- George M. Johnsonauthor, journalist and LGBTQIA+ activist.
School districts and Republican-controlled state legislatures are rapidly intensifying efforts to ban certain books about race, colonialism, sex and gender identity from public classrooms and libraries. The wave of book bans — with more than 70 educational gag order bills being introduced in legislatures over the past month alone — have been largely led by right-wing groups funded by Charles Koch. We’re joined by author George M. Johnson to talk about their award-winning memoir-manifesto “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” which deals with homophobia, transphobia and racism and has been targeted for removal in at least 15 states. “Black storytelling has often been banned,” says Johnson. “My book is a tool so that Black queer kids and LGBTQ teens can see themselves and read about themselves and learn about themselves.” Johnson also says the bans have only given youth more access points to their book and argues the recent bills imposed by conservatives are “all about the fear of losing the control of the minds that they have had in this country since its early foundings.”
AMY GOODMAN: School districts and Republican-controlled state legislatures have rapidly intensified efforts to ban certain books about race, colonialism and gender identity from public classrooms and libraries, while placing sharp limits on what can be taught in schools. According to PEN America, more than 70 bills to impose educational gag orders have been introduced or prefiled just in the past month. Meanwhile, the American Library Association says it’s received an unprecedented 330 reports of efforts to ban books.
Many of the efforts are being led by a number of right-wing groups, including Moms for Liberty, Parents Defending Education and No Left Turn in Education. All three groups have ties to a right-wing network funded by Charles Koch and others.
In New Hampshire, lawmakers are considering a bill to make it illegal for public school teachers to depict the founders of the United States in a negative light or to teach that the United States was founded on racism. In Oklahoma, the state Senate is considering a bill targeting books about sexual and gender identity from public school libraries. In Tennessee, the school board in McMinn County recently voted to ban Maus, the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel by the Holocaust — about the Holocaust by Art Spiegelman, who will be joining us later in the show.
But we begin with the author of an award-winning book that’s been targeted for removal by at least 14 states. It’s titled All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson, who writes about growing up Black and queer in New Jersey. The book deals with homophobia, transphobia and racism. In November, a school board member in Flagler County asked the County Sheriff’s Office to criminally prosecute whoever allowed the book in school libraries. The complaint led to the book being removed from the school system. George Johnson will join us in a moment, but first we’re going to turn to a video appearance they made at the school board meeting in Flagler County.
GEORGE M. JOHNSON: Hello, everyone. My name is George M. Johnson, and I am the author of the book All Boys Aren’t Blue. I come to you today to speak out on behalf of my book, as well as to just talk about some of the issues and concerns that people are having with it.
I first want to talk about a story, really quickly, of the first time I learned the word “lesbian.” I was 8 years old, sitting on the couch with my mom, watching an episode of Murphy Brown, and on the show they said the word “lesbian.” I looked to my mother, and I asked her, “Mommy, what’s a lesbian?” She looked at me, and she said, “Well, Matt, some men love women, and women love men, but there are some women who also love women, and the term for that is 'lesbian.'” I looked at my mom, and I simply said, “OK.” And we went back to watching Murphy Brown. In that moment, I was the student, and my mother was my book All Boys Aren’t Blue.
There is no reason for us to pretend that the world is not going to expose our youth and our teens to these very heavy subjects and heavy topics that are included in my book. The problem is, we think that my book is what is introducing them to that, when, realistically, they are already experiencing these things, and my book is what’s teaching them how to get through these things.
My book is geared toward readers ages 14 through 18, as it states on Amazon and every other major website, as well as grades 10 through 12. The book does have two sections where I do describe sex, which is the time I was sexually abused as a 12-year-old and my first time losing my virginity. The parts that are being left out is, I lost my virginity at age 20, so I was an adult, and that both of those chapters are really teaching about consent, about agency, giving students the language to understand their bodies, to understand the power they have and to truly understand that because they don’t have sex education, they are having to go to other sources, which can make that — put them at risk and make them more vulnerable and susceptible to not only STIs, like HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, but also to potential harm.
