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 BlueThe, which deals in homophobia, transphobia, and racism, has been targeted for removal at least in 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.”
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be final.
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 imposing educational gag orders were introduced or prefiled in the last month. Meanwhile, the American Library Association says it’s received an unprecedented 330 reports of efforts to ban books.
Many of these efforts are being led and funded by right-wing groups such as Moms for Liberty, Parents Defending Education, and No Left Turn in Education. Charles Koch and other right-wing funders have ties to all three organizations.
New Hampshire lawmakers are considering a bill that would make it illegal for public school teachers in the state to portray the founders of the United States negatively or teach that the United States was founded upon racism. Oklahoma’s state Senate is currently considering a bill that would ban books on sexual and gender identity from public schools libraries. Tennessee’s McMinn county school board recently voted against banning 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 George M. Johnson, who writes about growing-up Black and queer in New Jersey. The book focuses on homophobia, racism, and transphobia. 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 book was taken out of the school system following the complaint. 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. Hello, everyone. All Boys Aren’t Blue. I am here today to speak on behalf of my book and to discuss some of the concerns and issues that people have 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. That moment, I was the student and my mother was the book. All Boys Aren’t Blue.
We don’t have to pretend that the world won’t expose our teens and youth to the very serious topics and heavy topics 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 intended for readers aged 14-18, as stated on Amazon and all other major websites, as well as grades 10-12. There are two sections in my book that I describe sex. This is my story of being sexually abused as an 11-year-old and my first attempt at 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, as well as potential harm.
It’s interesting to me, however, because I recall learning about prostitution as a child. The book I learned about it was in Sunday school and 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. Let me conclude by saying that it is not my book which is going to harm any teenager. It is their inability to have my book as a resource while experiencing real life.
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 BlueThe use of the word “e” has been banned from schools and libraries in at most 14 states. George M. Johnson is also author of We Are Not Broken.
Welcome Democracy Now! Let’s say you were shocked by this spate of bannings. You know, the powerful testimony you gave virtually in front of the school board. Are there any schools that have republished 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 today on your show.
I wish I could say that book bans were shocking. But if we look at the history, book bans have been around for a long time. 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. This actually has a historical precedent and legacy in this nation. 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.
My life is what my book covers. It simply tells my story from birth up to the age of 21. I only talk about the trials and tribulations that it was like to grow up without knowing who I was identity-wise. My book also features 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.
You know, I also talk about sex and homosexuality and consent and agency as an educational tool for youth. They are growing up in a world that presents heavy topics not only in books, but also 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 turn on the television.
But yeah, that’s what my book is about. My book is a tool to help Black queer children. 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’s referring to are geared. They are rated for 16-year olds and 15 year-olds, respectively. 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 nation, you know were victims of sexual abuse and rape as well as other heavy topics. 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: George Johnson, can your talk about the impact of your book being censored and kids not having it available, especially Black and Queer children, but not just?
GEORGE M. JOHNSON: Yeah. The effect of this is that you will have teens who will experience the same things as me. I discuss what it was like to be subject to sexual assault and 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 who have suicidal ideas and commit suicide more often than their heterosexual counterparts are more likely to experience it. These books can prevent such 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: We need to know why you named 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 must own a football or basketball. You must be tough. You know, big boys don’t cry. It pushes you down a path, when we put that tag of boy or girl on a kid, to either go this direction of acceptance or acceptability. And what my title is simply saying is that, “Hey, all of us boys aren’t blue. Some of us can be pink, while others are yellow and some 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: Which books have shaped your thinking as a writer?
GEORGE M. JOHNSON: Yeah. You know what I mean? Notes from 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 me sharpen my lens. All of these books allowed me to feel understood. All of these books have helped me to sharpen my tools. When I think about Toni Morrison, she’s the reason that I write. I have her tattooed on one 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 has such power. One of the things you discuss is being sexually assaulted at 13 years old, and having your teeth pulled when you were five years old. What would it have meant to you if you had read a book like the one you wrote? All Boys Aren’t BlueWhat was your childhood like?
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.
It would have given me a voice. 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. Your response to this movement, and your role as a key figure in the center of the storm.
GEORGE M. JOHNSON: Yes, it’s interesting for all the reasons you mentioned. And, you know, it’s also interesting because you have a bunch of people who oftentimes [inaudible]It is clear that they have not read the Genesis 1 story and the forbidden fruits. Making something forbidden makes it more appealing. 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.
This is why I don’t think it is a fight about book bannings. It is a desire to preserve white purity and the innocence of 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. In reality, what they want to do is stop any place you can see this demographic shift taking place, which happens to be publishing. There are more Black students, which means there are more Black books in schools. 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 want to ask you about the bills currently in state legislatures. 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’ll do amazing and strange things if you fear losing control. These bills are about fearing losing control over the minds that they have enjoyed in this country since its founding. 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.
This is really a fear-based attempt by the government to stop the conditioning of youth. Gen Z is the most diverse demographic. 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 for being here and for your courage as the author of this memoir-manifesto. All Boys Aren’t BlueCurrently, at least 15 states have banned the use of the word “stigma” in schools and libraries. George M. Johnson is also author of We Are Not Broken.
Next up, we’ll speak with the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Art Spiegelman. Recently, a Tennessee school board decided to ban his graphic novel. Maus About his parents’ survival during the Holocaust. Stay with me.