On Nov. 10, a Flagler County school district administrator ordered all copies of George M. Johnson’s memoir-manifesto All Boys Aren’t Blue removed from circulation in all Flagler schools and their libraries, along with three other titles, pending a committee’s review.
The administrator was responding to Flagler County School Board member Jill Woolbright’s challenge of the books, and her filing a criminal report on Nov. 9 against Flagler Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt. Woolbright, on no evidence, charged “it is a crime to have the book in the media centers,” and “because the superintendent has not notified the other school board members” of her complaint to Mittlestadt about the book days earlier, though the superintendent is under no obligation to make such a notification when a book is challenged. [FlaglerLive has purchased 15 copies of the hardbound edition of All Boys Aren’t Blue for free distribution to students. The books will be disseminated through Flagler Palm Coast High School student Jack Petocz–the only student censored at a school board meeting in recent memory: Janet McDonald, when she chaired the board, shut him down when he attempted to speak of McDonald’s Twitter account promoting misinformation and “homophobia, criticisms of the Black Lives Matter movement and activism,” among other bigotries. Additional copies will be made available if necessary.]
We contacted Johnson, who goes by the pronouns they/them, and they agreed to an extensive interview.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux published Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue to near-universal acclaim in 2020. The memoir explores Johnson’s childhood and adolescence as a queer Black man growing up in Plainfield, N.J., in a household with a father who was a cop and a mother who headed the police department’s secretarial group. The book touches on family, racism, sexual identity, violence, traumas and various means of self-realization in lucid, direct and often witty prose. One of their intentions was to write the book they wish they’d been able to read in their adolescence.
“I wasn’t sure if this was my story to tell,” Johnson writes in the book’s introduction. “In writing this, though, I realized that I wasn’t just telling my story. I was telling the story of millions of queer people who never got a chance to tell theirs. This book became less about having the answers to everything, because I haven’t been through everything. It became less about being a guide and more about being the gateway for more people to find their truth and find their power to live in that truth.”
The New York Times called All Boys Aren’t Blue “an exuberant, unapologetic memoir infused with a deep but cleareyed love for its subjects.” Kirkus Review, ranking it among the best books of 2020, wrote: ” Those who see themselves outside the standpoint of being Black and queer are called in toward accountability, clarifying an understanding of the history, language, and actions needed to transform the world—not in pity for the oppressed but in the liberation of themselves. ”
The book has been named an Amazon Best Book of the Year, an American Library Association Rainbow List Pick, and a Best Book of 2020 by the New York Library, the Chicago Public Library and People Magazine, and was one of Publishers Weekly’s Anti-Racist Reading List Pick. For months, the book has also been a target of reactionary attacks, delisting, removals from libraries and outright bans. On Nov. 9, The Advocate cited Johnson’s tally that the book had been banned from libraries and schools in at least eight states. The bans have followed what appears to be an orchestrated pattern as individuals challenge the book either directly through administrators or by appearing at school board meetings, reading excerpts out of context, demanding that the book be removed, then banking on social media replications of their appearances. Complainers usually have not read the book, only its sexually explicit excerpts, which occur briefly in two chapters in a book of over 300 pages.
A district committee is expected to read the book and render a decision on its fate to Mittelstadt within 14 days, starting on Nov. 12.
The interview with Johnson, conducted today in writing by FlaglerLive Editor Pierre Tristam, follows in full it has only been edited for typographical consistency. The ellipses, when they appear, are Johnson’s, and not indications of deleted text.
You cannot be too surprised by the neo-puritan furies your book has stirred up in an age of intense reaction against LGBTQ gains, or are you?
I’m not surprised at all. I’ve been queer for a long time so this is not my first fight against the purity brigade. Before writing the book I had a meeting with my team and told them “at some point this book will be banned.” It happened a lot later than I thought it would, but I always knew this was coming. It’s partly why I was ready to respond as soon as this all started six weeks ago. As my ancestors say, “you don’t have to get ready if you stay ready.” and I stay ready.
