The Equity and Social Justice Reading Group commenced their short speaker series on April 5. Author, educator and recipient of the 2021 Malka Penn Award, Kim Johnson, joined English majors, Neag School of Education students and ESJ Reading Group members in the Phillip E. Austin Building and on Zoom to discuss her book “This is My America.”
Johnson joined the participants in Stern Lounge virtually and discussed everything from her creative writing decisions to Black experiences in the education field. “This is My America” is her first published work. It follows Tracy Beaumont, a 17-year-old Black girl who must fight the racist criminal justice system to save loved ones falsely accused of crimes they did not commit.
Johnson talked about conversations she had with students, which were characterized by rage and confusion in response to police brutality. She credits these conversations in her decision to write this book for a young adult audience.
“I knew I worked in a university because I wanted to help provide equity and access to young people or people who wanted to acquire education as a way to expand the world, be leaders and help their community,” Johnson said. “So it only made sense to me that I wrote it with a young adult character.”
Despite the book’s serious subject matter, “This is My America” is also a coming of age story. In an answer to eighth-semester Neag School of Education student Erica Popoca’s question of why more juvenile aspects of young adult literature were included in this book about activism, Johnson explained the importance of realistically depicting young people living complex lives.
“I wanted to showcase that the young people that I’m surrounded by who are activists or have something really heavy going on in their life… are also the people who are laughing and joking with me, or crying on my shoulder because they had an argument with their best friend, ”said Johnson. “It was a way for me to humanize Tracy.”
The need for more Black representation was another driver for Johnson’s inclusion of common young adult tropes like love triangles.
“I’m so tired of Black girls not getting any love relationships, let alone the opportunity to have options, so it was really important to me to have that representation of discovery, finding yourself and exploring interracial relationships,” said Jonhson.
One member of the Equity and Social Justice Reading Group asked Johnson about her point of view and how she was able to write for a diverse audience. Johnson discussed how growing up in a predominantly White region of the country gave her a natural predisposition toward inclusivity.
“I think that from my growing up and having to be in spaces where I’m code switching or navigating, it was very natural for me to write to different audiences in one novel without letting go of my primary audience,” said Johnson. “I’m writing for a more inclusive world and I want there to be different angles.”
The Equity and Social Justice Reading Group was created by English professor Jason Coutmanche and PhD candidate Kiedra Taylor in an effort to promote student leadership. The reading group discusses matters of equity and social justice through literature. Their short speaker series will continue on April 7 with “Riot Baby” author Tochi Onyebuchi.