Get Your Bans Off My Books with George M. Johnson | Crooked Media
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February 01, 2022
What A Day
Get Your Bans Off My Books with George M. Johnson

In This Episode

  • As we celebrate the beginning of Black History Month, conservatives are actively and aggressively silencing educators’ ability to talk honestly about history. Book bans are gaining steam with schools banning everything from “The 1619 Project,” to Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” to Art Spiegelman’s “Maus.” Journalist and activist George M. Johnson joins us to discuss the issue from an author’s perspective after their book, “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” was targeted for removal in at least 14 states.
  • And in headlines: A Georgia judge rejected plea agreements in the federal hate crime trial of Gregory and Travis McMichael, the FDA granted full approval of Moderna’s coronavirus vaccine, and The New York Times announced it had acquired Wordle.


Show Notes:



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Gideon Resnick: It’s Tuesday, February 1st. I’m Gideon Resnick.


Josie Duffy Rice: And I’m Josie Duffy Rice, and this is What A Day, the podcast that has no problem with beautiful famous people announcing they’re having a baby together.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah. Unlike Drake, we’re even happy for A$AP Rocky and Rihanna.


Josie Duffy Rice: From Fenty Beauty to Fenty Baby, baby.


Gideon Resnick: That’s the autobiography right there . . . of the child, of course. On today’s show, the FDA fully authorizes the Moderna vaccine. Plus an update on the federal hate crime trial of the man who killed Ahmaud Arbery.


Josie Duffy Rice: But first, today marks the beginning of Black History Month, my favorite month of the year. So we wanted to focus on the recent attempts to erase part of that history.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah. So across the country, conservatives have been actively and aggressively silencing educators’ ability to talk honestly about history. Recently, a number of states have passed laws functionally outlawing the discussion of race and white supremacy in schools across the country. These laws, which attempt to prevent the honest discussion of history, contribute to the erasure of marginalized people and their stories.


Josie Duffy Rice: In particular, book bans, which never really went away, are gaining steam. Schools are banning everything from the 1619 Project to Toni Morrison’s Beloved to most recently Mouse, Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel about his parents’ survival of the Holocaust. In fact, hundreds of books are slowly disappearing from school libraries across the country. Recently, efforts have expanded well outside the confines of just school board meetings, now members of law enforcement and state legislatures are being mobilized in some cases too. As a recent feature in the New York Times noted, organizations are targeting a wide range of books that parents see listed in various places online, subsequently demanding their removal as part of a broader argument that parents should dictate what is taught to not only their children, but all children. The American Library Association reported that it received 330 reports of book challenges last fall, which it described as a quote, “unprecedented amount.”


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, and authors of marginalized backgrounds are seeing their work specifically targeted, especially books that tackle issues of race, gender, and sexuality. We wanted to talk to one of those authors, so today we have with us journalist and activist George M. Johnson. They are the author of the book All Boys Aren’t Blue, a memoir that has been targeted for removal in at least 14 states—perhaps more by the time this airs—after conservatives deemed it inappropriate for children. In one instance, a school board member in Florida filed a complaint with the sheriff’s department about it. George, welcome to What A Day.


George M. Johnson: Thank you for having me today.


Josie Duffy Rice: So your book “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” it recounts your lived experience growing up as a queer Black person. What was your reaction to finding out that such a personal piece of yours had been banned in several schools?


George M. Johnson: When I found out about the first ban, which was in like, Kansas City, I laughed, because I thought it was funny because the book had already been out for 17 months. And so it was like, you know, if you were going to attack it, I would have thought it would have got attacked at the height of when the book was out and had all the press. But within about four to six weeks, I got up to eight states, and that’s when I finally said something publicly about it. And then that following week was when the first criminal complaint was filed against me and the book in Florida. It’s just actually been a pretty wild journey to witness this happening. You know, we’ve dealt with censorship and things, but I don’t think we’ve ever seen this type of authoritarianism come into play around literature in such a fervent and vicious way.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, and what other details were provided about this criminal complaint? Were you given any notice or rationale here of like why this—I’ve never heard of that before.


