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We Are Not Broken
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This is the vibrant story of George, Garrett, Rall, and Rasul — four children raised by Nanny, their fiercely devoted grandmother. The boys hold each other close through early brushes with racism, memorable experiences at the family barbershop, and first loves and losses. And with Nanny at their center, they are never broken.
George M. Johnson captures the unique experience of growing up as a Black boy in America through rich family stories that explore themes of vulnerability, sacrifice, and culture.
Complete with touching letters from the grandchildren to their beloved matriarch and a full color photo insert, this heartwarming and heartbreaking memoir is destined to become a modern classic of emerging adulthood.
Tamir Rice was twelve years old when he was killed by police officers who mistook his toy gun for a real one. It’s a story that’s all too familiar. I, too, was a Black boy who played with toy guns. My cousins Rall and Rasul and my little brother, Garrett, were Black boys who played with toy guns. All four of us got “the speech” early on about how unsafe it was for us to do the same things as our white friends. It was a reminder of the danger in our simple existence.
Black boys don’t have it easy in American society. We face many systems of oppression that tend to harden us, forcing us to lock in our emotions and exist in a state of near-constant internal rage. These systems become pipelines to our trauma—pipelines that many of us never make it out of. Though this trauma and adversity often beat down our spirits, we may be bruised, but we are not broken.
We Are Not Broken is a window into the lives of Lil’ Rall, Rasul, Garrett, and I—four Black boys growing up in the small city of Plainfield, New Jersey, under the supervision of our grandmother Nanny. We were four imaginative kids who were allowed the freedom to be individuals and the agency to make decisions rather than be told there was only one way. Centered on our adolescence, these stories discuss masculinity, racism, religion, violence, Blackness, and, most importantly, Black joy. In addition, these stories journey into Black womanhood and the narrative of the Black grandmother—a figure that has often been the cornerstone of progress and love in our community.
This book also contains heavy messages around corporal punishment, mass incarceration, racism, anti-Blackness, and homophobia. There is strong language, including the words “nigga” and “faggot.” When reading this book, please refer to the words as the n-word or the f-word, especially if you are non-Black or if you are non-Queer, respectively.
Black boys in society are often seen as adults by the age of twelve. We are viewed as dangerous and more prone to violence, and often left broken. This book is an attempt to change our narrative and give voice to our stories through our own eyes. Most importantly, this is an opportunity to disprove any notion that Black boys don’t deserve love, affection, care, and the space to be open, vulnerable, emotional, and kind.
Many places around the world are now in a state of protest over the police-caused deaths of Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and countless others. George Floyd was once a Black boy. Many Black men were once Black boys, and this is our story of survival in a world that has rarely seen our beauty.
“All shut eyes ain’t sleep.”
The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.
I’ve probably come across this quote more than a thousand times on social media, television, or even on the radio. As someone who has multiple identities, with being Black and Queer at the top of that list, I recognize the feeling of living in a society that sees you as disposable. I understand what it’s like to put so much into a world that requires you to save it. A world that never once gave a second thought about saving you. Still, being a Black woman is a unique experience, one I could never fully understand—much like my own unique experience with Blackness and Queerness.
I come from a family of strong Black women. My mother, my aunts, my grandmothers, and their mothers were all women who led their families, supported one another, and stepped in to handle family business without needing to be asked. Black women have always been the ones expected to heal us and make us whole, often neglecting to take the time to heal themselves.
The Black woman who sat at the center of our universe was my mother’s mother, who the grandchildren affectionately called Nanny. When people say, “We rest on the shoulders of giants,” this woman comes to my mind immediately. In her life, she was most certainly disrespected but didn’t take no shit. Oftentimes she was probably unprotected, which is why she usually carried a weapon. I know there were many times she was neglected, yet she never once neglected the duties she felt were her purpose as our grandmother. This story is a way to love, honor, and care for her in a way that the world never has.
