In Flamboyants: The Queer Harlem Renaissance I Wish I'd Known (Farrar, Straus and Giroux Books for Young Readers, Sept.), George M. Johnson celebrates the legacies of Black and queer artists, activists, and writers whose full stories have remained untold. Through biographies of various historical figures, along with personal essays, poetry, and art by illustrator Charly Palmer, Johnson offers a valuable perspective on one of the most creative eras in American history. Johnson, who is also the author of All Boys Aren’t Blue, spoke with PW about why they chose to write this book now and the inspiring subjects who “give us the road map for our future.”

Why did you decide to focus on the Harlem Renaissance in Flamboyants?

Sometimes you don’t know where you are going unless you know where you come from. As a queer kid and young adult, I grew up knowing many of these figures and their stories but only absent their queer identities. As a creative, part of my job is not only to create new stories but also to build upon those that were here before me but were told improperly or not at all. The Harlem Renaissance was one the most creative times in history for Black folks, its influence reaching across the world, and it continues to be a road many of us walk today.

How did you select the individuals you included in the book? Were there any figures you knew nothing about before you began the project?

I wanted to include a mixture of figures both known and unknown. I knew them for their accolades, but I didn't know much about their lived experience. So I wanted to explore that some and give readers an introduction to these amazing people. I also did find people who I really knew nothing about, like Gladys Bentley and Jimmie Daniels. Both were pivotal in their own right. It reminds us that while so many names have become iconic and legendary, there are still so many that most of don’t know whose contributions still opened a door for us today.

As you were researching and writing the book, did you have any particularly illuminating moments or powerful realizations you could share?

I feel like you will need to read the book get that lol. But one revelation I will share is how interconnected so many of the stories are. I don’t think there is a single story where you won’t read the name of one of the other figures being profiled and how they played a role in each other’s lives. They were a very strong group of individuals that also knew about the power of moving as a collective unit.

You integrate your personal narrative into Flamboyants so beautifully. Why was it important for you to include parts of your own story?

There is no me without them. I think about the importance of showing how the more things change, the more they stay the same. There has to be an empathy shown even when figures of our past took routes we may not have. Their circumstances were so different, so it’s important to include my narrative in it, for the reader to see how to weave their own narrative with the past. It’s also very ancestral to read something about someone and feel like you went through it too.

Why did you choose to work with artist Charly Palmer? From your perspective, how does his work heighten and enhance the text?

Charly did the book cover for All Boys Aren’t Blue. Since that time, we have become great friends and brothers in the art. I think both things are happening at the same time. I feel like when you read, you envision the words on the page. For me, Charly's work represents the visual idea I have in my mind but can’t explain. He has a way of reading my work and interpreting it exactly as I saw it, without me ever having to explain it to him. It's magical in many ways, and it's why I say this book is not about the Harlem Renaissance, it IS the Harlem Renaissance.

Are there any figures in the book who especially resonate with you?

Honestly, they all do. Some in big ways and some in small ways. I can see parts of myself in all of them. I also don’t want to give too much away, because I want readers to see how much I weave the personal into the historical.

Your book All Boys Aren't Blue has been the subject of frequent bans and challenges. How does this censorship impact you?

I get this question often. At the end of the day, it empowers me to keep writing more subject matter that might end up getting banned. I write for who I write for.

Why do you feel it’s valuable for young readers, particularly those who are growing up Black and queer, to get to know these figures from the past?

These figures aren’t just our past but help us to understand our present and give us the road map for our future. It’s like the butterfly effect—a butterfly flapping its wings in one part of the world can cause a hurricane in another part of the world. These figures did something, no matter how big or small. And whatever that something was likely made someone else do “something” that made someone else do “something” that 100 years later got to you. Now it’s time for you to do the next something.

Going forward, are you hopeful that histories about the Harlem Renaissance will include more unsung queer writers, activists, and performers?

I’m hopeful that it expands beyond the Harlem Renaissance. Stonewall is another story that has never been told properly, or only absent the Black queer folks who played a major role in creating the rights we have today. I’m hopeful that because of this book, and those who have been waiting on works like this, we are able to tell all the stories of the unsung Black queer community. Not just in books, but in TV, film, podcasts, and everywhere else too.

If you had access to a book like Flamboyants when you were a teenager, how might it have changed your life?

This is a hard one for me. I don’t like to think about what my life would have been without a certain book, the reason being I live by Toni Morrison's words, “If there is a book you want to read and it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” If this book existed, I wouldn’t be the one writing it. Same for All Boys Aren’t Blue. So if I had books like these, I may not be writing books like these. So my message is for the people who get to read what I didn't have. I think it becomes a tool of motivation and inspiration and a device that makes so many who feel broken possibly feel whole.

If you could write another book like Flamboyants but focused on a different era, what would you choose?

Stonewall, the civil rights movement, or the HIV/AIDS movement. I know that’s a lot, but truth when I say, my work telling the stories of so many figures who still need to have their stories told is not done.