George M. Johnson (they/them) is an award-winning writer, executive producer, and New York Times-bestselling author of All Boys Aren't Blue.
In 2021, All Boys Aren't Blue was named one of the top 10 teen titles of 2021 by the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) of the American Library Association (ALA). In the same year, the book was targeted with attempts to ban the book, along with other titles, in public libraries and schools around the country.
On April 4, 2022, the ALA listed the same title as one of the 10 most challenged books of 2021, placing it at No. 3 on the list. As part of the report, the ALA said that 2021 saw the largest number of book challenges since the association started compiling the list 20 years ago, adding: "Library staff in every state faced an unprecedented number of attempts to ban books. ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom tracked 729 challenges to library, school, and university materials and services in 2021, resulting in more than 1,597 individual book challenges or removals. Most targeted books were by or about Black or LGBTQIA+ persons."
Here, Johnson reflects on growing up as a Black queer person in America and why writing became a powerful tool for writing themselves and other Black queer youth into history. They reflect on what impact the attempts to ban their book have had and why the bans have further galvanized them to fight for stories like theirs to be told.
You can read more from the In My Own Words series here.
My name is George M. Johnson. I am the New York Times-bestselling author of the critically acclaimed and banned All Boys Aren’t Blue. At my core, I am a Black storyteller. My life’s purpose is to continue to put stories and experiences in the world that give a first-hand account of what it means to be Black and queer in America. My identity as a Black non-binary person allows me to see the world through a lens that has always existed, but rarely ever given the chance to tell the story.
To me, what matters is the youth. I remember growing up in a world where I didn’t see images of myself. I didn’t read stories about my lived experiences or what I was dealing with while struggling with my identity. I always had Black heroes and possibility models stolen from me. As a kid, we learned about people like Zora Neale Hurston and James Baldwin, but never about their queerness.
I don’t want another generation to experience what I went through, not feeling like I mattered in the world or had legacy and history and Black queer ancestors. So for me, becoming an author and writer was my way to ensure they had stories that reflected their experiences.
I live my life by the Toni Morrison quote, “If there is a book that you want to read and it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” Everything I do is about creating the things I wish I had when I was growing up. Writing is also a form of activism. Black storytelling has historically been one of our greatest weapons against white supremacy, ensuring that the truth was captured in a world full of alternative history telling.
Growing up as young Black queer person in America can often put you in a place where you are defending your Blackness against white supremacy, while also fighting against the denial of your Blackness, because queerness has often been viewed as a threat to it. Part of the work I do as a writer helps bridge that gap in Black communities by attempting to break the conditioning that taught us to be homophobic, misogynistic, and transphobic.
"My identity as a Black non-binary person allows me to see the world through a lens that has always existed, but rarely ever given the chance to tell the story," writes George M. Johnson. Johnson was photographed in Los Angeles, Calif in March 2022.
This is at the crux of what matters to me: educating, informing, and changing minds in a way that leads to changed actions.
In 2013, while having a conversation with my best friend Preston Mitchum, I officially decided that I wanted to be a writer. Prior to that, I had worked in higher education finance offices and planned on having a trajectory in that space. After he wrote his first article for Ebony magazine, I told him, “I think I wanna be a writer, too.” He looked at me and simply said, “Well write.” And from that day, that’s what I have been doing.
What sparked my writing was covering the stories that seemed to be missing from the headlines. From 2013 to 2017, I wrote over 1,000 clips on the topics of race, gender, sexuality, HIV, education, and the occasional cultural criticism piece. Most importantly, I wrote about myself. Throughout my freelance career, I would do personal essays that connected with so many throughout various communities, giving a voice to many who didn’t have the words or the access to share our stories. And in 2017, the death of a young gay boy at the hands of his father made me realize that I had to take my story a step further.
Following that reporting, I decided to write All Boys Aren’t Blue. I wanted to put a body of work in the world that showcased a true depiction of the Black family dynamic raising an effeminate queer boy. As a Black queer boy, I always knew I was different, even if I didn’t have the language to explain what I was feeling. By the age of 10, I could tell that others knew I was different, too. My mannerisms, my voice, my sass didn’t fit the construct of what a “boy” should be and act like. My performance of identity then became one based out of safety over truth.