Louise Kennedy Evans was her birth name; she was born in March 1941 in Spartanburg, South Carolina. She was the tenth child of thirteen kids born to my great-grandmother Lulu Mae Evans. When Nanny was a little girl, her family’s house caught on fire. Her three youngest siblings all passed away, making her the “baby” of the family. Even as the baby, she had something special about her, something domineering and omnipresent. As the youngest to survive, she was left here for a reason. She was left here to change the world, and that she did.
Caregiving came naturally to her. She had my mother, Kaye, when she was only sixteen years old, and dropped out of school around the tenth grade before marrying my grandfather Rall Elder and starting her family. She would go on to have an additional three kids by birth—Rall L. Elder Jr., Sarah Elder, and Stephanie Elder (who we call Aunt Munch). She also had one adopted nephew—my uncle Kevin Hobson—and raised twenty-four foster kids over the years for the state of New Jersey. She would go by many names in her life: Mommy, Lou, Louise, Aunt Lou, Big Lou, Ms. Elie, Irene, Nanny, and several others. That’s the kind of spirit she had. The embodiment of every woman. A reflection of all.
Nanny worked hard for each dollar she ever earned. At every point in her life she had some kind of hustle going on. She held down regular jobs, including one working as a registered nurse; she owned a daycare; she did flea marketing; and she ran a catering business for many years. She had other side hustles, including my favorite—providing microloans to the women in her church. With the loans, the women would buy diamonds from Mrs. Ruth, the diamond lady in our neighborhood, and pay her back at a low interest rate. Nanny kept a little red book in which she detailed all the money she was owed, and used it to track payments. She was that type of boss.
With all she had going on, though, her greatest investment was in her grandkids, or, as she would say, “the grands.” We got the most of her time, love, and energy, something none of us will ever forget. Nanny always used to say the world was playing a trick on her because she kept having grandsons. First my cousins Lil’ Rall and Lil’ Kevin in 1980, then my cousin Rasul in 1981, me in 1985, my younger brother, Garrett, in 1988, and my cousin Justice in 1994. She desperately wanted a granddaughter, but with me, an effeminate boy who spent the most time with her, I think she got a little bit of what she wanted. Still, she would have to wait nearly twenty-five years after her first grandchild was born before our little cousin Kennedy Elder-Law arrived in 2004. Kennedy was sort of named after Nanny, with Nanny’s middle name being her first name. Nanny got to live her final years with a granddaughter as her sidekick and best friend. Although, in our own way, each of us felt we held the title of her bestie. But that’s the magic of the Black family dynamic. People in our family don’t just use son, daughter, cousin, or grandmother as a placeholder. We do the work to actually become friends.
I want to be clear when I say, you don’t grow up in a home with a Black grandmother where wisdom isn’t being shared on a daily basis. Nanny was no different. She was the Black matriarch who told it like it was and always meant what she said. When she talked, the ancestors spoke through her. Her body was the vessel for the wisdoms of a thousand Black grandmothers over several millennia, with word-of-mouth truths passed down over generations, crossing oceans and being adapted.
When I watch movies that have that Black-woman wisdom, I instantly think about her. When Cicely Tyson did one of her majestic monologues. Or when Loretta Devine or Jennifer Lewis gives us one of those infamous rants on how “if we knew better, we would do better.” Or anytime I read the texts of Angela Davis, Audre Lorde, Nikki Giovanni, and the mighty Toni Morrison. I’m immediately enveloped in their words, the warmth, the Blackness. It’s the same warmth I felt each time my grandmother scolded me and molded me, and a feeling I think we all share.
Nanny always used to say, “The things I didn’t get right with my kids, I tried my hardest to get right with my grandkids.” The lengths she went to—to ensure that we had the best of everything—are a testament to how she truly was a woman of her word. Her word was her bond. Of course, no one ever gets everything right, but for a woman who defied the odds since childhood, she came damn close to getting it right with all of us.
