Often protested in Kansas and across the U.S., ‘All Boys Aren’t Blue’ has much to share

December 13, 2022 3:33 am
"All Boys Aren't Blue" by George M. Johnson

George M. Johnson’s “All Boys Aren’t Blue” has been one of the most frequently challenged books in the country — and it happened in Salina, too. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our stateLori Brack is an author who has worked in programs and publications for the Salina Art Center, as a college and community writing instructor and as director of a foundation-funded artist development project in Salina. She lives in Lucas.

Challenged books week

Kansas Reflector opinion columnists read books challenged by parents and residents and give their thoughts.

Monday: Clay Wirestone on libraries.
Tuesday: Lori Brack on “All Boys Aren’t Blue.”
Wednesday: Iridescent Riffel on “Melissa.”
Thursday: Mark McCormick on the stakes for students.

When your world is on fire, a book’s necessity is more important than its quality. You go to the book for instructions on how to live without being burned up. George M. Johnson’s “All Boys Aren’t Blue: A Memoir-Manifesto” is such a book.

Beside me are “All Boys Aren’t Blue” and another such necessary book: “The Fire Next Time” by James Baldwin. Both are written by Black queer writers. Johnson’s came out in 2020, Baldwin’s in 1963. Both writers directly address the reader and frame parts of their books as letters to family members.

Both books dropped into heated American worlds.

Almost any page of Baldwin’s vital book is a lens through which it’s possible to see Johnson’s — and how far we haven’t come in the 60 years between. For many Americans, race, gender and sexuality are still terrifyingly suppressed subjects of private and public anxiety.

PEN America, a century-old organization with a mission of uniting writers and allies to protect freedom of expression, reports that 29 school districts experienced challenges to “All Boys Aren’t Blue” in the 2021-22 school year. The book is one of many censorship targets in school and public libraries. Most challenged books examine race and LGBTQ identities.

Baldwin, like an unseen ancestor, anticipates this.

He writes: “The person who distrusts himself has no touchstone for reality — for this touchstone can be only oneself. Such a person interposes between himself and reality nothing less than a labyrinth of attitudes. And these attitudes, furthermore, though the person is usually unaware of it (is unaware of so much!), are historical and public attitudes. They do not relate to the present any more than they relate to the person.”

During the last school year, Salina’s high school libraries were the target of residents who objected to the availability of “All Boys Aren’t Blue.” The district processed through a formal book challenge and appeals as outlined in its policy. Each district and community committee determined that the book met the district’s policy, procedure and philosophy for selection.

In news releases, the district reports that the board of education voted in May to adopt the committees’ recommendation: The book will remain on the shelves.

“The committee listed several attributes that contributed to its decision including: Exploration of self-acceptance when you don’t feel you belong or are marginalized by society, Examination of the dynamics of an imperfect family and how to find a network of support and safety, and Access to a memoir that includes themes of reassurance during a formative time of sexual development and self-doubt,” the district wrote.

“All Boys Aren’t Blue” is a courageous retelling of the writer’s childhood and youth, coming of age as a college student, and coming out. Johnson explicitly describes experiences of sexual assault, loss of virginity, homophobia, racism and anti-Blackness in the language and with the references of our time.

'All Boys Aren’t Blue' is a courageous retelling of the writer’s childhood and youth, coming of age as a college student, and coming out.

– Lori Brack

The writer’s influences are Beyonce’s “sassy and sexy and powerful” music; internet porn; Black History Month; the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin; a big extended family of cousins, aunts and uncles; and his precious grandmother Nanny. There are summer picnics and time with cousins at holidays, school plays and after-school television, siblings and parents and teachers. There is experimenting with drinking alcohol and sex, going away to college and returning home changed.

Johnson situates the book as a text written explicitly to help adolescent readers ages 14-18 (the range that publishers and librarians label “young adult” for purposes of marketing and classification).

The author is always thinking about what a Black queer boy may be experiencing and about how little information is yet available for guidance and support.

“I was writing the book I wish I got to have when I was a youth struggling with the intersections of my Blackness and my queerness, and trying to navigate a society that wasn’t built for me,” Johnson told Time.

The book should be read and evaluated as an unfolding picture of the cultural moment, a necessary contribution to our national conversation about race and sexuality.

As a person who goes to the church of poetry, art and books to heal the ongoing heartbreak of ignorance and backlash, and to expand my thinking about the possibilities inside and outside this early 21st century conflagration, I recommend “All Boys Aren’t Blue” to young adult readers and to the adults who care about them.

The freedom to check the book out from high school libraries in Salina, at least, has been safeguarded this year, and hallelujah.

Reading a literary masterpiece or a memoir of the moment gives us a rich opportunity, as Johnson’s book did for me, to experience the privilege of living in interesting questions more than in predetermined and easy answers.

Baldwin, with his far sight and brilliance (really, I could choose lines from almost every page), in the last pages of “The Fire Next Time,” gives us the prescription: “That man who is forced each day to snatch his manhood, his identity, out of the fire of human cruelty that rages to destroy it knows, if he survives his effort, and even if he does not survive it, something about himself and human life that no school on earth — and indeed, no church — can teach. He achieves his own authority, and that is unshakable. This is because, in order to save his life, he is forced to look beneath experiences, to take nothing for granted, to hear the meaning behind words.”

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Lori Brack
Lori Brack

Lori Brack is the author of "A Case for the Dead Letter Detective" (2021) and "Museum Made of Breath" (2018). In 2010, her poetic script for "Farmer’s Dream," a work of performance art based in Kansas agricultural history and labor by Ernesto Pujol, was published as "A Fine Place to See the Sky." The script is a collaboration with her grandfather’s 1907-1918 Kansas farming journals. Brack worked in programs and publications for the Salina Art Center and as a college and community writing instructor. She is a member of the 2023 Critical Writing Initiative sponsored by the Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission.