For the past few months I’ve been reading George M. Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue: A Memoir Manifesto (2020).
You may be asking why it would take me several months to read a book that is a little under 300 pages, includes photos, and is in a rather large print.
The narrative is straightforward, the chapters short, and engaging.
I would ask the same question.
The answer is, I assigned the book to my students as one of three that they could choose from. So, I’ve been reading along.
I assigned the book because I love my students and I want them to know that they are seen, that they more than matter—all of them. But I also assigned the book for myself.
Because I am also a student–sometimes a good one–and I want to learn.
So that I can be a better teacher.
All Boys Aren’t Blue is Johnson’s personal exploration of his coming of age as Black queer male.
If you’ve grown up Black around the time that Johnson did (they’re in their 30s) you know that being Black and queer made for a difficult childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood.
It could very well get you killed: “Father Accused of Murdering 14-Year-Old Because He Didn’t Want a Gay Son’ Gets Reduced Bail, House Arrest”
All Boys is a hard read, not because of the language—the book is actually a young adult (YA) publication so the language is very accessible. Rather, it’s hard because I’m (ahem) a few years older than Johnson and I grew up in a Black community with two brothers.
I remember that in school, one of the worst things you could be called was “faggot” or “gay.”
And these were terms that were flung around high school hallways and locker rooms as easily and offhandedly as someone’s given first name.
There were lots of other words that got thrown around, but that’s a conversation for another day.
The thing is, the ability for someone to call someone else those names was predicated on the belief/sureness that the person being called those name was in fact, not gay. One of the things that Johnson manages to convey is how painful it was to grow up hiding this critical part of their identity. And I was reminded of my classmates who both used those terms and who were on the receiving end of them—how many of them hid themselves like Johnson?
I was also reminded of a toxic work environment in which I worked in my early 20s. It was in an agency that was founded to serve the, at the time, largely black and brown community of Bed Stuy (gentrification is putting an end to that). It was a largely female space and one in which the worst insults would jokingly be hurled across the office. And those insults would be received with a belly laugh before being hurled right back.
It was not a good place for me so I left.
But I had the option to leave.
When you’re in grade school or middle school or high school or worse, in a household, you don’t have the option to leave.
Fortunately, for Johnson, their family loved them enough to navigate a terrain that was filled with landmines in Black communities.
I was reading Johnson’s book at the same time that I was reading Sonya Renee Taylor’s The Body is Not an Apology (2018), again, because I want my students to feel good in their bodies (I am often reminded of Baby Sugg’s forest sermon).
Reading the two together was quite the trip because, not only did they bring up memories of the—let’s face it—horrors of high school, but also that toxic work environment in which hurtful language was used as a bonding mechanism.
Because like “gay” and “faggot,” words like “ho” and “bitch” could work for or against the person who was at the receiving end of it.
I don’t spend time in high school hallways anymore. And I have been blessed with the ability to extricate myself from toxic work environments (at least in the immediate).
But Johnson’s memoir reminded me of those who are not here (alive) or who walk about deeply wounded, punished for the “crime” of expressing their fullest authentic selves.
Taylor’s treatise reminded me of too many of us who are trapped in a poverty of the mind that uses hateful words to speak to and about our brothers and sisters, which is really to speak to and about ourselves.