Books that Save Lives: The Oasis of Black Queer Young Adult Literature

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By Sikivu Hutchinson

From An Injustice magazine

When I was in elementary and middle school during the seventies and eighties, there was virtually no literature that captured the lived experiences and identities of Black queer children and teens. I was a serious reader, a nonconformist daydreamer, and a fixture at neighborhood libraries where I could load up on everyone from Virginia Hamilton to PT. Travers to Richard Steptoe to Sharon Bell Mathis and Judy Blume. The imagined and imaginary worlds that children’s authors conjured — and the libraries that offered space to read, reflect, and explore these worlds — could be a source of refuge from bullies, violence, and society’s intolerance of “weird” Black girls who defied soul killing gender norms.

In the midst of white supremacist book bans, community and school libraries have become battlegrounds and oases. As backlash against African American studies and LGBTQ+ affirming curricula intensifies, the works of Black queer Young Adult literature authors Kacen CallenderJacqueline Woodson, and George M. Johnson are lifesaving revelations. Over the past year, LGBTQ+ communities have been bombarded with toxic legislation that prohibits gender affirming care for trans youth, bathroom access for trans students, and acknowledgments of queer families (buttressed by the Supreme Court’s recent ruling that allows businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ+ customers). In the midst of this firestorm, Black queer literary world-building illustrates the transformative power of literature, providing access to imagined spaces which affirm marginalized communities and experiences. Johnson’s 2020 “memoir-manifesto” All Boys Aren’t Blue has been slammed by the Religious Right and placed on numerous banned books lists. Woodson’s 1995 novel The House You Pass on the Way is one of the first to sensitively portray the inner life, family, and friend relationships of a Black lesbian girl. Callender’s trailblazing novels King and the Dragonflies (2020) and Felix Ever After (2021) provide moving portraits of Black queer and Black trans teens and tweens navigating love, grief, heartbreak, identity, and creativity in school communities that range from hostile to supportive.

The twelve year-old protagonist of King and the Dragonflies is confronted with multiple sources of trauma. Throughout the novel, he mourns the death of his older brother with whom he had a deep bond. To cope with his grief, he imagines that his brother is one of the many dragonflies that he sees in the bayous near his home in New Orleans. His grief and uncertainty are compounded by his parents’ inability to deal with their own sense of loss. When a gay acquaintance at his school runs away from home to escape abuse at home, he becomes a secret ally to the young man, gradually realizing that he is queer as well. Callender, who identifies as non-binary, is adept at inhabiting the inner life and mindset of middle school youth questioning their identities amidst the upheaval of puberty. Their characters are achingly realistic, introspective, flawed, and vibrant. In Felix Ever After, Felix is an aspiring teen artist who has recently transitioned. His support system includes several “ride or die” friends who surround him with love. In Callender’s worlds, chosen family take precedence over blood releatives. Relatives are secondary characters who provide a snapshot of the complex spectrum of family acceptance and safe space. Felix and his father navigate a fragile relationship that is exacerbated by his mother’s desertion. Throughout much of the book, Felix’s dad refuses to use his chosen name and pronouns, even though he pays for Felix’s surgeries and tries to make time to check in with his son. Similarly, in a gut-wrenching scene between King and his father, in Dragonflies, King notes: “I’m glad that he loves me no matter what but it still hurts that he has to think about the fact I’m gay — (and) that he can’t accept me for who I am.” For Black queer youth, parental ambivalence can be devastating. It is for this reason that safe spaces at school are paramount. Callender’s portrayals powerfully illustrate the insidious impact anti-blackness, homophobia, transphobia, and gaslighting have on Black queer and gender expansive youth who have few safe spaces. A 2019 survey conducted by the National Black Justice coalition and GLSEN (Gay Lesbian Student Education Network) indicated that Black students who are involved with campus affinity groups (such as BSUs and GSAs) are more likely to stay in school. This is especially critical given the national push in conservative school districts to “out” LGBTQ+ and gender expansive youth to their parents and undermine their relationships with trusted adults on campus.

