About halfway through Kim Johnson’s debut novel, This Is My America, the 16-year-old protagonist leads a “Know Your Rights” training.
In the novel, Tracy Beaumont tells the workshop how to handle police interactions. “Number one priority is your safety. Not the time to pop off.” She continues, “You use your resistance in other ways. Follow instructions. Be calm. State you know your rights if what they’re doing’s in violation, but always know who’s got the upper hand.”
In an interview with Eugene Weekly, Johnson says she used the scene to show “these are the kinds of things people have to think about, especially if they’re Black and brown in particular.” Johnson says she also “wanted to show my readers that there are ways for them to be leaders and ways for them to impact things positively in their community.”
Johnson, like her protagonist, is a leader and mentor in her community — not in the fictionalized world of Crowning Heights, Texas, where This Is My America is set, but in Eugene, where she lives with her husband and two children. As assistant vice provost for advising at the University of Oregon, Johnson oversees five different advising units on campus and advocates for students as a formal and informal mentor.
This Is My America, which was released by Random House Children’s Books on July 28, is a young-adult mystery novel that follows Tracy — an aspiring journalist and all around firecracker — as she tries to exonerate her father, an innocent Black man on death row. With less than a year for Tracy’s father to live, the Beaumont family becomes the subject of police investigation yet again when Tracy’s brother Jamal is accused of killing a white girl.
Johnson wrote the novel on weekends and during stay-at-home vacations over a six-year period. “I’m not someone who writes every day. I just don’t have the capacity to do that. I work too many long hours,” she says. “I’m a full time professional, my job is more than a 40-hour job, I have kids, I’m involved in organizations.”
Johnson started writing This Is My America in 2014, during the first wave of the Black Lives Matter movement. She says a pivotal incident with her 6-year-old boy, after he accidentally saw video footage of Eric Gardner being choked by police, pushed her to write about racial injustice. “My son immediately was very upset and wanted to know why they wouldn’t stop,” Johnson says.
Two weeks later, they were shopping at a grocery store in Eugene “and my son just started crying out of the blue. And I tried to calm him down and find out what was happening and he said he was ‘thinking about that man’ and it was making him upset,” Johnson says. “He was worried that someone would call the police on me.” Johnson has asthma, and she says her son was afraid of what could happen to her in a police encounter.
“For me that really was a very monumental point in seeing that there are ways for me to engage my writing in literary activism and having a call to action,” Johnson says.
Johnson saw that some conversations around Black Lives Matter were exclusively focused on police brutality. “I know the issues are more systemic, it’s more than that.”
“I could tell a tale about the generational impact of mass incarceration in our country,” Johnson says. “We just don’t forget people because they are in prison — there’s still a family who is there, there’s a parent who cares about their kid and the kid cares about their father or whoever is in the system.”
In This Is My America, the Beaumonts visit their father in prison several times, together and as individual family members. Tracy describes seeing her parents during visitation hours: “Usually when they’re together, hands clasped tight, it makes me cry with joy. Daddy talking away with Mama, and the way she flicks her eyes at him.”
Tracy’s relationships with her family, as well as her aspirations as a journalist, ground the novel’s hard-hitting subject matter and intricate plot. Johnson says, “I do like digging into their characters and building out their worlds. It’s really important to me that it’s not just a detective novel.”
The story balances heartbreak and action with humorous moments shared between Tracy’s close friends, and two potential love interests. “I really wanted to have a Black girl who has love interests and relationships. We don’t actually really see that a lot,” Johnson says.
In fact, Johnson says there aren’t many Black characters at all in young adult novels. “There are more animals and dinosaurs, fairies and dragons that are represented in literature than there actually are Black characters,” she says.
Accurate representation is critical to Johnson. “There is not enough work written in contemporary settings by Black authors about issues of racism,” Johnson says. “I think it’s important to have that accurate representation and coming from that voice.”
Johnson found her own voice as a writer at 32. “I never saw myself as a writer growing up, that wasn’t something that I felt like my teachers supported or encouraged.”
But Johnson says she has always been creative, and as a little kid she loved watching unsolved mysteries. “I think all the lived experiences I have had have helped me become a storyteller, and then I just had to teach myself the craft.”
With the publication of her debut novel, Johnson is sharing her propulsive storytelling skills with young and adult readers during Black Lives Matter, which The New York Times says is potentially the largest movement in U.S. history. Johnson says this means more people are open to reading her book, but it also poses potential challenges.
Johnson says she doesn’t want the novel to adversely impact her professional reputation at the university.
“I made a lot of great changes for students at the university and I want to be able to continue to do that.”
Johnson says that even though some people are open to listening, she doesn’t know if Eugene is ready to discuss racism in a way that would be welcoming to her. “But I am a very hopeful person, and I’ve always believed in activism and using these moments to make things better.”
She says if Tracy were here for the Black Lives Matter protests, she would be involved in ongoing organizing to enact systemic change. “She would probably be out there, like many of my students have been out there, but then she would be at the planning meeting to think about ‘we can’t do this forever, so what are we trying to change.’”
Signed copies of This Is My America are available at Tsunami Books and Barnes and Noble in Eugene for $17.99.