Kim Johnson is an activist, college administrator, civic engagement leader, and mentor to young Black activists and leaders. Her debut novel, This Is My America, follows a young, Black, female protagonist seeking justice for her father’s wrongful murder conviction while also aiming to solve the murder of a white girl, which the town is attempting to pin on her brother. Highlighting the rampant discrimination and injustice that Black people face in the judicial system, Johnson’s novel reveals the generational effects of racism on families and calls for the reform of policing and the prison industry. We spoke with Johnson about how her work as an activist influenced the creation of Tracy and the many important reasons why and how activism and protesting can lead to lasting change.

When did it come to you to write This Is My America? How long did it take?

I think the early groundings of this book started around 2014. I work at a university and a lot of my students who I work with and support are Black. They were really involved in Black Lives Matter activities that were happening in our local community and a lot of the conversation was very focused on police brutality. I started to think about writing something to address it to young readers. It was right in the moment of Eric Garner. At the time my son was six; he had come downstairs and I had the news on and didn’t realize they were actually going to play footage. He was so upset by what was happening and I started to think about my work and the way I wanted to move some of the activism work I do in real life into a book. So when I saw Jason Reynolds’s announcement for his book All American Boys and Angie Thomas’s The Hate You Give I was like, “Wow! There could be a space in YA for this.”

Having a strong understanding and history of our larger criminal justice system, I decided I wanted to write a book that would have components of interactions with the police, but would look at systemic issues in terms of the entire cycle. It wasn’t until around 2016 that I really pushed forward and finished the novel. Looking back at it, the books that I used as references when I was writing are now the books that are hitting the bestseller lists because they are anti-racist books. All of those books are really my foundation.

How did you go about finding the right publisher for the novel?

Once I finished my book I got an agent and we worked on it for about a year with revisions. Then we went on a small submission, only five editors because we honestly weren’t sure if publishing could handle the book I was about to write because there were so many themes. But within two weeks it had already gotten an R&R [revise and resubmit] and then a week later I found out I was going into acquisition. It’s really important to me that I have someone who will allow me to do art through activism in the way that I do it. I wanted someone who would not only trust me to tell the story, but would help enhance my work without whitewashing it. So when we went with a small batch, that’s what we were really looking at, people who had good reputations as editors and trust their authors. Chelsea Eberly, who is now a literary agent, wrote me a letter and it touched me because I felt like she actually got what I was trying to do. Even though she’s not my editor anymore, that’s the same type of energy that I’ve gotten with my current editor, Caroline Abbey, who has been so supportive of me through the editorial process. I didn’t know what to expect, I thought that they would rip apart my book, and it was just such a light touch that it wasn’t even about the themes and issues, but just tightening words. I really feel so supported and feel like I can speak. It’s not an issue when I want to bring something up and I know that is not the case with a lot of Black, Indigenous or other writers of color. So it’s actually been a really great experience.

Tracy, the book’s protagonist, has a social justice column in her school’s paper and leads Know Your Rights workshops in her community. How much of your own activism as a student influenced the creation of Tracy?

Tracy, to me, is the embodiment of an activist! It’s that relentless determination and that constant questioning of why and not just accepting things. A lot of her character represents the things that I find to be traits of activists. They don’t take no for an answer. They seek answers themselves. They don’t go the typical route. These are things I value. Although, she’s me times 10, like she’s at a whole other level. I wasn’t someone who wrote a lot when I was young. [I didn’t think that was] part of my DNA. Journalism and media are playing such important roles with getting information out there. I really wanted to give her something that could be her own that doesn’t necessarily have to be connected to all the issues that are going on, but is a talent and a skill that she has. I love mysteries, detectives, and thrillers. When I was a kid I wanted to be an FBI investigator and a lawyer. In Tracy are a lot of the things that I loved that I never got to do. She got to take some of those independent threads and be the agent in her story.

How does it feel to have your novel, which discusses the unjust treatment of Black people in the legal system, published during a worldwide Black Lives Matter movement?