I tell my story through a series of essays that highlight important moments in my life that taught me many life lessons along the way. My story is about the totality of the experience — the good, bad, tragic, and triumphant. It’s all the pieces of the puzzle being put together that make me who I truly am. And that’s what I attempted to do with my book: put my my most vulnerable and transparent self out into the world to ensure that youth reading it had a roadmap and a possibility model to attach themselves to. I made the mistakes and took the hits from society so that other youth could read my story and not have to follow down the hardest parts of my path.
George M. Johnson
George M. Johnson
And for 17 months my book was doing just that, inspiring so many youth across the country while being a teaching tool for all who never understood the Black queer experience. But in October 2021, the first attempt to ban my book from a high school library was filed and would change my life and story forever. Since that first attempt to ban the book, it has now been pulled from libraries or challenged in nearly 20 states. I’ve also dealt with two criminal complaints in Florida, one in North Carolina, and the Iowa Senate attempt to pass a bill making the dissemination of my work and others to youth a crime.
The works of Black authors, Black queer authors, and a few others have been under attack for several months. Conservatives across the US are on a crusade to remove LGBTQ+ education from schools as well as only telling Black History that shows white people in the country in a favorable light. Essentially, the goal is for LGBTQ+ people to be erased and Black people to continue to be conditioned with the lie that America has always been about freedoms, while downplaying the role slavery continues to play in our society.
These book bans are tied to a much larger problem. The demographics of America are simply becoming less white. Gen Z is currently composed of 52% white people and 48% non-white, the highest non-white population of any generation demographic in this country’s history. It is also estimated that 15% of Gen Z identifies as LGBTQ+. Both numbers continuing to grow year over year. The attempts to remove LGBTQ+ protections and history as well as Black history is built in fear of the minority becoming the majority.
Historically, the K-12 education system has been used to condition children to view American history through a whitewashed lens. As the demographics change, so does the amount of texts and literature that teach the truth from the other side of the perspective. When conservatives say they want to remove our stories, they are honestly saying our experiences don’t matter and that their white children should never know the truth of how their “supremacy” was created. It means months like Black History Month and LGBTQ+ History Month could potentially no longer exist. It’s an attempt to go back to the days absent of any civil rights, and a firm stance against the notion that inequities between races and gender exist.
However, despite these attempts, the first thing I realized was my own words in All Boys Aren’t Blue: The first person you have to be an activist for is yourself. And in this moment, that is exactly what I did. Most of the bans were being done on a local level — so much so, that it was hard to recognize that books were getting banned in multiple states simultaneously. I began tracking my bans, and when it finally got to eight states, I discussed it on Twitter. Instantly, the tweet brought major attention to the situation as national media who had followed my career began picking up on the story.
As of today, All Boys Aren’t Blue has been removed from several Libraries in 8 different states. Send good energy as I now go on the offensive 🙏🏾💗🙏🏾💗— George M Johnson (@IamGMJohnson) November 5, 2021
Pennsylvania, Florida, Iowa, Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, Virginia, & Texas. pic.twitter.com/uWw8jiSgMm
It was important to do this because the public often doesn’t know what’s going on or how to contend with it. From there, I began offering tips to those who supported our books, as well as assisting librarians, teachers, and students with how to fight back against these bans.
From petitions, to going to school board meetings, to sharing their personal stories of how these books have helped them, we have been able to shift the narrative back to why these stories are necessary. It makes it much harder to deny the importance of the work when more of us speak up than the few of them who are challenging it. At the end of the day, we have the capability to activate many others when we defend what is right.
I’m not always sure how to feel about my future, but I do know that whatever it is, I want it to be impactful to those who need it the most. I hope the future of Black queerness is one with safety that allows us the opportunity to live in our truth, absent the phobias and -isms that dictate our navigation in life.
Black queer people deserve the right to do more than just survive and exist. We deserve the full right to enjoy life on our terms. And until that day comes, I will continue to fight for it, even if I never see it happen in my lifetime.
George M. Johnson poses for a portrait in Los Angeles, Calif., in March 2022.
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