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

"I have more books to write and more stories to dismantle this system. And I’ll be damned if anyone denies my right to write them."
George M. Johnson
George M. Johnson
Illustration: Chris McGonigal/HuffPost; Photo: Vincent Marc

It was sometime during 2019, before COVID turned the world upside down, that I had the first meeting with my publisher. Her team and I sat in a room around a table and discussed the strategy — the marketing and promotion, mostly — for dropping my first book, which I’d recently finished. I was truly living my dreams. Amid the excited conversation, something in my spirit told me to ask a question: “What happens if you need security at an event?” They all looked puzzled. One of them asked why I’d need that. “I know this book will be banned,” I replied. “I don’t know when or how widely, but I know that it will be.”

A report from PEN America this week showed that my book, having survived various criminal complaints, was the second-most banned in the United States, with bans in 29 school districts. States’ continued efforts to ban my work is not easy to wake up to daily. For the past year, there have been constant Google alerts, messages on social media from people calling me a “pedophile or groomer,” and other unsavory attempts to deny my story and the very existence of Black queer people everywhere. I never thought I would be at the center of a political issue moving into an election — nor should I ever have been.

My book, “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” is a young adult memoir about my experience growing up Black and queer in America. In my story, I discuss growing up in a Black family who loved and affirmed me; the good, bad and ugly truths about what teens really deal with; and my journey through gender and social identity. My life was and still is full of joy, but also include some painful moments involving nonconsensual sex, as well as my experience with losing my virginity. Unfortunately, my sexual experiences have been deemed “an issue” — pornographic by some. To be clear, this book is for ages 14-18 and it contains truths that many of us have experienced and are healing from. People’s backlash, in all forms, is being used to disguise the real issue.

Books about our experience are not too “explicit” just because they discuss gender, race and other crucial topics that teen readers need to process as they learn about themselves and the world they live in. These bans are the product of a system that upholds an alternative history of the United States and the world we live in — and that’s dangerous to an impressionable teen. Queerness is not a monolith; it has, so far, existed through one main lens — white and patriarchal — and continues to erase or deny the painful history many of us in this country suffer through.

Our books (the banned ones, if you will) often tell stories that are uncomfortable and important. Book banning is nothing new in the U.S., but it has rarely been seen at this magnitude in recent decades. But we can’t just talk about book banning without discussing the suppression of storytelling. Textbooks, historically, contain many inaccuracies. Books written by enslaved people, that described their reality, had to be written under pseudonyms to protect the authors. Some of the greatest literary icons of our time — Toni Morrison, James Baldwin and even Harper Lee — have had their books banned despite their works being part of the landscape and foundation for many generations of writers. Their words simply didn’t fit into the neat narrative that white America is somehow still trying to preserve.

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

When I first wrote my memoir, I kept reminding myself that this was not 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 I had tapped a power I never knew existed.

And then I watched as reader after reader, from teenagers to people well into their 70s, discussed how this book made them feel — how the stories healed and informed them. I was told that my simple existence (me being out here and sticking to my intentions) was something that they could hold on to on their roughest of days. And that’s the truly revolutionary thing about art. Toni Morrison once said, “If there is a book you want to read and it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” That’s what I did. And while all the book bans are weaponizing my words, I know that they’re providing armor for those who have gone through anything I did.

That being said, all the resistance to my book — which is a symbol of my life and reality — has affected my mental health. Every attempt at a ban is a reminder that people do not want me to simply live. I’m fortunate that I have ancestors I can always lean on. During the most painful and trying moments, I can grab my grandmother’s diamond pendant and channel her energy, sing some of her favorite church hymnals aloud and then sit in silence allowing her voice to resonate. “Don’t let these people get to you,” she’d always tell me. “You are doing what you were put here to do.”

I rest when I need to because that’s a radical act of resistance on its own. I try my best not to push myself beyond my capacity. I have boundaries now. And that’s my advice to anyone telling an important story about their identity. There will be pushback, but taking care of yourself first will help you stand strong in your mission. Through it all, my own journey is only in its infancy. I have more books to write and more stories to dismantle this system. And I’ll be damned if anyone denies my right to write them.

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