It’s surreal. It’s confusing. It’s hard for me to actually want to promote my book. Writing is this thing I started to do later in life. I’m a full, triple-job professional with a career so I don’t need it financially; I do it for a different reason. I don’t want people to think I’m taking advantage or see this as a promotional opportunity. But I also do think of this as a way for people to read my book and maybe actually understand. It’s so horrific to be able to witness what happened to George Floyd and it’s also so painful because if it was a white woman that an officer was doing that to, they would never have shown the video of that! If so, there would be warnings, it would be blacked out, and they would say it was too traumatic to show.

I’ve continued to try to promote and talk about my book, but I have almost tripled my effort in supporting other Black authors who write about things like fantasy, magic, love and joy. I am putting all of my energy in doing everything I can in the background to support these authors because now I might have a platform. It’s part of being in a community with Black folks and other Black writers. When I was writing I really did feel like there was an otherworldly influence to keep writing this book because there were these reminders from the universe that I was on the right path and doing the right thing. At the beginning of the pandemic I was so sad because I thought no one was going to read my book. It’s already so complex and touches a lot of themes that people don’t want to talk about. I was getting good reviews, but no one was really talking about it because I don’t think it’s something people like to read about. But now I see there was a purpose for me to have written this book. I wanted people to do more than just read the book. It’s a call to action! I am proud of my work, but it is painful.

Black women take center stage in your novel, fighting for the freedom of the men in their families. There is a lot of discussion right now in the Black community about Black women and femmes leading and holding up the Black Lives Matter movement but not getting the recognition they deserve. How do you tackle this in the book?

That’s why I wrote it with a woman taking action as the main protagonist. Black women are the ones who have been doing this work for a very long time! Ida B. Wells, Harriet Tubman—I go back far when I look at and study Black women. I really wanted them to take center stage. Tracy has men in her life and has multiple potential love interests. I wanted to balance out the strong Black woman not needing anyone—and she really doesn’t, but I wanted her to have options because I never had options when I was in high school. That has been my biggest received criticism of the book, but I was like, “No! She’s gonna have all the boyfriends and y’all are gonna leave her alone!” I wanted her to have that because we don’t get that in real life.

I wanted to honor Black women because that really is their story. Mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex does also impact Black women, but it’s disproportionately Black men. They are fathers and brothers. They are staples in our community and when they go away, Black women hold the community down and fight for them. I really wanted that to be represented in the story and in the ways Tracy seeks justice. Even with her leading the Know Your Rights workshops—I wanted to show models of ways you can act. A lot of people talk about Black pain and I tried to show, instead, that there were a lot of hopeful moments and agency. Publishing hasn’t done a good job of supporting a larger range of experiences for Black people, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t get a seat at the table. It means that I make room for people and am sure not to take the white gaze into consideration when I’m writing. I really wanted Tracy to be powerful and take up space and be who she is even if you kind of don’t like her. I was okay with that. We want people we like to be soft and kind and Tracy is those things, but she’s also a lot of other things and I think she’s just as valid, beautiful, and important even if she doesn’t act in ways we think are “appropriate” for a young Black girl.

Mass incarceration is a major theme of your novel. What do you believe are the first steps to change?

When I was writing I never even thought I would utter the words “abolition” or “defund the police.” It was so radical even though those are things I actually believe in. Now, my perspective is much more aggressive. There are states that implement the no-jail-snitch rule and I think that should be standardized across the country. There are a lot of cases where people are in jail because someone who is a jailhouse snitch has an incentive to falsify information against another. There needs to be a larger divide within our criminal justice system. From prosecution, to defense, to the judge, to the police—they all know each other very well. Even when they’re working against each other, they still have to navigate the same systems and relationships and it creates a flawed environment. The other piece is that plea deal scenarios are so rampant! Bryan Stevenson talks about how if you don’t have the capital, you’re going to get punishment. A lot of our Black, brown, and poor communities don’t have the funds to defend themselves. So there are a lot of plea deals and no contests because people are like, “Well I don’t want the death penalty, so I guess I’ll take 20 years.”

