Author George Johnson speaks at the Bucknell Forum.

Author George M. Johnson Speaks About the Importance of Diverse Storytelling

February 28, 2024

by Matt Jones

Bestselling author George M. Johnson spoke about diverse storytelling and book bans at the Bucknell Forum. Photo by Emily Paine, Communications

When George M. Johnson started writing their first book, All Boys Aren't Blue: A Memoir-Manifesto, they knew a few things to be true. They knew that they had written a story that needed to be out in the world. They knew that the book would serve as a call to action. And they knew that the book was going to generate a dynamic response among readers, even if they weren’t entirely sure what that response would look like.

"The book came out, and it did exactly what I wanted it to do. I was getting messages from teens, young adults, and my peers telling me it was the first time they'd read a book where they felt seen," said Johnson, a New York Times-bestselling author, activist and journalist. "To hear them say it was the first time that they had ever felt seen reminded me of how far we've come, but also how we still have so much more work that needs to be done."

Johnson shared their experience of being a Black queer creator as the fourth speaker in Bucknell’s 2023-24 Forum series, which focuses on the theme "Freedom of Expression." After a private question-and-answer session with students from a literary studies class, Johnson delivered a keynote address titled "Diverse Storytelling and Why It Matters" on Feb. 27 in the Leanne Freas Trout Auditorium.

Author George M. Johnson speaks with students from a literary studies class.

Author George M. Johnson participated in a question-and-answer session with students from a literary studies class. Photo by Emily Paine, Communications

The recipient of numerous accolades for their writing, Johnson was named to The Root's 100 Most Influential African Americans in 2020 and Out's 100 Most Influential LGBTQ People in 2021. Their second memoir, We Are Not Broken, released in September 2021, Johnson received the Carter G. Woodson Award. For Johnson, the importance of their work is reaffirmed not only by the accolades it has received but by the public backlash that soon followed publication.

"As I was going through all of this glory, and seeing all of these people be affected and changed by the fact that I put a story out there that they had waited so long for, I was also having to prepare myself for the hate that I knew was coming," said Johnson.

Just 17 months after the release of All Boys Aren't Blue, a young adult memoir that explores what it was like to grow up as a Black queer boy in New Jersey, Johnson received a notification that a school board candidate in Missouri was trying to ban their book. Before long, dozens of school districts across the country voted to ban Johnson’s book, and it became the third most banned and challenged book in the United States in 2021. By 2023, Senator John Kennedy, R-La., was reading passages from All Boys Aren’t Blue aloud during a Senate judiciary committee hearing on book banning.

Critics who seek to ban All Boys Aren't Blue from school libraries routinely cite concerns over sexually explicit content, though Johnson said that their most vocal opponents typically haven't read the book.

"I always have to remind people that our books and the storytelling that we do are not introducing anyone to heavy topics. They are giving them the resources and the tools to navigate the heavy topics that they are already experiencing," said Johnson.

For Johnson, the attempt to remove his memoir from libraries across the country is nothing new. He said he recognizes it as but one in a long history of politically motivated, reactionary efforts to silence diverse voices, particularly because those voices have the potential to disrupt systems that have been historically unequal and inequitable. If anything, the opposition to their book, and similar books, reinforces the power of literature to transform society.

"Although it can be fearful and scary at times for me, I know this story still has to be told because Toni Morrison's story had to be told, and James Baldwin’s story had to be told, and Zora Neale Hurston’s story had to be told. And they all did this type of work, knowing the dangers that came. I’m just carrying the torch," said Johnson. "So what I urge everyone to do today is, when you see that storytelling is under attack, to show up to school board meetings, to call your local officials, and to put pressure on the people and politicians to show that we are just as strong."

Up Next

The Bucknell Forum speaker series will continue this spring with Jane Fonda on March 19 in the Weis Center. Fonda is an outspoken activist and film icon who has received a variety of accolades, including two Academy Awards, two British Academy Film Awards, seven Golden Globe Awards, a Primetime Emmy Award, and the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award.


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