‘This is My America’ Takes On Racial Inequality

A fast-paced, effective debut YA novel about inequities in the criminal-justice system

This is My America is Kim Johnson’s just-published debut novel. Had it arrived a few months earlier, it would be on all the anti-racist recommended reading lists along with The Hate U Give and Just Mercy.

Add it on now, please.

At age 12, Johnson watched Los Angeles police officers beat Rodney King, as she explains in an author’s note. As a teen, she marched in a NAACP youth rally to protest police brutality. And as a mother, she watched her six-year-old son burst into tears at a video of police holding down Eric Garner, fearful for his own future and his mother’s.

This is my America

Johnson’s decades of activism and hope for change inform This is My America. It’s the story of high-school junior Tracy Beaumont’s efforts to save her father and brother from a system that has them in its sights.

Johnson doesn’t preach or lecture. Instead, she deploys raw honesty and a sharp eye for detail to illuminate the injustices of Tracy’s experience as she spins a fast-paced, affecting story.

Tracy’s father is on death row for a crime his daughter is sure he didn’t commit. A high-school journalist, she writes weekly letters to Innocence X, a group that helps represent wrongly convicted people on appeal. She wants the team to take her dad’s case. This singular goal means when her big brother Jamal lands a TV interview about his track prowess and college plans, she uses her family’s moment at the mike to bring up what her mother doesn’t want to discuss onscreen: Her father is running out of time.

Soon, though, Tracy’s determination must rise to another challenge. Jamal’s secretly been seeing her classmate Angela, a fellow journalist at the school paper. Angela tells Tracy she wants to team up on a big story she’s been investigating, but before Tracy can find out more, Angela’s found dead. Jamal, who immediately goes on the run, is the top suspect.

It’s a lot for any one family to handle, and it’s to Johnson’s credit that she skillfully balances legal wrangling, social issues, history and storytelling. Tracy’s friend Dean is white, and even though the families have known each other for years, Dean admits to initial doubts about Jamal. “He breaks down crying in front of me, waiting for me to pick him up, but I can’t,” Tracy vows after Dean confesses his suspicions. “I want him to know how much it hurts. How angry I am that at one point he thought Jamal was guilty.”

Author Kim Johnson (JBoy Photography)

Tracy teaches Know Your Rights seminars at her church about how to deal with police, and steels herself for encounters with officers. “I wonder what it’s like to be someone who’d feel safe in their presence,” Tracy thinks when officers show up at her house to collect Jamal. “I try to trick my mind, pretend we called them. It helps me settle more, and I give Mama a squeeze hoping I can do the same for her.”

Yet it’s Tracy’s connection with Beverly Ridges, a Black officer, that ultimately pushes Jamal’s situation in a different direction.

Johnson weaves in plenty of other elements that play a role in the Beaumonts’ life. The story takes place in Galveston County, Texas, birthplace of Juneteenth. The Beaumonts arrived there on an evacuation bus from Hurricane Katrina, just one reminder of the hurdles for many Black families in building generational wealth.

Your background and yes, your race will likely determine whether you see your own experience reflected in Tracy’s story or you find yourself learning what it’s like to live in a system stacked against you. This is My America accomplishes both goals, and it deserves your attention.

(Penguin RandomHouse, July 28, 2020) 

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Sharyn Vane

Sharyn Vane has reported and edited at newspapers in Washington, D.C., Colorado, Florida and Texas. For the last decade she has written about literature for young people for the Austin American-Statesman.

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