It isn’t often that we see the word “manifesto” candidly attached to a title anymore. The word takes the memoir beyond literary intentions to outright activism. What is your goal with “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” and do the furies not play into your aims, now that many more people, especially in Flagler County, Fla., are discovering the book?
My ultimate goal for All Boys Aren’t Blue has never changed. The Toni Morrison quote is “if there is a book that you want to read and it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” So that’s what I did. I put a book in the world that would allow queer teens, specifically Black Queer teens know that someone existed in this world just like them and went through many of the obstacles so that they wouldn’t have to. Do the furies play into my aims? Not so much. The furies ultimately bring more awareness to the story, making it more visible for those who didn’t know it existed. But whether they occurred or not, the book was doing quite well on its own.
Is there an age below which you consider your book, or any book, inappropriate?
My book is specifically written for 14-18 year olds. For grade 10-12 level readers. I wouldn’t expect a 7 year old to be able to read my book and comprehend it because it wasn’t written with them in mind. The language used is likely above their reading level, so that’s not really the question at hand. I think the issue is, society has decided that certain topics–gender, sexuality, racism, etc. are too “heavy” for kids, despite the fact that kids can be experiencing those traumas from a very very young age. So this version of All Boys Aren’t Blue is for the age it is for. Doesn’t mean I can’t write another version of All Boys Aren’t Blue that covered all these same topics but in a language digestible to a 10 year old or 8 year old. [Little, Brown in September published Johnson’s second memoir, We Are Not Broken, a sequel to All Boys Aren’t Blue focusing on the grandmother who raised Johnson and three siblings. The book is for readers 9 years old and up.]
Is there a difference between pulling a book from school library shelves, as opposed to pulling it from instructional material for a particular class?
Absolutely. A library is owned by the public. One parent being upset about a book in the library they don’t want their child to read shouldn’t outweigh 99 parents who are okay with their children reading it. If your child still wants to read that book, that’s more of a discussion one needs to have with their child to explore why they may need that text. You can’t deny other kids’ right and agency because you feel you own your child’s agency. When it comes to curriculums, I’ve had parents tell the teacher they didn’t want their child reading the book. They assigned a different book to them. It was no problem with the other 18 students who read it, loved it, and talked to me about it. I was forced to read white books about white kids that had nothing to do with my life that were racist, homophobic and xenophobic. Where was this issue then?
We’ve never had a book challenged except briefly and unsuccessfully at a school level 20 years ago, and “To Kill a Mockingbird” was almost banned from the stage but ended up being performed. We now have at least four titles under challenge, yours among them, if by the same person (the prolifically unread Jill Woolbright). But they’re the same titles getting challenged simultaneously elsewhere. Can you place these challenges in context and venture an explanation as to the orchestration?
I think it’s two fold. I think some of the books being banned aren’t actually the target. These groups are thinking strategically, legally, knowing that if they only ban queer books they could run into issues with certain rights and protections of LGBTQ people. I say this because some of the other books being banned have no sex in them but may discuss race. But my book also discusses a lot of racism, yet…not a single peep about that being an issue in my book. America has had an issue with the truth. Following the last White House administration, the spinning of the truth and alternative facts reached a place where literature had enough and decided if you’re going to lie, we are going to tell the full truth. Many of us just decided to right all the wrongs of the fable that has been American History. And when whiteness feels it’s losing its grip (as they are demographics-wise) this is what they do.
The challenge to All Boys in Flagler, the claim that it is a “crime” to have it on the shelves, focuses on the book’s few depictions of sex as “pornographic” or “obscene.” The scenes are unquestionably explicit. But the writing is as if intentionally un-stylized, its deadpan directness–and humor–more similar to Maya Angelou’s matter-of-fact (if uncomprehending) description of her rape by Mr. Freeman when she was 9 than to anything remotely prurient. But while the question is unfair and absurd, it is also essential: To people who want your book banned, how do you explain the difference between the explicit and the prurient, between description and porn?
