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‘I want people to have a conversation’: Northwest Passages features Kim Johnson’s ‘This Is My America’

UPDATED: Mon., Feb. 22, 2021

Author Kim Johnson discussed her debut novel, “This Is My America,” during a virtual meeting of the Northwest Passages Book Club moderated by Spokane NAACP President Kiantha Duncan Tuesday.

To begin, Duncan asked Johnson to introduce the audience to the Beaumonts, the family around which the story revolves.

Every week, 17-year-old Tracy Beaumont writes 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 father only has 275 days left. In “This Is My America,” Johnson explores the effects of racial injustice and mass incarceration from the perspective of the families left behind and, in particular, that of a daughter and a sister.

It was important, Johnson said, to show how emotionally connected the Beaumont family was despite the father’s incarceration and the unjust treatment of Tracy’s brother, Jamal.

“I haven’t had her (Tracy’s) specific experience, but I know a lot of people who have,” Johnson said, explaining that while the characters are indeed fictional, their experiences are and have been very real to her and to those close to her.

In writing about these experiences, Johnson said she hopes to provide her readers, especially young Black readers, with a means of seeing themselves in literature.

“I didn’t have a text to go to,” she said, recalling her own high school English courses. “I didn’t have a book that had a (Black) teen character who was using their voice, driving for change fighting for something. … I wanted all of that to be wrapped up in Tracy.”

Duncan next turned the conversation toward Tracy’s brother Jamal – the golden boy, track star, academic on his way to college. She mentioned, in particular, the concern she felt reading about Jamal getting involved in a relationship with a white girl.

“All Black mothers of sons have to tell their sons, ‘Be careful,’” Duncan said. “Jamal didn’t do anything wrong with her, he had a really innocent relationship … but it still had the potential to lead to something so negative in his life. And if we pretend not to see that reality, that’s really problematic.”

“It’s interesting how society and how white America values young Black athletes and, in the same breath, devalues Black men altogether,” Duncan said, referencing a scene in the story where Jamal is being interviewed about his success in track and field and the conversation quickly turns to his father’s incarceration.

“I want people to connect with these characters … to understand that these are real experiences,” Duncan said. “The family is fictional, but these are real experiences that real black families go through when they are justice-involved.”

Next, they focused on the character of sergeant Beverly and the unique obstacles that officers of color face, whether from fellow police officers or from their civilian friends and family members. Duncan shared that she felt a real connection to the character.

“When I was growing up, the chief of police was my cousin,” Johnson said, explaining how, despite knowing police officers personally, she grew up fearing law enforcement.

Sharing that perhaps counterintuitive reality with readers through Tracy’s story was important to her.

“Ultimately, I want people to have a conversation,” Johnson said, referencing sergeant Beverly’s choice to join law enforcement despite her own father’s wrongful conviction. “Her being able to say, ‘I want to make a change, I am trying to do something different.’”

Johnson also spoke about how she may have written the character of Beverly – and perhaps the story itself – differently, had she written it more recently and with more current, anti-racist vocabulary at hand.

Duncan and Johnson then spoke more about the steps readers of whatever background can take to be actively anti-racist.

“Tell what you see,” Duncan said. “Do not hide these things that you know are wrong. That is the first step.”

In the same vein, Johnson invited her readers to become “co-conspirators” in the work of her book.

“You can have conversations that I’ll never actually have access to, because you have family members and friends, and an entire community,” Johnson said, empowering her readers to bring topics from the work into their communities. “You can do so much work in a space that I actually can’t … and I think that’s powerful.”

“This Is My America” is available at Wishing Tree Books; 10% of the book’s sale price will be donated to Spokane’s NAACP.

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