This recently released YA memoir jumped onto my TBR because everyone seemed to be reading it! It was the Libro.fm audiobook club choice for June (hosted by @absorbedinpages) and really the hype for it was real! Also, that cover is just stunning. Luckily, I was a very early request on it at the library and got it almost as soon as things re-opened for curbside holds pick-up. Yay!
“Sometimes you just don’t have the strength to carry the burden and do the job. Navigating in a space that questions your humanity isn’t really living at all. It’s existing. And we all deserve more than just the ability to exist.”
In this memoir and manifesto, George M. Johnson writes about growing up as a Black queer boy*. Covering topics including being bullied and trying to fit in elementary through high school in New Jersey, their time at and joining a fraternity in college in Virginia, their first sexual experiences (the good, the uncomfortable, the non-consensual and predatory), their relationships with family and especially a beloved grandmother, and more, Johnson opens up about their life in an effort to help create a sense of community for the marginalized, mistreated and often hidden population they are a part of: Black queer boys*. (*As of a few days, Johnson came out as non-binary, with preferred they/them pronouns, on social media. So, I will use those pronouns in this review, but will refer, as it comes up, to their childhood as a boy because that’s the way it’s discussed in the memoir itself. If there is a better or more respectful way to handle this, I’ll edit accordingly.)
I’ve seen some discussion about memoirs written by “young” people, those in their thirties and younger, and read some critiques of whether someone that age could/should be publishing memoirs. And I agree, there is much of their life left to live. But at the same time, as we get older, it becomes harder to remember what being young, and the feelings/experiences from those years, was like. And young people today, young people of any time really, face many very real challenges and discrimination…and I feel like they too deserve to have the chance to read about others like themselves, people who dealt with and survived similar things, and still remember the way it felt and can provide applicable and generational-ly sensitive advice. They shouldn’t have to wait and only read an elderly person’s remembrances of a distant past. Johnson describes this perfectly, and repetitively, in this book. They say over and over how they hope that reading this book will help just one person feel less alone or more understood. Johnson even specifically calls out a favorite quote from Toni Morrison, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” For Johnson, there was not a book like this that was available to them when they needed it, and so here they are, writing it for someone else to have. In any case, this is not super related to the memoir or a review of its content/writing at all, but just my thoughts on a topic I’ve seen debated recently and couldn’t help but add my two cents to.
On to the “real” review. It’s likely to be pretty short and sweet, because this was a great read, and that’s close to all there is to it. Johnson speaks with matter of fact statements about accepting others and dealing with trauma and what society should do/provide, especially to youth, and the many ways in which it doesn’t (especially for Black and/or queer youth). They also provide a straightforward, no obfuscation or beating around the bush, understanding of context and history and consequences of/trauma from appropriation for a YA audience. It’s done in a way that is clear and expressive and absolutely accessible and recognizable for a young adults and still holds great weight and messages for adult readers. Each chapter ends with a note of suggestion or empowerment or action step or question or statement of support for anyone marginalized by race and/or sexuality and gender, which I loved and, I hope, do what they are meant to in regards to helping young readers, like Johnson’s past self, feel fully seen. And those same notes/statements can and should be read by anyone not marginalized in those ways as a challenge, a calling out for allyship and support in stepping up to oppose those systems of oppression. They state openly that as one of their goals in writing this memoir manifesto, as I mentioned, and you can feel the emotion and effort they put into that aspect come through in the writing on every single freaking page.
For me personally, I loved the sections that were written as letters and notes to/about his family members. They were incredibly touching and emotional and fantastically vulnerable (YES to that effort to fight Black male stereotypes!). And the way Johnson weaves the negative effects of their constant masking and the difficulty of not fitting gender stereotypes on their mental health, as well as the general focus on how important and necessary it is to address mental health issues, throughout the memoir, also really stuck out to me. Finally, one of the most important themes of the book, and one the Johnson does a spectacular job staying consistent to and transparently unpacking, is the binary gender and sexuality norms and expectations of culture, the way that affects anyone who doesn’t completely fall in line, and how it intersects specifically with Black cultural norms and expectations. Very powerful.
There is such a personality in Johnson’s writing. Their self shines through from start to finish, from what they challenge to who/what they love to how they speak and act and their general journey to discover and fully own who they are. It is, clearly, a journey that continues and will likely never “end,” but the way they so openly shared about these most vulnerable moments as they started into said journey is so admirable. Their passion and sensitivity (in all the ways that term can be interpreted, internally and inter-personally) in sharing how much they’ve learned and grown, how much is still left to discover, and how committed they are to helping those coming after them, is beautiful.
Here are a few passages I book-marked while reading:
“As an adult, I have gone through the unlearning to understand that my community’s treatment of Black queer children is in fact a by-product of a system of assimilation to whiteness and respectability that forces Black people to fit one mold in society, one where being a man means you must be straight and masculine. I didn’t have the ability to separate my Blackness from my queerness. The loss of my smile was just as much a denial of y Black joy as it was my queer joy. When I did smile, it was a coping mechanism. My smile was a mask that hid the pain of suppressing who I was. Masking is a common coping mechanism for a Black queer boy. We bury the things that have happened to us, hoping that they don’t present themselves later in our adult life. Some of us never realize that subconsciously, these buried bones are what dictate our every navigation and interaction throughout life.”
“Unfortunately, the creativity of children often comes under fire when It doesn’t meet the acceptable standard or gender performance.”
“I use my history as a tool to fight against my marginalization. The greatest tool you have in fighting the oppression of your Blackness and queerness and anything else within your identity is to be fully educated on it. Knowledge is truly your sharpest weapon in a world hell-bent on telling you stories that are simply not true.”
“No amount of money, love, or support can protect you from a society intent on killing you for your blackness, and shows that a community that has been taught that anyone “not straight” is dangerous.”
“When I think about the number of queer people in my family I remember the argument people have about whether you are born queer or grow into it. I think the funniest part about that argument is that it doesn’t matter if queerness is by birth or by choice. It is who you are, and no one should have the right to change that.”
“You don’t know what you like or who you are if you allow yourself to be fit into a box that society has made for you. Learn what you like and don’t like. Create the sexual environment that works best for you. Sex is a part of growth as a human regardless of gender or sexual identity. No one have the right to deny us the resources we need to properly engage with one another.”
“Time waits for no one, and for Black queer people, there are too many trying to steal the little bit of time we have. So, live your life.”