George M. Johnson: Yeah. I mean, between myself, my attorneys, we didn’t know that you could file a criminal complaint against the book, but that’s pretty much how we found out that there was some form of legislation that they were trying to use. Fortunately, every single time they have tried to file a criminal complaint, they’ve been thrown out. But yeah, apparently there are obscenity laws and they are trying to sweep our books into being seen as obscene titles that teens should not be allowed to read.


Gideon Resnick: Crazy.


Josie Duffy Rice: Unbelievable. So conservatives have been targeting LGBTQ+ books specifically in recent months, but they’re also pushing to control what students are taught in the classroom about queerness, right? So, for example, in Florida, a House Committee just passed a law that would prohibit students and teachers from discussing gender identity and sexual orientation in schools. What do you think is the ultimate goal of these measures to prevent students from engaging with the idea of queerness in schools?


George M. Johnson: We just have to look at what the founding principles in many ways of what the United States has been and it has always been cis male, heterosexual and patriarchal. So when we get to a place now where we have a population shift happening, where white folks thought they had until 2050 before they will become a minority and are realizing that that 2050 line is starting to creep back into the 2030s, and GenZ is the most diverse population we have ever had in terms of when you look at children demographically across the country who fall into that category, there is a real fear that they are going to lose, not just the majority within the country when it comes to voting—which is why we see they’re attacking voting—not just the majority when it comes to the population—which is why they’re attacking Roe v. Wade—but also the majority when it comes to how information historically has been fed to us as children that have conditioned us to see white people as authoritative figures who we should see as our savior rather than our oppressor—that is really what the nexus of all of this is, is that they are trying to now block GenZ specifically from becoming the next future leaders who will actually know that there are people who exist outside of them that are not white. You know, that’s a real fear for them because they got to grow up not having to think about us because all the books looked white, all their teachings were white—their children are not growing up in that same generation. And so that is really what the fear is. It’s one of like a purity principle, trying to keep like a purity in a sense to white children.


Gideon Resnick: Right. And a lot of authors like yourself have been censored, but you’ve been really vocal about fighting back on all of this. So what has that actually looked like in the past few months? And have you made any discernible progress here?


George M. Johnson: I am blessed that I grew up with a grandmother who didn’t take any mess—I would have cursed but I’m not sure what kind of pod cast this is.


Gideon Resnick: It’s OK. Either way.


George M. Johnson: So when something like this occurs for me, I just go back to what I’ve always known, which is I’ve always been an activist for myself. Anytime something happened to me, I spoke up about it. A lot of other authors don’t necessarily operate through their world with an activist lens. I always did. I was a journalist first. For me, this was part of the plan, like this was part of my purpose. We’ve won several of the suits. We’ve been able to retain the books in several of the libraries. We’ve lost some, but we won some too. I’ve learned that librarians are some of the baddest, dopest people in the country because they are very, very adamant about what you will not do to their libraries and the books, and teachers, who again, are always the heroes of most generations. I think it’s a beautiful coalition being built around the censorship, and I’m watching it unfold in real time and it’s really, really dope.


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, well, speaking of that coalition, right, there are conservative voices who have been complaining about cancel culture for months, years, right? This has been kind of a refrain on the right. I’ve noticed and you may have noticed that a lot of them are silent about this particular issue, censorship of books like this, laws like the one in Florida, this, you know, critical race theory laws. Are you finding any kind of support on the right on principle here? And if not, what do you think about that?


George M. Johnson: As much as this is a conservative issue, which clearly it is, I also do take issue with the silence of those who are supposed to be the advocates, right? So it’s like you would expect at least, that some liberals and progressives would be just as vocal. You would expect that historic organizations like the NAACP, whether it’s HBCUs, whether it’s the [unclear] too—I’m not hearing much from them and their thoughts about it either, right? And sometimes your silence speaks to what you feel too. We have one group who’s saying the quiet part out loud, and another group who may silently believe the part that they’re saying out loud, but just not getting involved. You know, I will say, though, clearly there’s been more support from liberals and moderates and progressives than there has been from conservatives to help with the pushback, but I think it could be stronger.


Gideon Resnick: There are probably a lot of listeners hearing this thinking, first of all, what the hell is going on? Second of all, maybe thinking they want to support you and other authors who have been faced with these censorship situations. So what can they actually do to make sure that these stories are not getting lost or not getting taken off of library shelves?


