What if your family member was accused of a crime they didn’t commit? All the evidence proves they’re innocent, but they still end up behind bars and sentenced to death because of the color of their skin. What then? “This Is My America,” a young-adult mystery by UO’s Assistant Vice Provost of Advising Kim Johnson, explores what happens next.
The novel follows Tracy, a 17-year-old high school student in Galveston, Texas, who writes to Innocence X, a racial justice organization, every week hoping to free her father from prison — and death row. The whole family knows he’s innocent: The evidence from the case doesn’t add up, and if the justice system actually worked, he would have been freed. Her family has faced discrimination since they arrived in Galveston, and Tracy's father being accused as a murderer is set in people's minds. Because of this, when one of Tracy's classmates, Angela, is murdered, her brother Jamal is the prime suspect, despite a lack of evidence.
Johnson chose the narrative of Tracy's father because of how it could impact all readers. "I wanted a wrongful incarceration story,” she said, “because I think that there's a broader way people can think about 'What if this happened to me? I don't do anything wrong, what if someone thought that I did something wrong? And how much my life would change.’"
In the novel, Tracy follows a paper trail to root out the racist history of her town and discovers more than she bargained for – that the KKK is present in Galveston and her friend's grandfather was a member, and a murderer. Grappling with the betrayal of her friend, and the white supremacy rooted in the town police force, Tracy discovers Angela’s true murderer and shines a light on the dark and corrupt corners of her town.
In an interview Johnson said her inspiration stemmed from her experience as a UO student fighting for social justice. She wanted to “give voice to an issue that I felt like wasn’t really paid attention to in the way that I felt that it needed to be.” She also found herself "really wanting to make sense of issues around Black lives matter and our criminal justice system beyond just thinking about police brutality."
According to the NAACP’s website, “one out of every three Black boys born today can expect to be sentenced to prison” and of 1900 exonerations of the wrongfully accused, 47% of them were African Americans, as of October 2016. “This Is My America” puts the wrongs of the criminal justice system at the forefront, and brings social justice issues to the reader’s attention.
The book makes it very clear that no one should be discriminated against, and Johnson hopes to leave readers with that message.
"I hope that [people] find a sense of empathy and understanding,” she said, “either in more awareness on an issue, a call to action on an issue or maybe seeing their role that they play in their own community."
Not many books can so effortlessly comment on social injustice while telling a captivating story, but "This Is My America" does just that. In the form of a mystery revolving around Tracy's brother, the book sets the reader up for a thrilling tale of finding justice for the innocent.
Short chapters jump from one plotline to the next, keeping the reader on their toes and eager to discover the next piece of evidence. This fast pace combined with emotional scenes of betrayal, joy and romance rounds out the plot. Instead of a straight-up mystery, Johnson weaves in Tracy’s heartfelt connections with friends and family to tell a plausible story of a teenage investigator.
Young love also makes an appearance in the novel, but to Johnson’s credit it doesn’t overwhelm the reader. It’s clear the book isn’t about romance. Small scenes here and there round out Tracy’s character and show that while she acts tough and determined, she is human.
The mystery and nuanced characters will keep you hooked, but the book’s greatest accomplishment is the light it shines on racial injustice. I recommend “This Is My America” to anyone interested in learning more about the faults of the American justice system in the form of a fast-paced mystery. No book is a replacement for lived experience, but this one offers a slice of the experience that one Black family faces in a world of racism.