Alum’s Debut Mystery Novel Examines Racial Equity in Legal System
When Kim Johnson M.Ed. ’03 began writing “This Is My America,” part whodunit, part primer on the challenges Black people face navigating the legal system, she thought her debut novel might find its most comfortable home in classrooms, as an introduction for tweens and teens to a host of racial justice issues.
Today's release of “This Is My America” has given the young adult book added resonance. With the movement for racial equity and against police brutality filling streets and public squares across the country, Johnson now hopes her book might be not just part of a lesson plan but a call to action.
Released by Random House, the novel follows 17-year-old Tracy Beaumont as she tries to get an Innocence Project-like organization to take on her father’s case—he’s incarcerated and facing the death penalty for a double homicide the Beaumont family is convinced he didn’t commit. Soon, the family is facing another dire battle: Jamal, Tracy’s older, track-star brother, becomes a suspect in a terrible crime.
The idea for “This Is My America” came to Johnson when the first Black Lives Matter protests sprang up around the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. An assistant vice provost for advising at the University of Oregon, Johnson began talking with students “who were grappling with what was going on and how they could use their voice to do something about it.”
After reading “Just Mercy,” lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s 2014 memoir of representing marginalized people on death row, Johnson was inspired to write something similar for younger readers. “A lot of the media was specifically focused just on police brutality … (but) I knew that was just a sliver of the issues in our criminal justice system,” she said.
Johnson had only recently come to think of herself as a writer. “I’ve always loved stories—I’m a strong, avid reader and big daydreamer,” she said, and always got a thrill from breaking down the plots of her beloved mysteries, thrillers and crime stories. “I started writing (nine years ago, at age 32) and fell in love with it,” she said. Without any formal training, Johnson had to teach herself to trust her own voice without trying to mimic other writers. “I wanted to be a voice that felt more authentic, more natural, and that spoke to the young adult group,” she said.
Early response to Johnson’s authorial voice has been positive. Kirkus’ starred review called “This Is My America” “harrowing and worthwhile” while Publishers Weekly described it as “a timely testimony that echoes the social realities behind today’s #BlackLivesMatter protests.”
Johnson’s interest in reaching young adult audiences seems appropriate to those who know her. Traci Dula, associate director for administration and operations in UMD’s Honors College, worked with Johnson when she was a graduate assistant there. “Kim strikes me as someone who’s very caring and nurturing, and so it kind of fits that she would be concerned about young people, especially young ladies of color at this age.”
The book’s protagonist is in some ways a representation of a young Johnson. Tracy writes a column about injustice in the school paper and leads “Know Your Rights” workshops on how to navigate interactions with police. The real-life Johnson was a high school NAACP youth president and president of the Black Student Union as an undergrad at the University of Oregon. Representing herself and others like her was critical to Johnson, who stopped reading books for a time because “I’d felt so not seen in so many ways from media,” she said.
Even the title of the book speaks to the experiences of Black Americans rarely depicted in children’s and young adult literature until recent years. “There’s a different experience that’s not talked about, not honored, not recognized. You really have to demonstrate and explain why our America is different,” Johnson said. “I wanted the story to almost feel like someone’s memoir even though it’s fictional.”