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'All Boys Aren't Blue': A memoir of growing up gay and black

"All Boys Aren't Blue" is a new memoir by George M. Johnson. Credit: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux

ALL BOYS AREN’T BLUE by George M. Johnson (Farrar Strauss Giroux, 320 pp., $17.99)

Finding himself at the intersection of two historically marginalized identities, George M. Johnson learned early on that the world could be an unforgiving place. “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” his memoir of growing up both gay and black in New Jersey, serves as something of a survival guide for other young queer adults of color.

Johnson’s book is much more than necessary, it’s urgent. The exploration of intersectional identities in Young Adult literature is in and of itself revolutionary. Johnson’s depth, resilience and humor make the harrowing accounts of bullying and ostracization immediate, raw, and close to the bone, where they ought to be.  This may be for young adult readers, but Johnson is presenting these struggles sans kid gloves.

The chronicles are broken into four acts: “A Different Kid,” “Family,” “Teenagers" and “Friends.” They recount episodes in Johnson’s life that traumatized him, shaped him, transformed him and ultimately enlightened him, leading him on a path toward self-acceptance and inner strength that is requisite for someone who has been at the receiving end of unthinkable hatred, ridicule and cruelty. That said, Johnson does a good job of inviting rather than excluding, so that even readers who are not queer or a person of color can appreciate the hardship and humiliation and fear he experienced as a fellow human.

What Johnson brings, at least in part, to young readers is something adults are still struggling to make sense of at university and even graduate school levels: the notion of gender itself being performative and socially constructed, beyond “an assumed identity at birth.” “I realized that the things I had always been running from had never left my side,” writes Johnson. “That the things I had always been chasing were all just a myth to turn me into something, someone I didn’t want to be.”

When discussing Viola Davis’s acceptance speech for her first Oscar win, Johnson challenges her notion that if one were to dig up all the dead bodies of black people to hear their stories, they would hear about dreams that were never realized. “This book is proof positive that you don’t need to go to the graveyard to find us,” asserts Johnson.

In one chapter, Johnson celebrates his love of sports and how becoming a high school football, basketball, and track star served as damage control for the biases formed against his enthusiasm for jumping rope with girls. He discusses how the notion that gay men don’t enjoy or are not good at sports is completely erroneous; most of the gay athletes in professional sports are just too frightened to come out of the closet for fear of financial and social reprisal.

Fearlessly and admirably, Johnson examines the homophobia in the black community and the racism in the LGBTQI community. “I didn’t have the ability to separate my blackness from my queerness,” writes Johnson. “The loss of my smile was as much a denial of my black joy as it was my queer joy.”

By the time Johnson closes his story at 21 years old, he proclaims that he’s endured a lifetime worth of joy and pain, love and loss, triumph and trauma. He also asserts that the “blue” in the title does not only refer to masculinity and authority, but also to sadness. Johnson’s testimony does not promise solutions, but rather a personal process, and a determination to fight for individuality and happiness.

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