I find it interesting, though, because I remember learning about prostitution at the age of 6, and the book I learned it from was in Sunday school, and it was the Bible. So, unless we are ready to ban every single other context that talks about sex and sexuality, my book belongs in these teenagers’ hands. I finally want to end by saying it is not my book that is going to harm any teenager; it is them not having my book as a resource while they experience real life and real-world things.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s George M. Johnson testifying virtually before the school board in Flagler County, Florida, after a board member asked the County Sheriff’s Office to criminally prosecute whoever allowed Johnson’s book, All Boys Aren’t Blue, which has been banned in schools and libraries in at least 14 states. George M. Johnson is also the author of We Are Not Broken.
Welcome Democracy Now! Can you start off by just responding to this spate of bannings, whether it has shocked you? You know, powerful testimony you gave virtually before the school board. Have any schools reinstated your book? And talk about what you’re trying to convey in your book.
GEORGE M. JOHNSON: Yeah. So, one, thank you for having me on your show today.
I wish I could say that the book bans were shocking, but if you just look at the history of the United States, book bans are nothing new. They’re just not as talked about as we have talked about them in other places, in other countries around the world. But Black storytelling has often been banned, whether you’re talking about Phillis Wheatley’s first book of poetry back in the 1700s or any of the slave narratives in the 1800s. So, this actually has historical precedence and legacy in this country. So I can’t even be shocked. I think I’m more shocked at the fact that they think that banning books is a realistic thing or a necessary thing during this time.
You know, what my book discusses is my life. It simply just tells my life story from birth until the age of 21. And I just discuss the trials and tribulations of what it felt like to grow up and not be sure of who I was identity-wise. But the other beautiful thing about my book is I talk about my family. I talk about my amazing grandmother, who is no longer here, who I affectionately call “Nanny.” And I talk about growing up having wonderful cousins and my mom and my dad in my life and all of the things and wisdoms that they imparted on me.
And I do also, you know, talk about sex and sexuality and consent and agency as a teaching tool for the youth, who are clearly growing up in a world where heavy topics are being presented to them not just in books but in real life, on television. So, again, I find it interesting, because it’s like if anyone wanted to learn about sex, sexuality and gender, a book is probably the last place they would need to look. They could simply cut on the television.
But yeah, that’s what my book is about. And at the end of the day, my book is a tool so that Black queer kids and LGBTQ teens can see themselves and read about themselves and learn about themselves within the book’s pages, something that they historically have not been able to do.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, George Johnson, I wanted to ask you — Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds has compared books like yours to movies, saying that if explicit scenes in films mean children are barred from watching them, then explicit scenes in books should also be made unavailable to children. What’s your response to that comparison?
GEORGE M. JOHNSON: Yeah. My response is, people are using the word “children” very nefariously. Let’s be clear: My book is for 14-year-olds to 18-year-olds. Some of the movies she is speaking about our geared, you know, rated to 17-year-olds or rated where 16-year-olds and 15-year-olds can go see those very same movies. So, the term “children” is being used in a lot of places, because what they are trying to do media-wise is make it seem like my book is available to an 8-year-old or my book is available to a 10-year-old, when, in reality, this book is available to the very same demographic that she is describing.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what’s been your — what’s it been like to have your memoir, which is so deeply honest and vulnerable, be at the center of such a campaign by organized conservative groups around the country?
GEORGE M. JOHNSON: Yeah. I’ll be honest: Some days it is a little overwhelming to watch your story be twisted. Right? I think — and it’s interesting — right? — because they don’t want you to twist the story of their founders, who we all know we have — you know, who were slaveowners. The founders of this country, you know, participated in sexual abuse and rape and, you know, many other heavy topics, right? So, in one end, they’re saying, “Well, don’t twist the story of our founders,” while also twisting the stories of our books and saying that our books are saying something that they really aren’t. So, it’s just a really interesting space to kind of watch the cognitive dissonance that is happening when they are discussing my story, in particular.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the effect, George Johnson, of your book being banned and kids not having access to it, particularly Black and queer kids, but not only?
