For the recent National Library Week, I chose to read a Banned Book, and elected “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson. I checked out the audio-book and listened on my commute and while doing my cross stitch, in place of my usual podcasts. The audio-book is read by Johnson themself 1 so you really get a good feel for Johnson’s voice. Their authenticity rings out in their reading of their book, and I think more memoir audio-books should do this. What better person to read a memoir aloud than the person whose life is being depicted?
I was less than halfway through the book before I realized exactly why this book has been banned and restricted in so many places. It’s not for the clinical descriptions of the author’s encounters with gay sex, or not solely that anyway. It’s the pure radical rebellion of the text at every turn. Johnson’s entire book is a handbook for teens on how to navigate race, sexuality, and family issues, lessons that they may not be getting at home. It is very clearly aimed AT teens (Johnson calls it a YA memoir, which is an interesting category we should be exploring more I think), and doesn’t talk down to them or sugarcoat the ills of the world. It doesn’t shy away from calling a spade a spade, and it clearly and simply outlines things like systemic racism, how homophobia shapes the western world, and the ways that transphobia harms all of us. It is unashamedly and blatantly black, queer, and radical.
As a white femme-presenting person from rural southern US, I don’t have a lot in common with Johnson outside our mutual queerness. Johnson was a little gay black boy from Jersey, a world away from my own experiences. But their story still resonated with me on a human level. Their experience of alienation from their peers, being the “odd one” in their family, their hesitance to come out to their family despite their general supportiveness, and their experience of having a large, sprawling, multigenerational family that was close and loving all spoke to me. I loved hearing about their family shenanigans, their college exploits, and their earliest memories of their queerness. The whole narrative felt like sitting down with Johnson for a nice cup of tea and a get-to-know-you chat.
Of course, there are parts that don’t fall into that “getting to know you” mold. Some things in the book are deeper and darker. I had to stop listening for a little while after the chapter describing their own sexual assaults at the hands of other boys only a little older than them. (There is a warning at the beginning of the book for all these things, so let this serve as another warning, they really mean that Trigger Warning!) As a fellow child sexual abuse survivor, that chapter hit at a gut level, although our stories are very different. Johnson is unflinching in looking back on it, able to describe it in detail with clarity. It makes this into the kind of memoir not to be treated lightly, and which I wouldn’t recommend for every teen. But that very unflinching and absolute assurance of the wrongness of what happened, as well as the later consensual explorations of their sexuality that they detail in the last chapters and a corresponding examination of what makes the two experiences distinct, is exactly the sort of content some teens need. Many teens struggle with this sort of issue, and having an opportunity to hear from an adult that it has happened to them, and how and why it was wrong, can be incredibly important for healing. Especially important if it’s something a teen can explore on their own, without having to make themselves vulnerable to another person to hear it, such as with a book.
Overall, I think this book is a great example of “if they don’t want you to read it, then you should read it all the harder”. I wouldn’t make it required reading in schools or anything, but it definitely should be in every high school and public library in America. It should be easily available to those who need it. The removal of it from libraries constitutes a serious offense against black queer students who deserve to see their experiences reflected back at them.