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IS MY AMERICA
Date: July 28, 2020
House Books for Young Readers
Martin meets Just Mercy in this unflinching yet uplifting YA novel
that explores the racist injustices in the American justice system.
seventeen-year-old Tracy Beaumont writes letters 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 dad has only 267 days left. Then
the unthinkable happens. The police arrive in the night, and Tracy’s older
brother, Jamal, goes from being a bright, promising track star to a
“thug” on the run, accused of killing a white girl. Determined to
save her brother, Tracy investigates what really happened between Jamal and
Angela down at the Pike. But will Tracy and her family survive the uncovering
of the skeletons of their Texas town’s racist history that still haunt the
Fans of Nic
Stone, Tiffany D. Jackson, and Jason Reynolds won’t want to miss this
provocative and gripping debut.
The Fast and the Furious
I’m jolted awake by the shuffle of someone in the hallway. I rub my eyes, then realize what it is. Our upstairs toilet runs, especially at night when someone doesn’t give it a good flush. The sound won’t stop, so I force myself up.
I can’t help but run my fingers along the grooves of the walls, knowing Daddy’s the one that put them up. Every ding or repair is unchanged, like he left it. The only thing different in the house is my room. I’ve painted my walls a rotation of colors, hoping one of them would soothe away my bad dreams. Shake up the house enough to look different, but in the dark, I can see it like it was before.
“Hurry up,” I whisper at the bathroom door, so I don’t wake Mama.
Corinne doesn’t answer. When I notice the door is open a sliver, I push it, blink with the bright light blinding me for a second.
Jamal’s splashing water on his face. His eyes are shut as he wrings his hands together over the sink. I rub my eyes because it looks like red water swirling down the drain.
“Damn, Jamal. What happened to you?”
“Shit.” Jamal jumps back, grabbing a towel. His hands are all jittery as cleans up his face, then bunches the towel into a ball.
I watch the last bit of pink-colored water disappear down the drain.
“Why you always in my business?” Jamal pushes past me, and I’m taken aback at his response. He sounds like he got caught, but I’d already known he’d be in late.
“What’d I catch you doing?” I hit his shoulder playing around, and he flinches. He’s scared. But of what?
“Jamal. You okay?”
I touch his neck to get the rest of what’s on him off, then I make a face when I realize it’s blood. There’s a long scratch across his neck.
“What happened?” I flick the water on and wash up. “You okay?”
I watch him hard because nothing about this fits his late-night routine. I can’t tell if he’s coming or going. I move to ask another question, but Jamal’s already heading off to his room. He gives me a look like I better keep my promise and not dare wake Mama, then shuts his door.
I lie down and listen for movement. The air is thick and hot. There’s heaviness in the atmosphere, like so many nights when the past takes over the present. I try and tell my brain it’s just the wave of an old smell, a phrase someone says that can put me on high alert. I’ve never been able to get over what happened enough to live fully in the now, always rush back to the night Daddy was taken from us. A moment that won’t erase.
My sense of déjà vu is heightened by the sound of a vehicle riding down our quarter-mile gravel driveway. I listen more closely, and my heartbeat picks up, throbbing when I recognize there must be two or three cars driving way too fast for our road. A minute later, a knock at the door jolts me.
I run down the hallway to the stairs.
“Get back to your room.” Mama’s already at the front door. She waves me away.
“Who is it?” I mean to whisper, but I’m yelling.
She looks through the peephole and rests her face on the door. I see the lights flash blue and red before she confirms it.
“Police,” Mama whispers.
She doesn’t need to say more. Something awful has happened.
Corinne meets me at the stairs in her rainbow pajamas. She clutches her thin arms around me.
“What is it, Tracy?”
“Everything is fine. Go back to bed,” I say, although I’m holding her as tight as she is me.
I want to let her go, but I’m frozen. My heart is beating in my throat, pounding, thrumming out through my ears.
Over my shoulder, I glance at Jamal’s room. There’s no way he’s asleep so fast.
Inside I’m tangled up, searching for a reason why they’re here. If I was standing by Jamal, we could look at each other without saying a word. Just know it’s them that’s wrong, not us. But something went down with Jamal, and whatever it was, I sense I should let him be.
I leave Corinne and make my way downstairs. My Know Your Rights training kicking in.
Mama waves me back, but I don’t stop. I’m concerned it’s gotta be about Daddy.
“What’s happening?” Corinne calls from the stairs. Her eyes scrunch up like if she thinks real hard, she’ll figure what’s going on all by herself without having to ask.
I look up one more time at Jamal’s door, but it stays shut. Doubt hits me. He must’ve been on his way out when I saw him. He’s going to trip when he gets home.
“Things are fine,” I say. “I’m sure of it.”
I take deep breaths, swallowing up the panic that’s racing to my brain. I try and push down the memories of the time they came for Daddy. Thank God Corinne wasn’t born yet. She didn’t have to see him dragged by his neck through the house by police. I screamed nonstop when Jamal opened the door and the cops pushed him aside. They rushed Daddy, threw him on the ground, and shoved a knee in his back.
Daddy told me he wanted to lie still, but your body does the opposite. Survival. Someone’s holding you down, you want to ask why, yell out in pain. They beat his head down, expecting with each punch he was supposed to take it in silence. Each cry he made, they hit him harder until he shut his mouth and they cuffed him.
Mama was stuck between fighting for Daddy, holding on to her pregnant belly, and keeping me calm. My scream ricocheted in the background as they read his rights, accusing him of murdering Mr. and Mrs. Davidson.