Another bigger conversation is funding. I work in higher ed at a university; we’re going through budget-cut scenarios right now because of the pandemic and we know we’re not going to have enough students to cover us as a public institution. This is common for education. K–12 schools aren’t funded in the way that they should be. Most state schools have less than 7% support in state funding. I believe we should defund the police and invest in communities, counselors, and public safety. I don’t think public safety is just the police policing. We should have them, but there are other things we should have more of and we don’t need the amount of policing that we currently have. California has built more prisons than they have schools in the last 10 years. We’re not investing in our communities or mental health. We’re not investing in jobs or education and we should be.

As a mentor of Black student activists and leaders, what advice do you have for young people protesting in the streets right now?

It’s important to be involved. Often young people look to elders to tell them how things are supposed to be or why things are that way. It’s okay to question. It’s okay to push on structural things that have been there for a long time. It’s important to protest! It’s important to do it safely. It’s also important to know why you’re protesting. There are a lot of people who do know why they’re protesting and some who don’t. It’s important to learn more about the issues. There’s now a very wide and diverse group of people who are protesting and aren’t really familiar with organizing movements. There are actually people who have been working in the community for a very long time on different issues and are the ones who have been mobilizing and demonstrating how you do a protest. So you don’t want their message to be diminished by doing things that are against what Black voices want to happen.

The other thing is that when the protesting ends, the work still continues! The protesting is basically pushing on a message. You’re disrupting the way society is experiencing their community and people don’t like that. Protesting is important because it actually forces people to stop, pay attention, and do something because they don’t want that disruption. But it has to be connected to the way you can make larger change instead of just appeasing the moment—things like changing the color of band-aids and taking Aunt Jemima off the bottle. Like, that’s nice! Thank you, but that’s not actually what we were asking for! That should never have been an argument and should have already been done. That’s why it’s so important that the protests do continue, but at some point have to be connected to an organization and what they’re trying to do.

The last thing I always tell my students—because they often don’t want to work with another organization that has a different method or strategy—is that it’s important to work in unity even if you don’t all agree 100%. That unified voice can end up impacting things at a larger scale. So I always tell my students involved in organizations to find out what another is doing and if they can amplify and learn from each other.

Tracy is focused and relentless in the pursuit of justice for her family and uses a number of tactics to reach her goal. A lot of people are frustrated with themselves because they can’t be “on the frontlines” of protests. What are other ways, besides protesting, that people help their communities? I definitely don’t think protesting is the only way to do it! It’s all about legislation and policy. That’s really the goal of the protesting. We want long term change. You can do something locally or nationally. Black Lives Matter is a hashtag, a movement, and organization. Those are all three separate things that can be tied together, but as an organization they have changes they are calling for. If those resonate with people, check to see how you can support them, whether that’s money, signing a petition, or calling your local representatives.

There are also other organizations who have been heavily involved in this work like the National Action Network, the NAACP—they have their “We Are Done Dying” campaign, and there are criminal reform organizations like the Marshall Project. Another easy way is supporting bailout funds. Protestors are being arrested and some states have harsh sentencing, especially for Black and brown people. Once you have something on your record—I talk about this in my book—it puts you in even more danger in the future. Something as simple as being pulled over can bring up your arrest record and you can be brought in on other charges. There are lots of different ways to help. Protesting is important, but it’s not everything.

What’s next for you, as far as a writing project?

I’m going historical! I can’t talk a lot about it, but it’s set in 1955 and looks at redlining and our “American suburban dream.” I love looking at the past as the present, so my hope with this book is that I can write a contemporary book that discusses redlining and survival for Black folks. Our publishing timeline is spring 2022.

This Is My America by Kim Johnson. Random House, $17.99 July 28 ISBN 978-0-593-11876-4