My Grandmother Taught Me Self-Liberation. Now I’m Ready To Pay It Forward.

Nanny was the motivation for my second book, "We Are Not Broken." This is how she inspired me to empower other Black queer people.
George M. Johnson as a child, with their grandmother aka Nanny.
George M. Johnson as a child, with their grandmother aka Nanny.
Courtesy of George M. Johnson

“You never really were a boy, but you weren’t a girl. You just always sat somewhere in the middle,” Louise Elder, otherwise known as my Nanny, once said to me. I later quoted these words in my second book, “ We Are Not Broken.”

For as long back as I can remember, when Nanny spoke, everyone in the room would listen. She was the epitome of the Black grandmother archetype in the best way. She was the best cook I’ve ever known, she played cards, talked shit, and could tell a story like no other. And you couldn’t out-church my grandmother either. She was a missionary, president of the flower club, mother of the Mt. Zion AME church, and knew that Hymnal book inside and out ― even if she improvised the lyrics at times.

But what made her a true matriarch was the way she created a universe where I could feel seen and heard as a Black queer boy just trying to find their way.

I’ve thought about her often during the last 15 months, which haven’t been the easiest for me. My day usually starts with a Google alert about my first book being banned or being on the verge of a ban in some state or school district. “‘All Boy’s Aren’t Blue’ by George M. Johnson has been removed from the library shelves in…” the alert will read. My memoir is the third most challenged, second most banned/removed book in the country right now.

In these moments of hostility and systemic erasure, I continue to take solace in the fact that my grandmother prepared me for this world, leaving me with her words of affirmation and self-liberation. And those words became the catalyst for “We Are Not Broken.”

The project was birthed from one of her sayings. We called them her “Nannyisms” ― tidbits of wisdom that you could carry throughout life to get you through any and every situation. One of our favorites is: “You gotta bring ass to get ass,” which is essentially the equivalent of “don’t start no shit, won’t be no shit.” Whenever I feel under attack for my work, it only makes me write more. In telling my truth, I upset a lot of people who historically have denied its existence. So because they decided to start some shit by banning my book, I decided to give them something to be mad about. More books.

As I write this article on the verge of Black History Month, I think about the words of our ancestors as a guide to get us through our current times. Most times, these quotes are from people who we consider icons in this world. Whether it be Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, James Baldwin or Martin Luther King, Jr., their words become our sword in a fight against a society that has never respected Blackness — and a society that has never respected queerness. Alongside these titans run our ancestors who informed and influenced our agency and power. Their quotes rarely make it to the mainstream.

This is why I centered my grandmother in “We Are Not Broken.” After her passing in December of 2019, it was her resounding Nannyisms that got me through the grief. They’d make me laugh, cry, or bring clarity to situations that I needed to make tough decisions on. She shaped my identity and liberated me in so many ways, and I wanted to gift that wisdom to anyone like me, trying to find their way.

Nanny with George and their three cousins.
Nanny with George and their three cousins.
Courtesy of George M. Johnson

When it came to both cooking and life, Nanny believed in moving with intuition. She used to say, “If you use measuring cups, your food will taste measured.” Essentially, she wanted us to move with spirit and not rigid boundaries. Her ethos shaped my recipe she created for my self-liberation. It was never measured. It was a day-by-day process of allowing me to be my most authentic self.

In a world where it can be crucial to fit into a mold, she supported me being an individual — so much so that when all my cousins got new sneakers, she let me get cowboy boots. That moment taught me that it was okay to deviate. And when I told her I was gay, she brushed right over the sexual logistics and said, “You still gotta bring whoever you dating to see me first” ― same as my straight cousins did. Love and acceptance was the standard.

Nanny didn’t have a lot of formal education (she left school in the 10th grade), so she made sure she emphasized the importance of staying informed. She instilled a work ethic in us too, that bucked gender stereotypes; every Saturday morning, my male cousins and I cleaned shelves, mopped and swept. Her values, actions and coded bits of wisdom prepared me for the world and set me free. She’d sometimes say, “Scared money don’t make money” — this was one that emphasized courage over everything.

And rather than shun her creative, shy, effeminate grandchild — as some of her peers might have — she poured into me, my talents and my journey. She supported my decisions to get tattoos, to pledge a frat in college, and of course, my sexual orientation and evolving gender expression. Every step along the way, she was right there. She still is.

Her unwavering love taught me to love myself unconditionally, and today, I center that steadfastness in my writing. Despite the societal constraints that coerce Black boys to become hardened and hyper-masculine, our innate spirit and individuality is what matters most.

And now, as someone who is very sure of myself and my identity, I get to be a representation in the world I wish I lived in as a teen. In my memoir and beyond, I bared my soul for the world to see because she was her authentic self with me, daily. I told my story to the world because she gathered us as children to pass down our family’s oral traditions.

And now it’s my turn to try and hold space for those who need it. “We Are Not Broken” is a meditation on the connection to the afterlife, it is a powerful tool in self-discovery. And while liberating myself is still a daily exercise, I’ll continue to dismantle societal constructs that attempt to erase my existence. I refuse to let any young person feel that they need to suppress their journey or joy for the comfort of those who want to blot us out.

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