Corinne never held that memory, but I know she feels it in everything we breathe. It’s in the polite nods across the street we have to make, the way our family turns down our music when there are others around. Say yes ma’am and no sir. Leave our jackets and backpacks in the car when we go shopping.
It’s in the way I carry myself that tells our story now. I can’t risk being accused of anything. Because if something goes wrong or missing, I know it’s in the back of someone’s mind that maybe I had something to do with it. And it’s in the way that the voice of the strongest woman I know stumbles when saying, “Hello, Officer” as she walks through the visitation gates to see Daddy.
Only recently has it been cemented in my mind and made clear, that acting civil, being deferential, doesn’t matter. It’s like Mama has always said, Black lives don’t matter enough to them. That evidence is live and in color, on every news channel in America.
I’m snapped back to the present as they yell, “Police. Open up.”
Mama goes for the door.
“Mama, no,” I say. “Not until we see they have a warrant.”
“Baby, no. This ain’t a workshop. This is real life. Look at Corinne.”
Corinne is shaking, terrified on the steps.
Mama pushes me behind her, then cinches her robe’s belt and loosens the chain lock, before cracking the door open. A flood of blue-and-red lights stream through the house, and then a bright white flashes in Mama’s face. She steps back and blocks the light with her hand. When she does this, she’s shoved back by the sheriff, John Brighton, pushing the door open more, gun drawn. His face is stern, red-fleshed around his neck, and his steel-colored hair flicking over his eyes. If I didn’t know better, he’s frightened.
We should be the ones afraid, not him.
“We’re here to take in Jamal Beaumont, ma’am.” He flashes a warrant up.
I suck in my teeth. All my training to review the warrant slips my mind as fear snakes up my legs and freezes me from moving. I look up to Jamal’s room. Behind my shoulder, his door slowly opens to a crack. I’m reminded of his odd behavior. Jamal must’ve got into a fight. I look to Corinne, praying she won’t cry out for Jamal on the stairs.
With my arms folded, I finally settle my list of what I should be doing as I make eye contact with Jamal. I only see a sliver of him, but it’s like I can read his mind. That thing that siblings always have ingrained in their DNA—never rat on each other—lips sealed. The blood I saw tonight will never be mentioned. They wouldn’t wait for his side of the story.
I step in front of Mama, making sure to only keep the door ajar. Mama digs her nails into my skin accidently. It helps me focus on staying silent. If I’m calm, Mama will be also.
“Let me review the warrant, please.” I take the warrant from the Sheriff Brighton’s hand, but I’m not fully reading it. I’m stalling.
The house creaks as Jamal scuffles around in his room. The rusty glide of his bedroom window opening sends prickles down my spine. Mostly sounds I’ve gotten used to when he comes home by curfew, only to scoot out the window to stay out later. I’m not sure if I’m thinking it, but I swear there’s another thump outside.
In my head, I imagine seeing Jamal jumping off the roof and sprinting away. I keep my face stone-cold. Because no matter what my brother might’ve done, I’m not gonna let them take him away from us.
With each delayed moment, it’s another second for Jamal to escape. I will him to get to the river trail and up through the hills, running the route he takes every day to train during track season. He knows every nook and cranny in the dark because we’ve played hide-and-seek in the woods for years, and my brother is a master at it. I pray the sheriff doesn’t have tracking dogs and Jamal can cut through the woods to the other side of the highway and catch a bus.
“It’s late, Sheriff,” Mama says behind me. “Come back tomorrow.”
“Get your boy.” Sheriff Brighton looks like an older version of his son, Chris, a white man with strawberry-blond hair, just shorter but matching body type with more fluff than muscle. His voice has the same sharp bite to it.
Behind the sheriff, a squad full of cars are parked outside our house. Some cops posted by the cars, others putting protective gear on.
“What the hell,” I whisper under my breath.
Mama’s back is as rigid as a board as Corinne joins us in the entryway. I don’t know what to do, because the warrant looks legit. I want to run to Corinne, to be by her side and block them from Jamal, but I know it won’t make a difference. Corinne’s weight pulls on me. I know it’s more important to keep her away. Keep her safe.
“I said, get your boy,” the sheriff says.
A few more officers draw in closer to the door, like they’re about to rush our entryway.
“Almost done,” I say. “It’s our right to verify a warrant.”
I wonder what it’s like to be someone who’d feel safe in their presence. I try to trick my mind, pretend we called them. It helps me settle more, and I give Mama a squeeze hoping I can do the same for her. But it doesn’t last long, because the word boy keeps running in my head. A bitter taste flushes in my mouth, the way that it drawls out like just another slur in coded language.
The officers, guns drawn, spread to each entrance of the house.
Mama’s struck with fear, with grief, and it’s like she gave them permission from that moment and it didn’t matter I was planning on reading this warrant over a thousand times. Mama removes the chain lock and opens the door wider. They flood past us, scattering through the house and up the stairs before she can say she’ll bring him down.
As they make their way upstairs, I pray that God led him into the woods and Jamal is doing what he knows best, using his God-given legs to run.
KIM JOHNSON held leadership positions in social
justice organizations as a teen and in college. She’s now a college
administrator who maintains civic engagement throughout the community while
also mentoring Black student activists and leaders. She is also the graduate
advisor and member of an historically Black sorority. This Is My America is her
debut novel and explores racial injustice against innocent Black men who are
criminally sentenced and the families left behind to pick up the pieces. She
holds degrees from the University of Oregon and the University of Maryland,
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