George M. Johnson: A couple of things that you can do. One, if you are noticing that your school board is one of those school boards that is challenging the book, to say something—to send emails, to call with your concerns about them doing this type of censorship. Two, it is important that you actually check because a lot of them are doing this silently, simply because the press has not been able to pick up on it. A third thing, there are a lot of free libraries. I think the ultimate goal of this is when they take away one access point we need to create 10 more. So like free libraries, make sure that you’re donating the books that are being banned to LGBTQ centers and other types of resource centers in groups in places where we know students have the ability to freely frequent. And the fourth thing is, buy the books. When they see sales increase of these books, what happens is big retailers then catch on and say, We can make some money here.


Josie Duffy Rice: Before we let you go, we just wanted to ask about the loss here. What are students in schools lose when they ban books by Black and queer authors like yourself and authors of marginalized backgrounds as a whole, right? How does erasing history, especially these histories, really allow the expansion of the conservative project, but also just allow the expansion of the American project of erasure, which is part and parcel of the history?


George M. Johnson: We lose the truth. The unfounded truth of this country has been told and sold for nearly 500+ years now, and now we have reached a point where Black storytelling, queer storytelling, gets to unravel all of those truths and give the other side of that. The second thing we lose is being seen. I grew up and went through high school and was not. I didn’t read about myself in books. I read about little white boys like Colden Haulfield—or Holden Colfield or whatever his name was—and I read about indigenous people being called savages and having a white teacher explain why that made sense. So we now have a generation of kids who get to open a book, not even just open a book, look at book cover and see a person of color on it, see a Black face on it, be a Black queer face on it, right? So what we lose is the empowering of kids who, like myself, had to go through a second adolescence because in many ways my first was taken from me. When we give these books to them, they have an adolescence now because they know they have precedent. They know that they have legacy. They know that they have ancestors. They know that their story exists. And they get to see people who have these same identifiers as them succeed in this world.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, a lot to think about. Thank you so much for all of your time. We really appreciate you joining today.


George M. Johnson: Thank you. Thank you for having me.


Josie Duffy Rice: We’ll be following George’s efforts, but that is the latest for now. We’ll be back after some ads.


[ad break]


Gideon Resnick: Let’s wrap up with some headlines.


[sung] Headlines.


Gideon Resnick: A judge in Georgia rejected plea agreements in the federal hate crimes trial of Gregory and Travis McMichael yesterday. The father and son were already convicted in state court and sentenced to life in prison for murdering Ahmad Arbery. He was a 25-year old Black man who was jogging when the McMichaels and another white man shot and killed him in February of 2020. The plea deal had been negotiated between the McMichaels and the U.S. Department of Justice. In exchange for pleading guilty and admitting that their murder of Arbery was racially motivated, they were set to avert their trial on federal hate crime charges and go to federal prison for 30 years, instead of state prison. Arbery’s family felt angry and betrayed by this arrangement, though, and it was their objection during a hearing yesterday that motivated the judge to reject the deal. Arbery’s mom, Wanda Cooper-Jones, told the judge quote, “granting these men their preferred conditions of confinement would defeat me. It gives them one last chance to spit in my face after murdering my son.” The judge gave the McMichaels until Friday to decide whether they want to go to trial, which is scheduled for Monday, or to stick with their guilty pleas, which would no longer guarantee them the lighter sentence.


Josie Duffy Rice: If you’ve had some Moderna swimming around you for the past several months, join me in a “hip hip hurr-FDyay.”


Gideon Resnick: No.


Josie Duffy Rice: You love it. On Monday, the Food and Drug Administration granted full approval of Moderna’s coronavirus vaccine. Hundreds of millions of people have already received the shot under an emergency authorization by the FDA, but now Moderna joins Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine in being fully licensed for use in the U.S.. FDA approval for Pfizer’s shot still remains a few steps ahead of Moderna: pending approval, Pfizer shots for children from six months to five years old could be available as soon as the end of the month, which would make it the first vaccine available for that age group. But Moderna has been busy making notable strides in other crucial areas. Last week, Moderna announced the launch of early stage clinical trials of an HIV mRNA vaccine, employing the same technology used in the company’s groundbreaking COVID shot. Moderna is working with the nonprofit International AIDS Vaccine Initiative in developing the vaccine, and the first people participating in the trial have already received their first shots.