In his autobiography All Boys Aren’t Blue, George M. Johnson highlights how seeing examples of Black queer life and experience were lifesavers for him. Unlike the protagonists in Callender’s novels, Johnson’s immediate and extended family was unequivocally supportive of his identity and journey. He is especially indebted to his grandmother, who affirmed his right to be different despite the big generation gap that separated them:

“My grandmother had always seen the damage that happens when children who are ‘different’ aren’t nurtured and loved the same way other kids are…I often think about what it would be like if the world existed with a ‘Nanny’ in each family. Why was my Black queer experience one of unconditional love when others have become the standard of hate and familial violence? Family dynamics is a topic that comes up often in LGBTQIAP+ culture. ‘Created family’ is a system in which friends from many walks of life create extremely tight friendship circles in an effort to ensure a familial type of environment for the many who are not accepted at home.”

Johnson’s bookish, introspective “coming of age” self is nurtured by Nanny’s encouragement of his creativity and stylistic nonconformity. In an early scene in which he expresses interest in cowboy boots (much to the bewilderment of some family members), Nanny cosigns his “quirky” choice by buying him a pair. Throughout the book, he credits Nanny with providing him with the social-emotional foundation he needed to withstand and resist homophobia in the Black community and anti-Blackness in white America. In his introduction he notes that, “This book is an exploration of two of my identities — Black and queer — and how I became aware of their intersections within myself and in society. How I’ve learned that neither of those identities can be contained within a simple box…In the white community, I am seen as a Black man first — but that doesn’t negate the queer identity that will still face discrimination. In the Black community…it is the intersection with queerness that is used to reduce my Blackness and the overall image of Black men.”

By the same token, Callender’s Felix Ever After hones in on how these intersectional struggles impact Black trans youth who are often rendered invisible in school curricula and community support systems. As a Black trans boy dealing with his mother’s abandonment and his father’s ambivalence, Felix seeks refuge in close relationships with school peers who also encourage his artistic vision. Callender offers a rare portrait of a trans teen who is on the brink of graduating, going to college, and pursuing his calling as a visual artist. At the beginning of the novel, Felix is victimized by a transphobic troll whose identity is shrouded in mystery until the end of the novel. Felix fights back against the troll’s cyberbullying on Instagram. When the troll asks him why he’s “pretending” to be a boy, he counters, “I’m not pretending to be a boy. Just because you haven’t evolved to realize gender doesn’t equal biology, doesn’t mean you get to say who I am and who I’m not. You don’t have that power. Only I have the power to say who I am.” (125) The deadnaming and misgendering Felix experiences are common forms of trans-antagonistic abuse that silence and victim shame trans and gender expansive youth in schools and on social media. Even though Felix has a loving, devoted best friend named Ezra, he is wracked with doubt about his lovability. In a moving scene with Declan, a school nemesis who he has developed an Instagram crush on, Felix comments that:

It’s like every identity I have…the more different I am from everyone else…the less interested people are. The less lovable I feel, I guess. The love interests in books, or in movies or TV shows, are always white, cis, straight, blond hair, blue eyes. Chris Evans. Jennifer Lawrence. It becomes a little hard to convince myself I deserve the kind of love you see on movie screens. (219)

The isolation that Felix experiences is underscored by escalating attacks on the very existence of trans youth. As with Johnson’s memoir, Callender’s books are lightening rods for fascist backlash. Living in the more “liberal” context of New York, Felix believes that he has been largely insulated from the brunt of national vitriol faced by youth in the Midwest and the South. His acknowledgment of privilege is cautionary for LGBTQ+ communities outside of the Bible Belt. Over the past year, conservative school boards in California (which has some of the strongest pro-LGBTQ+ policies in the nation) have jumped on the homophobic bandwagon, spearheading bans on LGBT affirming curricular materials, sponsoring outing policies, and cosigning the anti-queer propaganda and violence of right wing parent groups.

Johnson was partly inspired to write his memoir by Toni Morrison’s saying that if “there is a book that you want to read and it hasn’t been written yet, you must write it.” Reflecting on being ostracized in elementary school, he writes, “And then there was me. A little queer Black boy still very unsure of who he was. I buried myself in schoolwork and hid behind my books. What I didn’t have in friendships, I could always find in stories.” (132)

Ultimately, the spaces of radical reimagining that YA queer fiction and “memoir manifestoes” open up can be a lifeline and an inspiration for Black queer kids and families. As fascist movements continue to surge, literature is still a powerful antidote, allowing us to “define ourselves for ourselves” (to paraphrase Audre Lorde) in rebuke to the terrorism of an Orwellian age.

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