Sometimes I have this vision—a vision of four little Black boys lying in the bed, sleeping after a long day of bike rides and video games. Four heads sticking out from underneath the covers at the top of the bed. The moonlight streaming through the window, illuminating the room. Nanny comes into view, walking up the hallway, peeking in to make sure that we are okay before she finally goes to bed. I imagine what she was thinking in that moment. How beautifully the moonlight danced on our skin. How, although we gave her hell every day, having us with her still felt like heaven. Wondering who we would turn out to be when we got older. Wondering if the words and lessons she gave us, day in and day out, would be remembered.
I often think about the power of the Black word, the way we’ve passed down traditions since the beginning of time. I consider how our ancestors’ words and thoughts were created during such different times but remain relevant for every period that we, as their descendants, enter. You can’t know where you are going if you don’t know where you have been, as the ancestors would say. Nanny knew where we had been, but not just in our own lives. She was the connection of old to new. The oracle of our family. The gateway to the past, just as the Black women before her had been. And as much as she ensured our care in the present, she also knew that there would be a time when she would no longer be with us in the physical world.
After Nanny passed, all of us wondered, What will we do next? Who would be the person to guide us as a family? Who would be the tiebreaker and the decision maker for us moving forward? Who would we come to when we needed to hear the Word of God? But that’s why she left us something more important than her recipes, or money, or jewelry. She left us with the words.
Her “Nannyisms”—the little quips of wisdom that my family has lived on for generations, her small reminders of life lessons—will guide each story in this book. All shut eyes ain’t sleep was one of her sayings, and it meant that when you think folks ain’t around or paying attention, they really are. Nanny, although your eyes may be shut in this physical world, we know that our queen ain’t slept a wink. Since you moved on to your next phase of life, you have been above us, wielding your power of protection and blessings in so many ways. You’ve been protecting us from the other side, just as you did on Earth. I can still feel you some days. There are times when I dream and you come through as clear as day, still helping me from the other side. There are times when we see a ladybug—oh, how you loved your ladybug pins on your church dresses—and we know you are with us at that very moment. Or the times when I mention your name and I get a chill, letting me know you are in the room.
We quote the famous ancestors so much that we tend to forget about the ones we had in our everyday lives. Nanny, this book is a love letter to the Black boy joy you created, the Black-woman experience, your powerful lessons and words, and you—the Black grandmother that saved generations.
It’s now time for the world to blessed by the greatest storyteller ever known. We will always have your words, and we know that your word is our bond.
My Cousins. My Brothers.
Nannyism: “You gotta bring ass to get ass.”
I don’t remember when my little brother, Garrett, and I first met our cousins, because they’re woven into my earliest memories. There was no introduction of “Meet Lil’ Rall and Rasul” because they have always been part of my existence. They were my protectors, my adversaries at times, my babysitters, and my first real friends. Nanny and her siblings raised us that way. They are basically my brothers. They are my brothers.
Now, even though Lil’ Rall and Rasul have always been part of my life, they weren’t born in Plainfield like Garrett and me. However, the story of how Lil’ Rall and Rasul got to Plainfield is still one of my favorites to hear told. It involves Aunt Cheryl, a station wagon full of babies ranging from one to three years old, Nanny, and her gun. But before we get there, some background on the four of us boys.
Lil’ Rall, the oldest of us, was darker skinned, wore glasses, and dealt with asthma—all the makings of cool nerd appeal. He was much more reserved and levelheaded than the rest of the boys most of the time. On the other hand, his younger brother, Rasul, was lighter skinned and a little rough around the edges, but in an adventurous type of way. He was a daredevil. Like, the kind of kid who had never Rollerbladed before, yet upon getting his first pair of Rollerblades for Christmas, put them on, skated out of the living room onto the front porch, jumped down a flight of six steps, and made a perfect landing with the family looking on in shock. Both Lil’ Rall and Rasul were taller than me, since they are four and five years older than I am. As a kid, I always found it mind-boggling that they could be brothers, so close in age, with two totally different skin complexions. Childhood naïveté wrapped in innocence, if you will. Lil’ Rall and Rasul were also both thinner framed and involved in all sorts of sports. They were “boys” in every sense of the word. I was always much closer to Lil’ Rall than I was to Rasul, although I truly cared for both of them.