Gideon Resnick: I was waiting for full approval, and now I will think about getting vaccinated, Josie.


Josie Duffy Rice: Oh, man.


Gideon Resnick: Let’s make sure that people understand that that is not true. That is a joke and a bad one. Please get your vaccine, OK? Bad news for birds who love to cough: the Biden administration announced that it will ramp up regulation of coal-burning power plants yesterday. It’ll do it by bringing back an Obama-era rule that allows it to restrict emissions of mercury, which is a dangerous neurotoxin. The rule comes down from Biden’s EPA. It proposes returning to an old method of calculating the benefits of reducing mercury pollution, which allows for a more generous estimate. Under Trump, this Obama-era approach was scrapped and a more narrow way of estimating benefits was used, allowing the administration to conclude that enforcing limits on mercury polluters didn’t make sense financially—because that’s the best metric for making that decision. The EPA is expected to start enforcing the renewed rule later this year. It is one small step towards delivering on Biden’s clean energy agenda, key elements of which are going nowhere thanks to Senator Joe Manchin’s objections to their inclusion in the Build Back Better bill. While we wait on the clean kind of energy, Biden’s making sure that no one runs out of the dirty kind. Yesterday, he met with the emir of Qatar in attempts to ensure that our European allies could import some of that country’s natural gas in case a war in Ukraine makes Russian natural gas off-limits. After that meeting, Biden said that he would designate Qatar a quote “major non-NATO ally.”


Josie Duffy Rice: The New York Times will soon be in charge of all the five letter words that are fit to print. On Monday, the newspaper announced that it acquired Wordle, the free daily word puzzle created by software engineer Josh Wardle. The acquisition is wholly surprising for anyone who’s seen the browser-based game gain popularity over the past few months, going from 90 users on November 1st of last year to millions of players a day. While it’s unclear if Wordle will change some of its more charming features, notably its no frills, ad-free layout, the New York Times announcement made clear that the game would remain free for now at least. The pay-walled New York Times game section has grown over recent years, home to the digital crossword, as well as newer games like the spelling bee. And it’s unclear whether the Times will eventually put Wordle behind the paywall as well, but it wouldn’t be surprising. Wardle, who initially made the game for his girlfriend to past time during quarantine, reportedly sold the game for a number in quote, “the low seven figures.” While you can’t blame the guy for passing the game on to bigger, brighter things today, maybe start your Wordle game with “Price” because it turns out everybody’s got one. Even the nice puzzle guy. We love you, Josh. Come on the show. Come on the show.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, that would be a lot of fun. It’s going to be interesting when all of the words are like Douthat and Stevens and the other various Times authors of note. That’s not actually going to happen because those are proper names, and that wouldn’t make any sense for the game that Josh created, which we all think is quite fun.


Josie Duffy Rice: It’s true.


Gideon Resnick: And those are the headlines. One more thing before we go: this week on America Dissected, Dr. Abdul El-Sayed talks to NYU law professor and host of the podcast Strict Scrutiny, Melissa Murray, about a recent ruling against workplace vaccine mandates and how that might affect the Supreme Court and the Justice Breyer retirement. New episodes of American Dissected drop every Tuesday. You can listen wherever you get your podcasts. That is all for today. If you like the show, make sure you subscribe, leave a review, do a free Wordle, and tell your friends to listen.


Josie Duffy Rice: And if you are into reading, and not just the coolest banned books like me, What A Day is also a nightly newsletter. Check it out and subscribe at I’m Josie Duffy Rice.


Gideon Resnick: I’m Gideon Resnick.


[together] And Happy Lunar New Year!


Josie Duffy Rice: Year of the tiger, baby.


Gideon Resnick: That’s right. We know what that means. It means the Bengals. OK. No, sorry.


Josie Duffy Rice: Oh my god! That’s kind of cool.


Gideon Resnick: What A Day is a production of Crooked Media. It’s recorded and mixed by Bill Lancz. Jazzi Marine and Raven Yamamoto are our associate producers. Our head writer is Jon Millstein, with writing support from Jocey Coffman, and our executive producers are Leo Duran and me, Gideon Resnick. Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka.