When you read a title like this, it paints a reality right in your face; that America may be good, even great (ahem) for some, but for others, the country that’s done so much for you is the worst nightmare of others, and your amazing country has a stench behind the gloss. I’m Canadian, and if there was a book out there titled “This is My Canada” with this same concept, it would be a bit harder to accept but I would have to. There was a George Floyd protest I was a part of last year and two young black teenagers talked about horrors they had to endure in my own home town. I was so amazed at their bravery. Yet when the press covered it, I did see a lot of local people talking shit about them.
So, not a subtle point I’m making here. I love and encourage these kinds of books. I opened This is My America knowing it would be a story I’d be invested in. Here’s what I didn’t expect. I was in a reading slump starting this. And I read half of it in one sitting, and the other half in another. The trial of George Floyd’s murderer, Derek Chauvin, is currently underway, and I truly know what happens will shape the world for years.
Tracy Beaumont is 17 years old, yet has gone through more trauma in her adolescence than most go through in their lives. Her life has been a giant ticking clock, because years ago her dad was arrested for murder and was put on death row because he’s refused to commit to the nasty guilty plea that would instead give him life without parole. Heavenly thought. He didn’t take the plea because he didn’t do it. For years, Tracy has written to Innocence X, an organization of activists and lawyers that take on issues like this. Except she’s sent letters for, like I said, literally years, and she’s never gotten a response. Maybe the only way to get some attention is through her brother Jamal, the fastest guy in their school who’s broken some records and is about to do a big race. A sabotaged interview and a few days later, Tracy awakens one night to see Jamal running in with a red stain on his shirt, and only minutes pass before the police arrive, and Jamal disappears from the house – and from the world, as it’s revealed the school’s newspaper editor Angela has been killed at a place called The Pike, and Jamal’s sweater was found on the scene.
The picture chosen by the media outlets the next day is one of Jamal with his track team on Instagram, having some drinks on a night out like everyone once in a while does. It’s cropped to leave out the part that there are white boys also in the picture with him, and out of all the professional-looking photos out there they could’ve chosen for Jamal, they went with the one that paints him as a delinquent. Everyone publicly begs him to turn himself in. Even Tracy. But Jamal’s now using burner phones to contact whenever he can, and he’s leaving nothing to chance. There’s a story, a story that will be covered up if Tracy can’t get to the bottom of it and if Jamal can’t salvage the proof.
Now, this book’s subject matter is far from any resemblance to a joke, but, as Hannah Montana would say, this book is the best of both worlds. It’s an excellent account of a family that’s been in turmoil for years, with a father on death row and now a son and brother who’s on the run. It plays on the same path as The Hate U Give. But it’s also a fast-paced whodunit and a suspenseful fugitive story, a fugitive story that had me gleeful about the cops for once not holding all the cards. I was feeling like that wasn’t the right way to look at it, because this is a human life we’re talking about. As Tracy says, the longer he doesn’t come in, the more the media and public paint him as guilty. Yet I truly never felt that Jamal running wasn’t the right choice. If he were in custody, there would be officers who would threaten his life. He’d be tortured into giving information that could help the cops plant evidence.
And with all of that, Kim Johnson delivers the perfect pace to give us this story. It lets us get to know the characters, hardships and fears they face, and lets us know Jamal and Angela just enough for us to feel we know them as one is killed and the other is going to have SOMETHING happen to him at one point. An important story is one thing; how to tell it is a whole different thing, and this is an excellent example of them both done right. We get to feel Tracy’s fear as she tries to retrace the night of the murder before she does, and the desperation to get a response from Innocence X. One thing that bugs me about this book; What the heck was up with Innocence X never responding? I kept thinking someone with knowledge about her father’s case was sabotaging the mail so it would never get to them. I mean, it’s revealed they only respond to case requests from snail mail, not email or number. I kept expecting a twist like that. But at least when the ball with Innocence X does get rolling, it compensates with further information about what happened with Dad’s case and a strange individual out to sabotage them.
The microagressions here are completely in your face. The journalist is either clueless of the world Tracy lives in or has higher-ups who would yell at her for letting an anti-justice system message spring on her network. (This part is never implied, but news outlets rely on sponsors, and some of every outlet’s sponsors would pull out over a progressive stance on justice. Even major news outlets like CNN and MSNBC behind the scenes have agendas against policies that would tax their sponsors. I witnessed it firsthand with the 2020 Dem primaries.) A brick at one point is thrown through the family window with horrifying messages. A particularly Karen-like character gives an infuriating speech. A different one is furious about the idea of not being able to take her anger out on a black individual. And though I’ve not been a personal bearer of this attitude, I’ve seen it everywhere online and this is exactly how it sounds like.
This is My America is a spectacular addition to my collection of minority-human-rights young-adult fiction, books that are more important reads than anything any English teacher could bring to the classroom and will inspire everyone, regardless of race, to call out the prejudices and abuse that have hurt and killed far too many. Reading these books cause more people to hear politicians saying we don’t need police reform and to know exactly what they really advocate for.
If you like this, I’d try the other books in said collection, all perfect-score masterpieces in my eye: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, Anger is a Gift by Mark Oshiro, American Heart by Laura Moriarty, and Internment by Samira Ahmed. I’d also look at the tv series For Life, a biographical show about a man sentenced to life in prison but passes the bar exam and becomes a lawyer for himself and his fellow prisoners.