George M. Johnson’s New YA Memoir Is the Manifesto We Need Now #BLACKLIVESMATTER

George M. Johnson’s writings are masterful pieces of prose as poetry. He recently released his first book, out now — a young adult novel — a self described memoir/manifesto called All Boys Are Blue.

People Magazine has already called it one of the must reads of the summer and  NPR recently said of the book: Journalist and activist George M. Johnson’s new memoir is an unvarnished look at growing up Black and queer in New Jersey and later Virginia. Johnson draws readers into his own experiences with clear, confiding essays — from childhood encounters with bullies to sexual experiences good and bad, to finding unexpected brotherhood in a college fraternity, all of it grounded in the love and support of his family. It’s aimed at a young adult audience — but it’s a book many readers may wish they’d had access to growing up. In an email interview, Johnson tells me he was inspired by Toni Morrison’s famous saying, “If there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it,” which he has tattooed on his right arm. “I look at it often to remind myself of why I am writing these stories and the importance of centering black stories from the black perspective,” Johnson says.

“I didn’t have stories like these growing up and honestly I don’t have many now so I knew I needed to do my part to make sure the next generation of Black queer children had something they could relate to and connect with. There are days I look at TV and film and still don’t see myself represented. So, my ultimate goal was providing the story I didn’t have but always needed and to be the vessel so that so many can feel seen and heard.”

Photo above: George M. Johnson photographed by Sean Howard.

We spoke to Johnson via email about the book.

Do you feel that the book is more relevant than ever in light of the death of George Floyd and the riots that have engulfed much of the country (and world)? I do feel the book is more relevant to what is currently going on. My book doesn’t just tell stories about my identity but also discusses Blackness, anti-Blackness and racism. My book is an educational tool that calls out whiteness and the many ways that it shows up in our lives. It is more important now than ever that people listen to Black people. LIsten to our stories and our navigation in a society controlled by white supremacy or the idea that white people are supreme. Many of us live at many identity intersections which makes our oppression look different, and it’s important that people understand our plight and be charged to take action against it. 

In Blue you’ve added a plethora of magic to both Black, YA, and LGBT literature, while telling your story — what would you tell a young person today who may feel that they are precluded from having agency or control over their circumstances? I tell young people often that they do in face have power in their narrative. And that taking back agency requires one to change the narrative some. So instead of this belief that you have to come out, know that you are in fact “inviting in”. You are allowing people to know the real you, not giving folks a chance to decide if your truth should be rejected. It’s not easy being queer and publicly identifying as such. Many families are still not equipped to protect queer children nor support them in a way that acceptable. However, the truth is we can only control the things in our control. It took me a while to learn that, but it’s necessary for survival. The things that you control, make sure you control them. The things out of your control you have to let go. It’s not always easy but it’s necessary. Also finding people who will advocate for you and support is critical in gaining your full agency. 

All Boys are Blue is billed as a Memoir/Manifesto. Why? It’s a call to action. It’s me telling a story that has always existed but not given its proper justice. It’s a story that will make folks uncomfortable with the ultimate goal of them creating change. Learning and understanding a persons life outside of them. Learning and understanding a life that is very much life yours. It is a book that has the ultimate goal of creating change for Black queer people. 

You recently wrote about the eerie parallels between COVID-19 and HIV vis-a-vis the Black Community. Has there been enough mobilization around this?  There hasn’t been. Unfortunately we are still in a pandemic in the midst of protest so i’m not sure how much mobilization could have even occurred. The country is just starting to have enough people tested to help us go back out into the world. The government has failed us multiple times over with epidemics so i don’t have any expectation for them to ever get it right. It will be left to the community to save our selves in many ways. 

I loved how sex positive and educational the intimate scenes are, but I couldn’t help wonder if there was any pushback given that it’s YA novel. Was there? I didn’t have any pushback. I was actually encouraged to take it a step further and push it a step harder. To go all the way there to help kids fully understand and not make the same mistakes that i made. It was pretty tough for me to put so much of my business out there on the page but I knew it was necessary. I’m glad that I went as far as I did although it does make me blush to think about it sometimes. 

Was it cathartic to write about some of the traumas that you’ve been through i.e the cousin who molested you, the deaths of dear friends at such a young age?  In many ways it was very healing. I cried a lot while writing the book but I think it was a reminder of how buried some things were that I still needed to process and go through. So i’m glad I did it and now I get to talk about it to people who have also went through these same things. It again was a necessary thing for me to do and part of my healing. My book is helping and healing others and I feel that is happening as a by-product of the book healing me. 

The novel remains entertaining and engrossing even when dealing with the most serious of subjects, but the ultimate takeaway is one of joy and love of life. Do you attribute much of this to your love of family and in particular your grandmother who left an indelible influence on you  Absolutely. Nanny was love and life and all those things. She was just a phenomenal woman. I miss her everyday. She raised children that were full of love and life who then raised children that were full of love and life. She was big on holidays. All of us being together made her happy. Watching us be successful made her happy. My family is still very much involved in my life. There are at every event and celebrate every win that I have in my life. It’s a really amazing thing to have and know that I will always have home. 

All Boys Aren’t Blue A Memoir-Manifesto by George M. Johnson Hardcover, 304 pages

Is there a movie in the works yet? I can’t say much yet but trust the book is not the final step for All Boys Aren’t Blue. 

 

George M. Johnson is a writer and activist based in New York. He has written on race, gender, sex, and culture for Essence, The Advocate, Buzz Feed News, Teen Vogue, and more than forty other national publications. He is a columnist for AFROPUNK, and has appeared on BuzzFeed’s AM2DM as well as MSNBC. All Boys Aren’t Blue is his debut.

You can buy the book here.