This is actually easy. Porn…is made…to be porn. A book that has sex in it or discusses sex doesn’t automatically become porn. If describing sex is porn, then so would any form of sex education, which typically shows pictures of genitalia. Even to explain abstinence, you have to explain what it isn’t. So the explanation of sex would still be considered porn under these terms. Sex is part of life. We hand a child a baby doll at age three, then refuse to explain to them how babies are made. If my book was erotica, the whole book would be that. My book has two chapters that discuss sexual experiences. Probably no more than 10 pages, total, of the 320 pages in the book. Furthermore, my chapters discuss consent, sexual abuse, and having agency to own your body and know what to do when you potentially experience trauma from sexual experiences. Porn is porn. Anything with a sex scene in it doesn’t become porn.
It’s ironic that the few parts of your books that have drawn objections are exclusively those parts that depict or allude to sexual acts, while the horrendous violence you describe in the very first chapter–violence against you as a five year old–seems to pass unnoticed. What explains the acceptance of brutality against children but the objection to sex–even affectionate sex–that you describe?
I think this speaks more to the fact that they didn’t read the book lmao. If they did, they would realize I also talk about former presidents being racists and rapists. I honestly don’t think that a single person making this objection has read the entire book. That is why they don’t know that I speak more about racism in the book than anything else. The book was on just about every major anti-racist list in 2020. They. Haven’t. Read. The. Book. So they don’t know those parts exist.
The obsessive focus on the book’s sexual scenes obviously misses the point–many points–of the memoir, not least of them the indictment of masculinity as something at times indistinguishable from violence, as you describe it in these lines to your cousin and abuser: “The same masculinity and manhood ideology that forced you and me to hide our identities is the same masculinity and manhood ideology that got you killed.” But why does masculinity as an issue in itself doesn’t seem to be on any diversity or sensitivity seminars’ radar, and how to discuss it without seeming “anti-male”?
Well masculinity isn’t going to be on those seminars in a man-dominated world. We literally have men making decisions on women’s bodies. I’m also not concerned about anything ever being anti-male. Men are conditioned to not be decent people. Boys are told not to cry, but then put their emotion into rage and violence. Boys are taught manhood comes through sexual conquest. From an early age they view woman as submissive and inferior. Taught to be violent towards queer people as queerness is seen as effeminate and anti masculine. I identify as non-binary now, but when people would say that “men are trash” or “men are horrible” and I identified as one, agreed. We are conditioned to be.
Curious that the word “miscegenation” was coined the year of the Emancipation Proclamation. From the Scottsboro Boys to Emmett Till to Trump wanting the death penalty for the Central Park Five, fear of Black sexuality, let alone non-binary sexuality, has been an American pathology. In light of the fear that your book is now eliciting in our own community, is it too simple, too absolving of broader responsibilities, to attribute the pathology only to white supremacy?
Absolutely not lol. You can tie everything in this country back to white supremacy. My ancestors who were brought from Africa had a different view on queerness. We had queer deities and several tribes didn’t even assign gender until years after birth, after they’d seen the child’s mannerisms and spirit. Sodomy laws started in Europe and were created by white folks. My people were indoctrinated into the whiteness that is America. We were conditioned this way through assimilation. I think we can say now that the breaking of the indoctrination has to be done and accountability has to be held to the individual as we now have resources, and language, to break it. But yes, the pathology has to be attributed to white supremacy because as much as they are denying our truth, they still are unwilling to tell their own despite what the facts show.
Your book is being reviewed by a school district committee, which will then render its recommendation to the superintendent on whether it stays on library shelves or not. The decision may be appealed to the school board. If you were to address both the committee and the school board about your book’s fate, what would you say?
The first thing I would say is to read the book. After that I would fully explain that no one has the right to deny one person’s access to a text because of someone else’s personal belief. The same way a vegan can’t deny others the right to eat meat or vice versa. If you don’t want to eat meat, don’t order the steak. But you don’t have the right to say others can’t order it. If you don’t want to read the book, don’t read it. If you don’t want your child to read it, that is a personal discussion you and your child need to have. But you don’t have the right to deny another child or parent a text they may need. Finally, I would tell them: Removing my book doesn’t mean that your child won’t still have experiences with the topics I discuss in my book. It simply means they won’t know how to deal with those situations when they happen. And you’ll have no one to blame but yourself.