Ancestors will tell you, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him you have a plan.” It’s the best way I could describe my experience of publishing my memories Not all boys are blue. For several months, I went in preparation for a book tour and a book publishing party to celebrate such an important moment in my career and my life. And five weeks before the release, the whole world shut down, including every bookstore across the country, when we stepped into life with COVID.
Publishing a book during the lockdown of an unprecedented pandemic was certainly not how I imagined I would start my career as a writer. But I knew my words had to be in the world, and that despite the current climate we lived in, I had a duty to make sure that everyone who needed this book knew it existed. And even though I did not know what was going to happen, I knew I had released something special.
Within a few weeks of release, the world did the same.
Fast forward eight weeks in the book’s release, and it had become an indie bestseller and made People Magazine, Buzzfeed, and Teen Vogues “Best Books of the Summer” lists. It was then chosen for TV development by Gabrielle Union and Sony TV. At the end of the year, my thoughts on growing up, black and queer, were voted the best book of the year in 2020 by Amazon, New York and Chicago Public Libraries and Kirkus Reviews, as well as being voted the No. 1 book by Young People. Adult Student Library Association. After 18 months, it was now in several languages, including French and Spanish, opening the world to the existence of black queer people at the intersection of race and identity.
The book is still doing really well in all markets. It seemed like my black queer story was one that would not be challenged. Unfortunately, in this world, stories that center anything but cis-gender, white, heteronormativity, are unacceptable by society’s standard.
Six weeks ago, that truth was expressed.
A couple of conservatives from a county in Kansas City decided to post excerpts from two chapters in my book where I describe my first sexual encounters as a teenager and young adult. These two excerpts were labeled “porn”, despite the fact that there was an extensive authorial note at the beginning of the book that prepared these sections, and the fact that they make up less than 10 pages of the 320-page book. I laughed at that, but I knew this would only be the beginning of what would be a battle for the truth in Black storytelling.
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As the ancients say, “You do not have to get ready if you get ready.” It was not a question 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 young people who need them most. We know that young people will be the leaders of the future, so it will be dangerous for the stability of whiteness to have access to stories like mine that shape their world into truth. I’m angry at the fact that we’re in a battle for the ability to just tell the truth. I’m angry that our experiences are considered unlearned because their critique of whiteness and oppression rejects everything we’ve ever been taught about American history.
So they are trying to erase these stories so that the young people become in power with a narrow lens of the people that exist in this world. This ban makes me feel the same anger and rage that my ancestors felt when their stories were deleted or never told. The same anger and rage that I had as a teenager when I did not see myself or had the language to know who I was because stories about people like me were kept away.
Now, six weeks into the ban, where more than 10 states have had it withdrawn from their high school libraries and even a criminal case filed (who has been kicked out) – I know that my struggle to protect the rights of Black storytelling, Queer storytelling and students who have access to the material will be long. I refuse to let the young people grow up in a world I had to where I did not feel seen or heard – only condemned them to make the same mistakes of the past. In addition, these students have the rights, protected by the First Amendment, to access material they deem necessary for themselves.
As a child who only had the opportunity to read texts by young white heterosexual boys and girls, I knew that my story would rattle the unfounded notions of “white children’s innocence” in this country. It is extremely hypocritical at best, as we as black children read books that not only had characters who did not look like us, but used racist, anti-black language and native 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 peoples as “wild”, we never read text that had any respect for us. The text always spoke of white existence and how fierce the struggles were for white people who only created their own struggles in a world where they had all the power. Black children 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, which we are forced to read only, reinforce this notion.
Censorship is dangerous because it erases the truth about the reality we live in in order to create an alternative world of what the majority (whites) want it to be. Several counties are urging officials to make it a crime for young people to have these books handed out. In Spotsylvania County, Virginia, school board members proposed public burning of our books – something that has not been seen since Nazi Germany.
That is why more than 8 million people were enslaved in this country, but we have less than 6,000 accounts of their experience. To ensure that it never happens again, we write books that tell the stories of our ancestors from a black lens in its entirety, absent the white gaze we have been conditioned to read as truth. We are going to tell our experiences now in real time, so we ensure that the erasure of the past is not repeated.
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Whether we use terms like justice or critical race theory, the heart of our storytelling is centered on one thing – the truth. Censorship at its core is to refuse us to tell our truth, just like the denial of our ancestors. America has reached a point where white people see their power as the majority of this nation slips to where colored people will exceed them within the next two decades. Their fear of this continues to drive them to deny us space in every facet, including our storytelling. Removing us and our stories does not nullify our existence and never have.
We refuse to be silent in this fight. I use my platform to continue to fight these attempts to remove my book, while allowing students to activate their rights in a way I have never had the opportunity to do before. You will not deny our youth in the same way that it denies me and millions of our ancestors who had a story that deserved the right to be told.
Not all boys are blue is available wherever books are sold.
George M. Johnson is an author and activist whose first book, All Boys Aren’t Blue, is a manifesto of growing up as black and queer in America.