When George M. Johnson was entering this world, their aunt Sarah saw a headful of hair and ran out to tell everyone the baby was a girl. It was not. Much of Johnson’s life has been spent on a journey of finding themself, the award-winning and New York Times bestselling author, journalist, executive producer and activist told students at the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville East St. Louis Charter High School (CHS).
Johnson, a non-binary, Black writer whose 2020 memoir-manifesto, All Boys Aren’t Blue, was the number one banned book in the 2021-22 school year and removed from schools dozens of times, was the opening speaker for CHS’s Black History Month activities. Johnson spoke to freshmen and sophomores on Wednesday, Feb. 1 in the Multipurpose Room of Building D on the Wyvetter H. Younge Higher Education Campus (WHYHEC) and spent the day with CHS students, faculty and staff.
“I always start off with the story about my birth, because it illustrates my journey of identity,” said Johnson, who grew up in New Jersey. “But in my journey of trying to find myself, I never thought I would become a storyteller.”
Johnson, who earned a bachelor’s in finance and a master’s in human resources, is the author of books and articles that pertain to such issues as race, gender, sex, intersectionality, culture, health, HIV and politics. CHS students read Johnson’s second book, We Are Not Broken, before the author’s visit. Johnson’s third book, which is about the Harlem Renaissance and identity, is due out in 2024.
“I worked on a myriad of jobs trying to find my life’s purpose,” they said. “One thing that stuck with me, was that I had a story to tell. My favorite quote is from Toni Morrison that says, ‘If you find a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.’”
In school, Johnson recalled required reading assignments and other books in which they did not see themself on any of the pages or were able to relate to the characters. Johnson encouraged the students to “put out into the world” what they feel is needed or missing.
More advice Johnson gave to students, “Enjoy your youth. There’s no rush to be an adult,” they said. “You don’t have to have everything figured out by the time you get out of high school.”
Johnson certainly did not. To make a living, they went into finance because of their aptitude with numbers. At one time, Johnson worked as a chief financial officer for a multi-million-dollar non-profit company.
“But what I learned is that we shouldn’t always go into a field, or do something because we’re good at it,” Johnson said. “You should go into something because you are passionate about it, and if you’re passionate about it, you will find a way to make money at it.”
“I kept working at numbers until I woke up one day and said, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’” reported Johnson. “I want to do something I’m passionate about, and by then I was already freelance writing for magazines like Ebony and Essence.” Some other notable media outlets that carry Johnson’s work include Teen Vogue, Buzzfeed, The Root, The Griot and “Entertainment Tonight.”
Johnson has had the love and support of their family ever since childhood, through their identity journey and along the way to fame. Their late grandmother, “Nanny,” was a strong positive influence in Johnson’s life and is immortalized in their book, We Are Not Broken.
“My mother loves it. She’s always posting her support of me and will clap back online,” said Johnson, who has 100,000 followers on Twitter and 35,000 on Instagram. “My family enjoys it and is glad the story is out there. We’ve always been a transparent family.”
Johnson’s stories involve love and family, as well as hardships, real-life drama, vulnerability and stark honesty. For these reasons, they don’t understand or agree with the bands placed on their work, All Boys Aren’t Blue, which consists of a series of essays following Johnson’s journey growing up as a queer Black man in Plainfield, New Jersey, and Virginia.
Johnson likens book banning to the opposition of Critical Race Theory (CRT). “When they say they want to remove CRT, what they are saying is they want to remove the truth, what actually happened in this country and how it shaped our nation,” explained Johnson. “Realistically, CRT stands for culturally relevant teaching. So, people like myself and others are trying to put culturally relevant teaching into the classrooms.”
“By George Johnson being here, they helped teach Black boys and girls how to be comfortable in their own skin. I’m very grateful that we had this experience,” said CHS sophomore Jaden Jones. “Black and brown students need to see themselves in what they read. George was so funny, nice and very caring. I don’t think the work is offensive.”
“It was a good and motivating presentation,” said CHS sophomore Nichlas Hart. “I love how the school gives us opportunities to meet people we can relate to and those with different points of view.”
“I learned that you don’t have to fall into stereotypes,” said CHS junior Robert Foster. “You can be unapologetically you, whatever race, gender, or whatever you identify as. Society has stereotypes, and because they can have a preconceived idea of who you are, it puts pressure on you to be that way. George made it very clear, that you can just be you.”
The SIUE Charter High School is a school-of-choice for families in the East St. Louis School District 189. The mission of the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville East St. Louis Charter High School is to prepare students who are career- and college-ready upon graduation. To achieve this mission, the school and its staff will positively impact the educational and economic lives of East St. Louis, Illinois youth through individualized instruction in core academic subjects, exploration of career interests and aptitudes, assistance in realizing students’ talents, high academic goals, and expectations that graduates will become competitive employees for the 21st century.