Tenea D. Johnson writes US Afrofuturism at its finest

Looking for a book that's truly meaningful? R/evolution explores race, reparations, and technology in a near-future US science fiction opus.

 

Up the coast from where I live in Cumbria is the town of Whitehaven. For centuries, the town has been home to the Jefferson Rum Company, which happens to be my favourite rum. But after visiting their museum, I will never buy another bottle of Rum.

We only stock books we love at Scarlet Ferret. That sounds twee and lovely doesn't it? But it's true, and it's important to us. We know a good fit when we read it. We know which books we want to sell and promote, in the hope it will bring in more money for the author, and give us the feeling we've maybe done something useful. Our desire to do this comes from the fact that the publishing and book retail industry has problems. Many of them. One problem is sexism. Another is racism.

R/evolutionSo when we found a book that addresses racism in the US, a science fiction novel that looks at how the past impacts the present and informs the future, we knew we had to stock it. R/evolution by Tenea D. Johnson is a good fit.

The Jefferson Rum Company's museum, The Rum Story, is housed in the original 1785 shop, courtyards, cellars and bonded warehouses of the Jefferson family, in the heart of Whitehaven. And it's a fantastic museum. It's well designed, informative, interesting, and thorough... to a point.

We wandered its labyrinthine rooms for hours, taking in the displays. Starting with explaining what rum is, what it's made from, and where. The museum takes you from Jamaica, to Africa, and back to Whitehaven. The displays explain the process of creating Rum, the sugar plantations, and describes those who worked them.

In her mosaic novel, Johnson has created a near-future US that is terrifyingly prescient, a vision of a society where the principles of injustice never change, only the tools of oppression. Where genetic medicine is, as we already suspect today, only available to the wealthy and the privileged.

Rum was, and in a way still is, built on slavery. The museum acknowledges some of this very well. They have recreated a typical 18th Century West African village, from where people were kidnapped. They display, in gruesome detail and audio recordings, the conditions of the Middle Passage, with a life-size model of a portion of the slave decks.

R/evolution isn't an easy read, and neither should it be. The mosaic format leapfrogs you through time and characters, the only way to experience the scope of such a story. You get used to the passage of years or decades in each new chapter. What you don't, and shouldn't get used to, is the emotions it creates. Not pity, not just empathy or sympathy, not a feeling that it won't work out that way. That's not what R/evolution is about.

The museum's powerful documentation is what really sets it apart. Actual documents from the company archives that record the number of slaves, their passage, the number of deaths en route. Cargo logs and ship papers. Production records of barrels shipped. And accounts, profit, share certificates. And later on, family history. The Jeffersons themselves. The business. The marriages. The 'philanthropy'.

R/evolution creates anger. Real feelings of injustice. Recognition that this book isn't about the future, near or far. It's about now, and what has already been.

The display about the Jefferson family, the company and its present incarnation is near the end of the exhibition. There's a little more about prohibition and the effect on Jamaica and rum, but then you exit through the gift shop... but wait!

There's a missing part.

Something we thought we must have missed. The accountability, the recognition - owning it!

The entire display ignored the chance for a clear admission that the current company, the history, its wealth, buildings, ships, plantations, distilleries, assets, profit, and its present existence have all come from slavery, and that's it. There’s no sense of regret. No apology. The presentation of its history somehow separates it from blame and it doesn’t take that blame on its modern shoulders.

At its heart, R/evolution is about reparations. The Rep Wars form a core part of the book. Not the events themselves, they've long passed. But within its pages is the lingering effect of an attempt to demand, at the very least, recognition of the atrocities conducted in the name of profit. A simple remembrance that events happened and they were terrible.

Hugo Boss, Mercedes, Volkswagen, Chanel, Coca Cola, IBM, BMW, Kodak, Siemens, Bayer, AP, Ford, Barclays, Nestle, this list of companies involved with the Nazis goes on. Articles appear, books are published, press releases are put out, but life goes on. And nothing ever changes. But where are the articles about companies and individuals involved in the slave trade? Where is the recognition, contrition, even just a press release?

It's because the modern form of slavery of black people isn’t in the past, like these other events. If you've ever seen the documentary film 13th by Ava DuVernay, you'll know what I mean. You'll know the feeling that yes, this is what racism is, and always has been about: slavery. Its justification and its continuation.

Things only change when we choose to change them, and R/evolution changes minds. I had already read R/evolution before visiting Whitehaven. Without it, would I have recognised the gap in the museum's displays, the missing reflection on its abhorrent past? Maybe, but certainly not as definitely and and not with as much resulting impact as I did after reading Johnson's book.

I haven't managed to find a black-owned rum distillery. They may exist, and I'd love to know. But the very fact that I haven't found one yet speaks volumes. Reparations is not initially about money, apologies, land reform, or wealth distribution. Not really, not as far as I understand. At its core it's about memory. What we are allowed to remember, and what we are told to forget. What is inconvenient, and what should be left alone. When that is addressed, the rest follows.

That's why we stock R/evolution by Tenea D. Johnson - an inconveniently amazing book. And that's why I no longer buy rum.

Tenea D. Johnson

Tenea was born in Kentucky. She took with her, the calm of the Ohio River and the swell of honesty (sometimes refreshing, sometimes catastrophic) that afflicts the folks born along its banks. Adoring of ideas, she graduated from the New College of Florida (enrol there now and thank her later) and NYU's Gallatin School, as well as attending Clarion. Writing sustains her; music saves her. As often as possible, she straddles their borders to create compositions/fusions/hyphenated watchamacallit better heard than described.

So far the Knitting Factory, Dixon Place, The Public Theater, and others have opened their doors to the form.

Her work has appeared in Mothership: Tales of Afrofuturism, African Voices, Arise, Humanities in the South, Infinite Matrix, Contemporary American Women Poets, Shades of Blue and Gray, Whispers in the Night: Dark Dreams III and Necrologue, among others. She is the author of a poetry/short prose collection, Starting Friction as well as the novels, Smoketown and R/evolution. Smoketown won the 2011 Carl Brandon Parallax Award; R/evolution also received an honorable mention.

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