and sister, genocidaires on a scale to make Stalin blush. It’s a long narrative to go through for a rivers-of-blood revenge fantasy, and it strikes me as a poor fit with both the characters as established in the rest of the story, and with the care that Onyebuchi has taken in his observations of even minor characters. Kev describes the After as “Grassland, hills that undulate, green everywhere” and says “I see freedom” but that’s not what the aftermath of the murder of two hundred million or more would be like, and the Kev presented in the rest of Riot Baby knows it, and Onyebuchi knows it too.


Doreen was also disappointed in the ending. Her review is here.

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