GEORGE M. JOHNSON: Yeah. I mean, the effect of that is then you have teens who will go through the same things that I went through. I talk about what it felt like to go through sexual assault and sexual abuse. I talk about what it feels like when you don’t have any representation of yourself in the world and how isolating that can feel. We know that LGBTQ youth experience suicidal ideations at a much higher rate, die by suicide at a much higher rate than their heterosexual counterparts. Books like these prevent those things from happening. So it’s extremely important that they have resources like mine and many of the other books that they are trying to ban, because it honestly can save their lives.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us why you titled your book All Boys Aren’t Blue?
GEORGE M. JOHNSON: Yeah. You know, it’s interesting, right? When we think about colors, and we think about, “Oh, boys are blue, and girls are pink,” what are we really saying when we put that designation that a boy is blue, right? It sends you down a pathway where you have to be more masculine, and you have to present as heterosexual, and you have to play sports, and, you know, you’re not allowed to have dolls, or you’re not allowed to have an Easy-Bake Oven as a boy. You have to have a football or a basketball. You have to be tough. You know, big boys don’t cry. It really pushes you down a pathway, when we put that label of boy on a child or that label of girl on a child, to go either this direction of acceptability or this direction of acceptability. And what my title is simply saying is that, “Hey, all of us boys aren’t blue. Some of us are pink, and some of us are yellow, and some of us are green. And we deserve and need the space to explore who we truly are, outside of the context of the heteronormative society that many of us are placed into.”
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And as a writer, what are some of the books that have shaped your own thinking and your own work?
GEORGE M. JOHNSON: Yeah. I mean, as a writer, you know, Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Sula. You know, I believe it’s called Tongues Untamed, which is a book from the '90s, as well. All of these books have helped sharpen my lens. All of these books have allowed me to feel seen. All of these books have helped, you know, sharpen my tool. When I think about Toni Morrison, she's the reason that I write. I have her tattooed on my arm. It says — her quote — “If there’s a book that you want to read, and it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” So, the works of those authors are — and watching how their work in the world shifted culture and gave us space and made us feel at home and made us feel seen and accepted and told our true story, it literally just empowers me to continue to do that for so many others who have never had their stories told.
AMY GOODMAN: George, your book is so powerful. And among the things you talk about is being sexually assaulted when you were 13, is having your teeth kicked out when you were 5 years old. What would it have meant if you read a book like you wrote, All Boys Aren’t Blue, when you were a kid?
GEORGE M. JOHNSON: Man, it would have meant the world to me to just read anything that said, you know, being different didn’t mean that you weren’t normal, that the feelings I was feeling were being felt by somebody else before me, as well. It would have allowed me to know that I wasn’t the only one who had ever went through the experiences that I was going through as a teenager.
But it also would have given me a voice, I believe. I think it would have given me the language and the tools to be able to go to my parents and have the conversation about how I was feeling, because I think that’s also one of the bigger parts, is when you don’t have the language and you don’t know that someone else is going through the same things that you’re going through, you don’t know even how to talk about it with anyone. If I would have had a book like mine, I feel like I would have had a roadmap, something I could hold onto, where I could use it to be empowered to speak my truth to my family, to my friends, in a way that I wasn’t allowed to do when I was a teenager.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I’m wondering — this movement that has been gaining strength in the past year or two, this banned books movement across the country, it almost seems to me, given the enormous accessibility of the written word today, not just in books, but, obviously, most young people get most of their information right through phones, through their smartphones — what your sense is of what is, in essence, an astroturf movement, pretending to be grassroots but actually being organized by multibillionaire conservative folks like the Koch brothers. Could you talk your response to this movement and your being now one of the key figures in the center of this storm?
