Content note: Mentions of police violence and systemic racism against Black people and how the criminal justice system and prison industrial complex perpetuate racism and anti-Blackness
By Kim Johnson
Activism and organizing were an important part of my educational experience and heavily influence my writing, making me a truth teller. Educator. Justice seeker. Problem solver. Community member. This is why the human condition is a constant thread in my work. My becoming a writer would likely not have occurred if I hadn’t been swept up by the ideas championed by the We Need Diverse Books movement.
Working with my students to engage in activism with Black Lives Matter in 2014 was a pivotal moment for me, helping me to find purpose in my writing career. It hit home when my six-year-old son entered the room as the news showed police offers holding down Eric Garner, who was repeating words we all know too well: I can’t breathe. My son had the same questions I grappled with when I watched clips of Rodney King in 1991 and when I took to the streets in protest as a youth leader with the NAACP in 1995. We had those questions again with the recent killing of George Floyd and countless others. These racist moments are microcosms of life that lead to conversations about police violence—conversations that have become all too familiar within the Black family but silenced everywhere else.
These discussions stay within the home because the broader world has yet to confront not only our history but also our present. Young Black children have to navigate racism in their schools and their neighborhoods as they are coming of age, as they are finding meaning in life. So what happens when young Black people retreat to books, only to find no representation? This is why I abandoned reading for pleasure until college.
Through my own stories, I realized I could interweave the ecosystem of race in America with how the flaws in our criminal justice system go well beyond acts of police brutality. The targeting, profiling, over-sentencing, unfair legal processes, as well as lack of rehabilitation and support disproportionately impact Black, Brown, and poor communities. I wanted to share an experience that impacts millions of people in our criminal justice system and to plant a seed of inspiration for our future lawmakers and changemakers.
Activists deserve to read about characters like themselves—people who are relentless and ask the questions the world wants to ignore, people who take action to create change. I wrote for those activists. I wrote for my son, now thirteen, so he could read a story that would help him understand the issues and also see himself as an agent, not a victim.
My writing is activism. I create characters who are agents in their story and on their own hero’s journey. But little did I know while writing This Is My America that when it published we would be in a pivotal moment in our history, at the cusp of what could be a movement that changes policy and also our practices, our actions. White America is now the closest it has ever come to reckoning with their history. And there is a tide of young people who are unwilling to allow the country to sweep the past under the rug, to forget 400 years and pretend we are on equal footing. Young people are at the forefront of this, bringing a shift we have never seen before in terms of understanding race, identity, and privilege, and how this country has continued its legacy of racism.
In this movement against racial injustices and in the midst of a pandemic, awakening people are turning to books. Now more than ever, we need Black books. Black writers and their stories have been stifled for far too long. We need to expand our libraries with their stories—for Black readers, and for non-Black readers, too, so everyone can see our truths.
I want a vast spectrum of Black stories to be published, from historical, fantastical, and magical to realistic fiction, filled with love, joy, dreams—and yes, I want them to address racism and other systemic issues in our society. Literature is more important than ever before as it helps people understand the human condition—what it means to be human and live human lives.
This Is My America by Kim Johnson publishes on July 28, 2020. Order a copy of the book here!
“Incredible and searing.” —Nic Stone, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Dear MartinThe Hate U Give meets Just Mercy in this unflinching yet uplifting first novel that explores the racist injustices in the American justice system.
Every week, seventeen-year-old Tracy Beaumont writes letters to Innocence X, asking the organization to help her father, an innocent Black man on death row. After seven years, Tracy is running out of time–her dad has only 267 days left. Then the unthinkable happens. The police arrive in the night, and Tracy’s older brother, Jamal, goes from being a bright, promising track star to a “thug” on the run, accused of killing a white girl. Determined to save her brother, Tracy investigates what really happened between Jamal and Angela down at the Pike. But will Tracy and her family survive the uncovering of the skeletons of their Texas town’s racist history that still haunt the present?
Fans of Nic Stone, Tiffany D. Jackson, and Jason Reynolds won’t want to miss this provocative and gripping debut.
Kim Johnson has held leadership positions in social justice organizations as a teen. She’s now a college administrator who maintains civic engagement throughout the community while also mentoring Black student activists and leaders. This Is My America is her debut novel. It explores racial injustice against innocent Black men who are criminally sentenced, and the families left behind to pick up the pieces. She holds degrees from the University of Oregon and the University of Maryland, College Park. Kim lives in Oregon with her husband and two kids. Find her at kcjohnsonwrites.com and follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @kcjohnsonwrites.