Ella has what she refers to as her Thing. It allows her to see things that have not yet happened. As a young girl growing up in Compton, California, this is more of a curse than a blessing. Ella is rarely happy by the future she sees. And, as she grows older, her Thing will allow her to do more than simply see into the future.
Kev is born in the early hours of the riots that erupted in South Central Los Angeles in the spring of 1992. He and Ella are moved to the East Coast and Harlem by their mother after the riots. Life is hard for people of color in Harlem and Kev is no exception. He is regularly and repeatedly harassed by the local police officers, with little to no cause. As Ella’s powers strengthen, her ties to her family weaken. She leaves home in search of learning what exactly she can do. Kev, after years of being told he is worthless and up to no good, succumbs to play the role thrust upon him. He is sentenced to a prison term on Riker’s Island. Ella visits Kev in prison, sometimes physically, sometimes using her Thing. Sometimes they talk. Sometimes Ella shows Kev things: the past, the future, how things could be instead of how they are. Ella and Kev are unhappy with the world in which we have forced them to live. And they may be the ones to finally make the changes that need to be made.
In Riot Baby, Tochi Onyebuchi provides an unflinching and unvarnished look at life for people of color in the US. While there are brief sojourns to the past, the novella primarily takes place within the last three decades, and briefly into the future. Instead of music, television or other cultural references, Onyebuchi frequently uses the death of yet another young black man at the hands of those charged with their, and our, protection to let readers know the year they have moved into. (It is a shocking and sobering reminder of the number of these deaths that have happened, and continue to happen, and of how long this has been occurring.)
Onyebuchi describes life for the characters both inside and outside of our correctional facilities and illustrates how law enforcement, through ritual and habitual harassment of young boys of color channels them directly into lives that will terminate in correctional facilities. And yet, despite centuries of systemic and institutionalized mistreatment, the ending is surprisingly hopeful, looking toward a day when equality is more than a word, where understanding is realized, and freedom is achieved, even if characters with supernatural powers must make the changes necessary to bring this world about (rather than continuing to wait for it to happen for them).
Riot Baby is a difficult read. It is grim and, at times tragic, but it also gives voice to a rage that, as history illustrates, silencing and/or repressing will get us nowhere. It reminds us of the inequities that must be addressed before we can begin taking the steps to create a better world for everyone. This is a journey worth taking.