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Time and again, Southerners seem to be confronted with the same admonition and questioning curiosity voiced by Shreve to Quentin in William Faulkner’s magisterial Absalom, Absalom! Shreve, a Northerner, demands of Quentin to “Tell about the South. What’s it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all…” For the gay black men who populate E. Patrick Johnson’s imposing collection of oral histories, the South is a constant presence revered for its sense of comfort, familiarity, and familial connection, while also reviled for its intractable, seemingly inbuilt racism, intolerance, and homophobia. Although their stories are as different as their ages and upbringings—Johnson purposefully casts a wide net for his participants, who span ages from 18 to 83 and represent an impressive range of educational and occupational levels—what binds these men together are a surprising amount of shared experiences and life themes that cross generational lines to create a seamless and previously untold sexual history of the South.
In order to bring together this oral history, Johnson, a professor of Performance Studies at Northwestern University, uses techniques more at home in anthropology than performance, although there is no shortage of “theatricality” bound up in his interviews. As Johnson explains, it was important to employ oral histories as the key methodology of his book, particularly because Southerners are known—for better or worse—as having the gifts of gab and graciousness. Hence the title, which references not only the almost ritualistic Southern predilection for drinking sweet (and always iced) tea, but also the gossip that is understood to be exchanged while drinking said beverage. Indeed, while Johnson’s interviews are generally arranged according to the themes that all gay men must often work through as they seek to define themselves as sexually “othered,” there is a leisurely, chatty quality that emanates from all of Johnson’s participants that makes Sweet Tea a genuinely enjoyable read.
This isn’t to say, however, that the things discussed in Sweet Tea are uniformly pleasurable. There are myriad “hard topics” such as coming out, coping with “the closet,” negotiating the role of religion, and dealing with love, relationships, and the specter of AIDS, that recur throughout the participants’ narratives and provide a sense of common ground for all readers, regardless of ethnicity or locality. There are also episodes that make for truly uncomfortable reading, such as the disturbingly short, almost offhand, revelation by Roderick that he was sexually molested by his uncle when he was only three or four years old. As Roderick explains, “Molestation was such a taboo thing to talk about anyway in the black community. I don’t know what happened, but I know he was not arrested. I know there was not any recourse. [And] black folks don’t want to talk about that.”
This notion of “taboo,” that manifests itself as a conspiracy of silence, seems to form a narrative arc that informs many of the interviewee’s narratives, and here, I think, is where Sweet Tea distinguishes itself as unique from previous gay histories, and particularly Southern gay historiographies. Unlike previous groundbreaking oral history work done by queer historians John Howard, James T. Sears, and Carlos L. Dews, Johnson allows his interviewees to illustrate how they negotiate within and through, rather than completely breaking, cultural taboos about racialized homosexuality in the South. In fact, Sweet Tea is filled with stories about rampant homosex at HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities), in the military, and particularly (and sometimes literally) in the church pews, that provide ample counterpoints to prevailing societal beliefs that homosexuality simply cannot exist within the confines of these institutions.
Throughout Sweet Tea, Johnson’s interviewees delight in tweaking, oftentimes with gallows humor, these schizophrenic institutional dichotomies. Take, for instance, Rob from Eden, North Carolina, who in response to Johnson’s question, “If the black church in the South is not accepting of homosexuality, then why are there so many gay men in the church?” observes:
It can go on, but you don’t talk about it. And in a church that’s supposed to be one united body you can’t have that, so it’s the South, it just wouldn’t be southern to talk about, that kind of thing in church. So you don’t bring it up, and you’ve got your choir director who’s flaming, and the minister of music who’s flaming, and you’ve got the preacher who’s probably flaming but pretend not to on Sundays. You might acknowledge the fact that, okay, yeah, he shakes a little bit too much when he’s directing the choir, or I wonder, I saw Pastor So-and-So with, you know, brother whoever, but as long as you don’t talk about it, and don’t bring it up, it really hadn’t happened, it really doesn’t exist.
Such, then, are the circumstances that give these narratives such power. Unsurprisingly, though, they also provide for some consternation. Are the lives and experiences of Southern gay black men so radically different from those of Southern gay white men? Haven’t churchgoing Southern white gay men also “flamed up” in the choir or heard the “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” sermon? Questions like these, in fact, haunted me continually as I read (and sometimes re-read) the stories of these men.
Oral histories play an undeniably important role in the preservation and continued life of a community, and Sweet Tea should be commended for attempting to preserve, protect, and enlighten the lives of Southern gay black men. However, I have to wonder if, in Sweet Tea,Johnson realistically achieves his overarching goal of showing how black folks’ relationship to and perspective on the South diverges in important ways from those of their white counterparts, or does Sweet Tea merely reinforce existing racial stereotypes and further exacerbate the racial divide between black and white.
Black Gay Men of the South. An Oral History
By E. Patrick Johnson
University of North Carolina Press
Cloth, $35, 570p