GEORGE M. JOHNSON: Yeah, the movement is interesting, for all of the reasons that you named. And, you know, it’s also interesting because you have a bunch of people who oftentimes [inaudible] very clear that they must not have read the first story of Genesis and the forbidden fruit. When you make something forbidden, it only makes it more tempting. And so, in putting our books like at the center of attention and trying to make them forbidden, it’s, honestly, only making more people interested in the story, which is only creating more access points. So it’s like they’re having this fight to shut down one access point, even though the fight is making our books so known that it’s only creating 10 more different places for the students to get the book.
And so, I think, realistically, this is not really a fight about book bans. I think what it is is a notion to try and hold on to white purity and, like, the innocence of their children. And I think when you look at what’s going on with the Voting Rights Act, when you look at what’s going on with Roe v. Wade, when you look at what’s going on with book banning, they all have similar ties to the fact that the demographic and the population is shifting, and the population is becoming less and less white. And so, realistically, what they are trying to do is put a stop on any place where you can fully see that demographic shift happening, which just happens to be publishing. There are more Black and Brown students, so there are more Black and Brown books in school systems. So, anywhere where we’re seeing the demographic of books change or the demographics of voting change or the demographics of rates of birth changing between Black and Brown and white women, you’re seeing where they’re putting these attacks. So I think that’s really what this is. I don’t really think it has as much to do with books as it has to do with ensuring that they condition the next generation around who their founders were and how great this country is, in the same way they conditioned mine and my parents’ and my grandparents’.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, I wanted to ask you about these bills that are going through state legislatures, you know, not only the book bannings of books like yours, George. You’ve got the Florida bill, that was approved by a state House committee, that would prohibit students and teachers from speaking about sexual orientation and gender identity. It’s called the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. And then you’ve got New Hampshire. I mean, we’re speaking at the beginning of Black History Month. New Hampshire lawmakers considering a bill — how did New Hampshire Public Radio put it? “The proposed bill, HB 1255, is titled 'An Act Relative to Teachers' Loyalty,’ and seeks to ban public school teachers from promoting any theory that depicts U.S. history or its founding in a negative light, including the idea that the country was founded on racism.” If you could wrap up your comments by talking about these kind of bills?
GEORGE M. JOHNSON: Yeah. You know, the fear of losing control will make you do some very interesting and strange things. These bills are all about the fear of losing the control of the minds that they have had in this country since its early foundings. Again, I was someone — and I write about this in All Boys Aren’t Blue — I was someone who was literally conditioned as a Black child to think that Abraham Lincoln was my savior because he ended slavery. And so, I think about that, how as a child — because of how we’re taught, we are conditioned to look up to whiteness as a supreme thing, as the savior. And so, when we now are 20, 25-plus years from when I was being taught, and we have books and we have teachers and librarians who are saying, “Well, actually, that’s not the truth of this country, and actually this is really what happened,” the conditioning of the mind is changing.
And so, really, this is really a fear-based attempt to stop how they have conditioned the minds of youth, because, realistically, Gen Z is the most diverse population. So, the fear of those who are currently in power is that if Gen Z has the actual truth in their hands, when those particular white kids from Gen Z and those Black and Brown kids from Gen Z become the next leaders and become the future leaders, they will operate with a lens where they think about equity and equality and realize that there are people who exist around them who don’t have as much as they have, in a way that I got conditioned as a child to think that I was — that whiteness was my savior, in many ways, instead of realizing that it was my oppressor.
AMY GOODMAN: George M. Johnson, we want to thank you so much for joining us and for your courageous work, author of the memoir-manifesto All Boys Aren’t Blue, which has been banned in schools and libraries in at least 15 states now. George M. Johnson is also the author of We Are Not Broken.
Next up, we’ll speak with the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Art Spiegelman. A Tennessee school board recently voted to ban his graphic novel Maus about his parents surviving the Holocaust. Stay with us.