Riot Baby




BEFORE her Thing begins. Before even Kev is born. Before the move to Harlem. Ella on a school bus ambling through a Piru block in Compton and the kids across the aisle from her in blue giggling and throwing up Crip gang signs out the window at the Bloods in the low-rider pulling up alongside the bus. Somebody, a kid-poet, scribbling in a Staples composition notebook, head down, dutiful, praying almost. Two girls in front of Ella clapping their hands together in a faster, more intricate patty-cake, bobbing their heads side to side, smiling crescent moons at each other.

Bus slowing, then stopped. Metallic tapping on the plastic doors, which whoosh open, and warm air whooshes in with the Pirus that stomp up the steps in their red-and-black lumberjack tops with white shirts underneath and their red bandannas in their pockets and their .357 Magnums in their hands, and one of them goes up to the ringleader kid who had been throwing up the signs most fervently and presses the barrel of the gun to his temple and cocks back the hammer and tells the kid to stay in school and if he catches him chucking up another Crip sign, he’s gonna knock his fuckin’ top off, feel me? And 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.

Ella hates South Central. She doesn’t know it yet, but can sense vaguely in a whisper that Harlem and a sweltering apartment and a snowball are somewhere in the distance, not close enough to touch, but close enough to see.

* * *

Ella calls her Grandma even though she’s not Mama’s mother. Still, she does all the grandma things. Takes Ella to church when Mama’s working or out or passed out on the couch from whatever she was doing the night before. Brings Werther’s chewy candies in the wrinkled gold wrappers whenever she comes by to help out with the chores. Keeps the bangers with their 40s of Olde English at bay when they loiter a little too close to the house and the garden that she protects like it’s her grandchild too. And now Ella’s old enough that she can sit outside on the porch to escape the heat that gets trapped indoors, the heat that turns the plastic covering the couch into a lit stovetop.

Grandma sweeps bullet shells out of the empty driveway while Ella chews on her second Werther’s of the afternoon.


Set in a dystopian America that eerily echoes the challenges and chaos we now face, this book will make you question your perceptions and your reactions. Omyebuchi has an uncanny ability to imbue his stories with a wonder that provokes critical thinking and advocates action. This book is no exception.

Ella is defined by neither time nor dimension because of her extraordinary abilities. She uses her abilities to defy the cycle of racism and poverty that has confined her. Her abilities allow her to encourage and empower her brother Kev, a young black man who has become a victim of the criminal justice system. Kev has been incarcerated for the blackness that abbreviated his choices and his opportunities. It becomes Ella’s mission to extract him from his situation – by any means necessary.

This is a haunting, evocative portrait of the black experience in America. Kel’s narrative arc is infused with archival memories of the experiences of his ancestors, captured and distilled in the extraordinary abilities of he and his sister. The dystopian setting is a both a warning and a prediction, and challenges the reader to take definitive preventive action.

4 Stars.

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