I was next in line. Although my real name is George, growing up I went by my middle name, Matt (as Nanny used to say, “I’m not calling no little baby George”). Since I was born right after Rasul, I was the grandchild who took the attention away from him. Then you had my little brother, Garrett, who came three years after and stole the attention from me. Meanwhile, Garrett was and still is “the baby,” despite the fact that grandchildren were born after him.
The way we were raised back then, as brothers, influenced how connected we are today. When we text each other now, it’s always “love you, big bro” or “talk to you soon, little brother.” A cousin can be closer than a brother, and even then, we knew calling each other “brother” meant something.
Plainfield is a small city that is literally only six square miles. On a good day you can get from one end of Plainfield to the other end in less than seven minutes. In 1969, Nanny and her husband (my grandfather, who we used to call “Old Daddy”) moved their children from Jersey City to Plainfield. This included Lil’ Rall and Rasul’s father, Uncle Rall.
Back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Uncle Rall, nicknamed by me as just “Uncle,” was a rapper, a barber, a drug dealer, and sometimes a drug user. And, according to his stories, he was damn good at whatever profession he was in at the moment. Having grown up in Plainfield, he loved the streets and the streets loved him. He lived a fast life with his then-girlfriend Cynthia. They would eventually get married in 1979 and Cynthia gave birth to Lil’ Rall in January 1980. In June 1981, she would give birth to Rasul.
In their early years, Lil’ Rall and Rasul lived with their parents in a housing project in Jersey City known as Curries Woods. The projects were low-income housing set up under the guise of “helping” Black and brown folks have their own spaces. In reality, they served as a means to keep us out of “white” neighborhoods, while keeping economic and social systems of oppression in place to further stifle our communities.
Nanny always hated the fact that her grandkids were being raised in and by the projects. Not only were Lil’ Rall and Rasul growing up around the selling of drugs, but their parents were using, too. She feared who they might become if they continued living in an environment with two parents who simply weren’t equipped at the time to properly care for them. So, she was going to do everything in her power to get them out.
During this time, Nanny ran Weezie’s (a nickname for Louise) Wee People Nursery School in the basement of her home. She babysat her grandkids, the children of her children’s friends, and other kids from across the city of Plainfield. My mom’s best friend, who we refer to as Aunt Cheryl, worked as her assistant. Aunt Cheryl wasn’t my aunt by blood, but for most Black folks, family is everything, and we honored her with this title as a sign of respect.
One afternoon at Weezie’s Wee People, Nanny was on the phone with Uncle Rall, and their conversation went a little bit to the left. They were discussing Nanny’s request for more regular visitation and she expressed her disapproval with my uncle and aunt for running in the streets with the boys. In the background, you could hear Aunt Cynthia calling Nanny all types of “bitch.” Nanny didn’t take too kindly to my aunt calling her names and she intended to do something about it—immediately.
Nanny hung up the phone, and that is where this story really takes flight.
“Cheryl,” Nanny said. “Get the kids and put them in the station wagon. We are going to Jersey City!”
Aunt Cheryl started walking everyone to the station wagon, one by one, as Nanny put on her coat and got ready to handle her business. At the time, there were seven kids in the daycare, including me and Aunt Cheryl’s son, Bernard, with none of us big enough to use a regular seat belt. Once they loaded us into the car, Nanny sent Aunt Cheryl into the house to get some towels. She and Aunt Cheryl rolled up the towels, tied them together, stretched them across our laps, and then buckled the towels down so that all of us were secure. Once we were strapped in, Nanny and Aunt Cheryl pulled off, and we were on an adventure to Jersey City.
