Ancestors will tell you, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him you have a plan.” That is the best way I could describe my experience releasing my memoir All Boys Aren’t Blue. For months I went into preparation for a book tour, and a book release party to celebrate such an important moment in my career and life. And five weeks before its release, the entire world shut down, including every book store across the country as we entered into life with COVID.
Releasing a book during the lockdown of an unprecedented pandemic was certainly not how I imagined I would start my career as an author. But I knew my words needed to be in the world and that despite the current climate we were living in, I had a duty to make sure everyone who needed this book knew that it existed. And although I didn’t know what would happen, I knew that I had released something special.
Within weeks of release, so did the world.
Fast-forward eight weeks into the book’s release, and it had become an Indie Bestseller and made People Magazine, Buzzfeed, and Teen Vogue’s “Best Books of the Summer” lists. It was then optioned for TV development by Gabrielle Union and Sony TV. By the end of the year, my reflections on growing up Black and queer were named a 2020 Best Book of the Year by Amazon, the New York and Chicago public libraries, and Kirkus Reviews, as well as being chosen the number no. 1 book by the Young Adult Student Library Association. 18 months in, it was now in multiple languages including French and Spanish, and opening up the world to the existence of Black queer people at the intersection of race and identity.
The book is still doing very well in all markets. It seemed as if my Black queer story was one that wouldn’t be challenged. Unfortunately, in this world, stories that center anything other than cis-gendered, white, heteronormativity are unacceptable by society’s standard.
Six weeks ago, that truth came to fruition.
A few conservatives from a county in Kansas City decided to post excerpts from two chapters of my book where I describe my first sexual encounters as a teen and young adult. These two excerpts were being labeled as “porn,” despite there being an extensive author’s note at the beginning of the book that prepared for these sections, and the fact that they make up less than 10 pages of the 320-page book. I laughed it off, but I knew that this would only be the beginning of what would be a fight for truth in Black storytelling.
Like the old folks say, “You don’t have to get ready if you stay ready.” It wasn’t a matter of “if” my book would be banned for me as much as “when” it would be banned, and would I be ready? Which I was. Stories like mine have always been denied to the youth who need them the most. We know the youth become the future leaders so having access to stories like mine that shape their world in truth becomes dangerous to the stability of whiteness. I’m angered at the fact that we are in a fight for the ability to simply tell the truth. I’m pissed that our experiences are being deemed unscholarly because their critique of whiteness and oppression rejects everything we had ever been taught about American History.
So they try to erase these stories so the youth become people in power with a narrow lens of the people who exist in this world. This ban makes me feel the same anger and rage that my ancestors felt when their stories were erased or never told. The same anger and rage I had as a teen when I didn’t see myself or have the language to know who I was because stories of people like me were kept away.
Now, six weeks into the ban, with more than 10 states having it pulled from their high school libraries and even a criminal complaint filed (which has been thrown out) — I know my fight to protect the rights of Black storytelling, Queer storytelling, and students having access to the material will be long. I refuse to let the youth grow up in a world as I had to where I didn’t feel seen or heard — only dooming them to make the same mistakes of the past. Furthermore, these students have rights, protected by the First Amendment, to have access to material they deem as necessary for themselves.
As a kid who only had the opportunity to read texts of young white heterosexual boys and girls, I knew my story was going to rattle the unfounded notions about “the innocence of white children” in this country. It’s extremely hypocritical at best since we as Black children read books that not only had characters who didn’t look like us but used racist, anti-Black language and indigenous language to make us feel inferior.
Whether it was Huck Finn and the use of the N-word, or The Invisible Man referring to indigenous people as “savages,” we never read text that had any respect for us. The text always talked about white existence and how hard the struggles were for white folks who only created their own struggles in a world where they had all the power. Black kids go to schools named after white people who owned slaves. Read books that shape slavery simply as a “mistake,” rather than the root of their current existence. In a world that oppresses us from birth, these white books that we are forced to read-only reinforce that notion.
Censorship is dangerous because it erases the truth of the reality we live in to create an alternative world of what the majority (whites) want it to be. Several counties are urging government officials to make it a felony for youth to be given these books. In Spotsylvania County, Virginia, School Board members suggested the public burning of our books — something not seen since Nazi Germany.
It’s the reason that more than 8 million people were enslaved in this country yet we have less than 6,000 accounts of their experience. To ensure that never happens again, we write books that tell our ancestors’ stories from a Black lens in totality, absent the white gaze we have been conditioned to read as truth. We get to tell our experiences now in real-time, ensuring the erasure of the past doesn’t repeat itself.
Whether we use terms like equity or critical race theory, the heart of our storytelling is centered on one thing — the truth. Censorship at its core is to deny us of telling our truth, much like the denial of our ancestors. America has reached a point where white folks see their power as the majority in this nation slip to where people of color will outnumber them within the next two decades. Their fear of this continues to drive them to deny us space in any and every facet, including our storytelling. Removing us and our stories doesn’t negate our existence and never has.
We refuse to be silent in this fight. I use my platform to continue combating these attempts to remove my book while empowering students to activate their rights in a way that I never had the opportunity to do in the past. You won’t deny our youth the same way denied to me and millions of our ancestors who had a story that deserved the right to be told.
All Boys Aren’t Blue is available wherever books are sold.
George M. Johnson is a writer and activist whose first book, All Boys Aren’t Blue, is a memoir-manifesto about growing up Black and queer in America.