There is no bond like that of family. It is the foundation upon which each of us are built, its stability or unsteadiness providing the emotional bedrock on which we stand. For George M. Johnson, the bestselling author of 2020's groundbreaking “memoir-manifesto” All Boys Aren’t Blue, the story really began with a childhood spent primarily in the company of their male cousins under the guidance and unconditional love of family matriarch Nanny, born as Louise Kennedy Evans Elder and also affectionately known as “Big Lou.”
As the 2020 The Root 100 honoree told us last year when appearing on The Root Presents: It’s Lit!, it was those years and the early lessons they imparted that inspired their second book, We Are Not Broken, published Tuesday, Sept. 7. As described by publisher Little, Brown for Young Readers, Johnson’s second memoir “tenderly captures the unique experience of growing up Black in America, and their rich storytelling is interspersed with touching letters from the grandchildren that pay tribute to Nanny,” who died in late 2019.
Johnson further explained the impact of their late grandmother’s love and legacy to us last fall, noting: “[what] I noticed is that a lot of people were quoting me from my [first] book, like pulling quotes and like, ‘Oh, I love that George said this; I love that George said that.’ And for me, it was interesting because I thought about like, well, how many people get quoted that we don’t ever learn about or hear about? How many people do we hear about that never get quoted about? Like we always know the MLK quotes, we know all of the Malcolm X quotes. We know Fannie Lou Hamer and Toni Morrison. But I was like, but my grandmother had quotes too. And that was our wisdom. That was our connection. That was our everything.”
Described as a celebration of Black boy joy, brotherhood and childhood, Johnson’s second coming of age story promises to give voice to both Nanny herself and the experiences of Black boys, separate from typical tropes of trauma and violence. ‘And even if that exists, it’s like but what were the moments of imagination for Black boys?” Johnson asked aloud in our conversation. “What were the moments of imagination for Black boys? What did it look like when you were skipping rocks? What did it look like when you were eating ice cream sandwiches together? Like what did all of those other moments look like?
“And so I wanted to make sure that I told that side of the story while also giving my grandmother, I guess, her wings in a way and telling a lot more of her story,” Johnson continued. “I’m excited to kind of show that because I think it’s interesting, like the Black grandmother’s story...I think this is important to kind of tell the totality of what the stories looked like. So I’m excited to bring that into the world.”
Little, Brown provided The Root with an exclusive excerpt from We Are Not Broken, taken from the chapter “Did We Kill Matt?” (pages 104-107):
Us four boys were really excited to be out there that day. It was interesting, because one would assume you’d tire of sharing your toys, time, and space every day. Instead, we loved being together. Every day was a chance for us to set something on fire or ride our bikes to the parts of town where we were told we couldn’t, or curse because there were no adults around. Beneath all the fighting and roughhousing was our undying love for one another. The type of love that says, “I can beat you up, but if anyone lays a hand on you, we are all beating them up.” The type of love where they never saw me differently because of how effeminate I was, although other kids made jokes (but not too many, because Lil’ Rall and Rasul would fight them for talking about me). The type of love that means the term “cousin” isn’t powerful enough. Unconditional love. We knew that we truly were all that we had, and this day put our love to the test.
As adventurous kids, we decided we were going to see who could skip a rock the farthest. We all started taking turns, standing about twenty feet back from the water. Of course, this made it much harder to get them to skip, but we also wanted to make sure we were a safe distance away, as this wasn’t a pond but an actual body of water. We all threw rocks for a few minutes, most of them skipping only once or twice.
After a while, I got frustrated—I still had that desire to beat my cousins. At that moment, I decided to get a little closer to skip my next rock. I walked down toward the water, maybe about ten feet in front of all my cousins. Once I reached the spot I wanted to throw from, I saw the perfect rock. It was a flattie—an oval-shaped rock with a flat, smooth surface. Flatties were always the best rocks to use. They fit perfectly in the hand and would jump across the water like a frog from lily pad to lily pad. I picked it up and threw it, and it skipped across the water once, twice, three times, and…sank. Still, I was so happy to have gotten three skips!
My pure joy made me forget everything that was happening around me, including the danger that lay just ten feet behind me. On the ground in front of me, I saw another good rock to throw. I bent down to pick it up, but before I knew it, everything was black.
Apparently, when I bent down to grab that rock, Lil’ Rall had thrown his own toward the water before seeing me. His rock hit the upper right side of my head and immediately knocked me unconscious. The other cousins who had accompanied the four of us panicked and screamed, as did onlookers. I, of course, don’t remember any of this because I was laid out on the ground, knocked out.
Lil’ Rall and Rasul came over and found me bleeding profusely from my head. They shook me and tried to wake me up, but I was out cold. Lil’ Rall and Rasul picked me up, Lil’ Rall under my right arm and Rasul under my left. The two of them, ages twelve and thirteen, began carrying my limp eight-year-old body back toward the cookout. It must’ve felt like an eternity for them. I can’t even imagine what thoughts were going through their minds as they carried me up this long walkway while blood ran down my face. Well, I do know one thought, because years later they told me, “We thought we killed you, Matt.”
George M. Johnson’s We Are Not Broken is available now from booksellers everywhere.