The ride to Jersey City from Plainfield is thirty-five to forty minutes on a good day, and that day was a good day. Nanny pulled into the Curries Woods projects, by the building that my uncle and aunt lived in with Lil’ Rall and Rasul. This was the mid- to late ’80s, so there were no cell phones to call upstairs. Instead, she yelled, asking if anyone knew Rall Elder and, if they did, to tell him that his mother was outside.
Now, from what Uncle says, he heard a knock at his door and opened it to a guy saying, “Man, your mother’s downstairs in the lot with a car full of kids. I think you better go talk to her.” My uncle knew what was coming, so he told Cynthia to stay in the house, hoping he could calm Nanny down enough to make her go back home. Uncle came outside and down the steps to see my grandmother standing next to the car with a long coat on.
“Mommy,” he said, “there is no need to do this.”
“Naw, she called me a bitch,” Nanny responded. “Tell her to come out here and say that to my face.”
As my uncle pleaded with Nanny to take the kids and go back home, Aunt Cynthia came running down the steps toward the car. She began calling Nanny every type of b-word you could think of: a “fat b——,” an “ugly b——,” a dirty b——,” and everything under the sun except a child of God. Uncle then recalls what I can only describe as a scene out of The Matrix
- "A deeply impactful account of intergenerational love that reveals the power of accepting young people exactly as they are while encouraging them to be ever more themselves. George Matthew Johnson has done it again!"—Nic Stone, New York Times bestselling author of Dear Martin
"George M. Johnson has done it again — they have written a beautiful book that will take up a honey-sweet and sun-warmed residence in my soul for a long time to come. We Are Not Broken is a gorgeous love letter to Black matriarchs who give everything to love, care for and protect their children. It’s about the importance of family and the unbreakable bonds that supersede blood and last far longer than a lifetime. While society constantly villfies Black boys before they can even reach puberty, We Are Not Broken shares stories about how love, care and the freedom to be soft and vulnerable can be not only healing, but life-changing."
—Aiden Thomas, New York Times bestselling author of Cemetery Boys
“We Are Not Broken feels like a long conversation, like those that spill into the early morning. It is intimate. Revelatory. Powerful. George M. Johnson centers Nanny in this memoir, charting the importance she played not only in their life, but in the life of a sprawling, loving, and deeply complex family. Seen through their eyes (and some deeply touching letters from others), it’s the story of a brilliant Black woman and the invaluable lessons she taught all those who knew her. A must-read journey."
—Mark Oshiro, award-winning author of Anger is a Gift
- "Love—deep, soulful, clarifying love—shines in George M. Johnson's writing like sunlight passing through a church's stained-glass windows. Their storytelling and the mission that propels the telling is always right on time."—Saeed Jones, award-winning author of How We Fight For Our Lives
- “George Johnson writes emotions the way the greatest writers write characters. I've literally never read a book that made me feel so many layered emotions I'd forgotten or was afraid to accept. This is lush luxurious art doing hard messy heartwork.”—Kiese Laymon, award-winning author of Long Division
“Striking and joyful, this second memoir from George M. Johnson celebrates family and friendships and will make readers feel seen. This book is love!”
—Laurie Halse Anderson, New York Times bestselling author of Shout
- "An intensely emotional, stunning read, Johnson’s memoir memorializes the legacy of their grandmother—and all of the Black grandmothers who have built the foundations necessary to ensure that their families would not only survive but flourish."—Publishers Weekly
- "This sequel to All Boys Aren't Blue poignantly recalls author Johnson's childhood...Johnson, who grew up identifying as a gay, effeminate teen boy, shares how they always felt protected and loved within their family. There's not a lot of current literature that explores stories of young, Black, gay men. This accessible and reflective memoir helps fill that gap."—Booklist
"The stories in this book are full of joy, love, humor, and pain...Through this love letter to the matriarch of their family, Johnson highlights all the ways the world tried to break them but didn’t succeed."
- On Sale
- Sep 7, 2021
- Page Count
- 240 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers