George M. Johnson: What Getting My Book Banned Taught Me About Telling Your Truth

It was sometime in 2019, before COVID turned the world upside down, I had my first meeting with my publisher. Her team and I sat in a room around a table and discussed the strategy – mainly marketing and advertising – for the publication of my first book, which I had recently finished. I really lived my dreams. Amidst the excited conversation, something in my mind advised me to ask a question, “What happens when you need security at an event?” They all looked confused. One of them asked why I need this. “I know this book will be banned,” I replied. “I don’t know when or how widespread, but I know it will be.”

A report from PEN America this week showed that my book was the second most banned after surviving multiple lawsuits in the United States with bans in 29 school districts. With states continuing to ban my work, it’s not easy to wake up every day. The past year has seen constant Google alerts, social media messages from people calling me a “pedophile or dog groomer,” and other unsavory attempts to deny my history and the very existence of black queer people everywhere. I never thought I would be at the center of a political issue leading up to an election – nor should I have been.

My book, “All boys aren’t blue.” is a youth memory about my experiences as a black and queer person in America. In my story, I speak of growing up in a black family who loved and validated me; the good, bad, and ugly truths about what teenagers are really up to; and my journey through gender and social identity. My life has been and still is joyful, but also includes some painful moments of non-consensual sex and my experience of losing my virginity. Unfortunately, my sexual experiences were considered “a problem” — pornographic by some. To be clear, this book is for the 14 to 18 age group and contains truths that many of us have experienced and are being healed from. Human backlash in all forms is used to cover up the real problem.

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Books about our experiences aren’t too “explicit” just because they cover gender, race, and other important issues that teenage readers need to process as they learn about themselves and the world in which they live. These prohibitions are the product of a system that is an alternate history of the United States and the world we live in – and that is dangerous for an impressionable teenager. Queerness is not a monolith; it has existed through a main lens – white and patriarchal – and continues to erase or deny the painful history that many of us in this country are going through.

Our books (the forbiddenif you will) often tell uncomfortable and important stories. Book banning is nothing new in the US, but it has rarely been seen on this scale in recent decades. But we can’t just talk about book bans without discussing storytelling suppression. Textbooks historically contain many inaccuracies. Books written by enslaved people describing their reality had to be written under pseudonyms to protect the authors. The books of some of the greatest literary icons of our time – Toni Morrison, James Baldwin and even Harper Lee – have been banned, even though their works have been part of the landscape and basis of many generations of writers. Her words just didn’t fit the neat narrative that white America somehow still tries to preserve.

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But that’s why writing and other types of storytelling are such revolutionary rights. Books endure even when oppressors don’t want them to. They transform lives, provide community, and serve as a lifeline for those who feel invisible, unheard, and alone.

When I first wrote my memoir, I kept reminding myself that this wasn’t for the 33-year-old version of me. This was for my 10 year old self who had important things to say and had been silenced for so many years. And as I wrote about my experience, I felt lighter. I felt freer. I felt like I had tapped into a power I never knew existed.

And then I watched as reader after reader, from teenagers to people well into their 70s, debated how this book made them feel—how the stories healed and informed them. I was told that my simple existence (being out here and sticking to my intentions) was something to hold on to on their toughest days. And that’s what’s really revolutionary about art. Toni Morrison once said, “If there’s a book you want to read that hasn’t been written, you have to write it.” That’s what I did. And while all the book bans arm my words, I know they offer armor to those who have endured everything I’ve done.

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That being said, all the opposition to my book – which is a symbol of my life and reality – has taken a toll on my sanity. Any attempt at a ban is a reminder that people don’t want me to just live. I am fortunate to have ancestors that I can always lean on. In my most painful and difficult moments, I can grab my grandmother’s diamond pendant and channel her energy, sing out loud some of her favorite hymns, and then sit in silence and let her voice ring out. “Don’t let these people get to you,” she used to tell me. “You are doing what you were brought here to do.”

I rest when necessary, because that in itself is a radical act of resistance. I try my best not to push myself beyond my capacity. I have limits now. And that’s my advice to anyone telling an important story about their identity. There will be setbacks, but if you take care of yourself first, you can stay strong in your mission. Through all of this, my own journey is still in its infancy. I have more books to write and more stories to dismantle this system. And I’ll be damned if anyone denies me the right to write them.

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