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Scholar Tells of Living as a Gay Black Man in the American South









 

Scholar Tells of Living as a Gay Black
Man in the American South

E. Patrick Johnson, Ph.D., has developed a one-person show of “performative witnessing” in which he embodies the men he has interviewed.
Photo by Janet Sassi

By Janet Sassi

E. Patrick Johnson, Ph.D., knows firsthand how hard it is to go home again, especially when you are a gay black man from the rural South.

Speaking on March 4 at the Lincoln Center campus, Johnson, professor of African-American studies and chair of the Department of Performance Studies at Northwestern University, chronicled his personal and professional journey conducting 18 months of oral history research on Southern gay black men.

The resulting book, Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South (University of North Carolina Press, 2008), consists of interviews with 70 men between the ages of 19 and 93 who have struggled with the experience of being gay in a culture that keeps its taboos, Johnson said, “hidden in plain sight.” He chose to use oral histories because it was an “easier route” into lives that often remained unspoken.

“I see this research as a living archive that will serve as a resource for not only other researchers, but for a general public who have never been exposed to the life histories of sexual others,” Johnson said. “Hopefully, such a history will open spaces for public reflection on the way that race, class, gender, sexuality and religion affect our relationships to home.”

Born and raised in the North Carolina foothills, Johnson said he spent much of his formative life overcompensating for his sexuality by being a high achiever in music, sports and academics. His hometown of Hickory, N.C., he said, even gave him his own day, E. Patrick Johnson Day, for the distinction of being the first African American in its history to earn a doctorate.

“What the town doesn’t know is that it was partly my queerness that motivated my overachievement,” said Johnson. “If I could only deflect attention away from my high butt, soprano voice, penchant for dolls and my mama’s wigs—away from some of the fundamental parts I was coming to know as ‘me’—by being the Good Son . . . only then, when the unspoken and devastating news finally came that I am queer, it would not be so damn disappointing.”

While working on the project, however, Johnson encountered a transgendered person: Chaz/Chastity dressed as a woman from Monday through Saturday and as a man on Sunday so that he could sing tenor in the church choir. While Chaz considered undergoing a gender change, he ultimately embraced his own indifference and gender confusion as God’s will for him.

Johnson said that Chaz’s “audacity to be true to who she was” made him realize his own complicity of silence in being truthful about who he was.

“After the experience of writing Sweet Tea, I could not go home as who I was,” said Johnson. “The stories these men told validated my black and queer history. . . as far back as my lineage would allow my mind to imagine. They are the stories that make going home a little bit easier.”

Johnson has tapped his performance expertise to bring the oral histories to three-dimensional form. He developed a one-person show of “performative witnessing” in which he uses voice and gesture to embody the interviews of the men he has interviewed. He performed the show, “Pouring Tea: Black Gay Men of the South Tell Their Tales,” on March 2 and 3 in New York.

Johnson’s talk was sponsored by Fordham’s American Studies program and several departments.


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