Author enters uncharted territory
Southern black gay men’s stories brought to life
Hickory native Dr. E. Patrick Johnson will be exploring the complexities of race and sexuality onstage at Wake Forest University’s Scales Fine Arts Center next week.
The UNC Chapel Hill alumnus will share the life experiences of black gay Southern men during a Feb. 5 performance of “Pouring Tea,” a stage production based on his 2006 book, “Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South–An Oral History.” “Pouring Tea” is black Southern slang for sharing gossip.
Johnson profiled 63 men for his book. The stories of some of those men are brought to life by Johnson on stage. Johnson, the Carlos Montezuma Professor of Performance Studies and African American Studies at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., took a two year sabbatical from teaching to interview black gay men for the book. Subjects in every state that was once part of the Confederacy are featured.
“I was just so amazed that no one had collected these stories,” said Johnson, who was inspired to write the book after hearing a group of older black men recalling their life experiences. “I was thinking that if I had heard these stories like this, I may not have struggled as much as I did in coming to terms with my sexuality, because I thought I was the only one.” The book is written in the men’s own voices to preserve their unique perspectives and insights, Johnson said.
Despite the intensely personal subject matter, Johnson said he had no trouble getting the subjects to share their stories and insight.
“It was a humbling experience because I was asking very intimate questions about people’s lives and they were very open and willing to share,” he related. “A lot of those men were just waiting for someone to ask them about their lives and once you open the door, these things come flooding out.”
In writing Sweet Tea, Johnson said he endeavored to show the wide range of viewpoints about race and sexuality that are held by residents of the American South.
“I wanted to debunk some of the myths about homosexuality in the African American community, and I think the book does that,” he remarked. “Certainly, some of these stories uphold the beliefs that black people are more homophobic, but many of them just shatter that because many of the men are accepted in their communities and some of them are active in church.”
To date, Sweet Tea has sold nearly 10,000 copies and Pouring Tea has been performed before nearly 100 audiences.
“I had no idea that this work would be so impactful until I started performing,” Johnson admitted. “But it only confirmed what I know. That is people want to hear these stories and they want to know about their history and they want their lives to be affirmed and it has done just that.”
Eunice, Louisiana native Dr. Stanley Coleman is among the men whose lives are highlighted in the book. Coleman, a semi-retired college professor and thespian, said he spent years as a closeted gay man before coming out when he was a doctoral student at Louisiana State University. Coleman, who now lives in Eugene, Oregon, said he was glad to be included in Sweet Tea.
“I felt like I had a story to tell,” said Coleman, who has been with his partner, Bill, for a dozen years. “I feel like the more people come out and are known the more acceptance there is for the gay lifestyle.”
The 62-year-old said that being a part of the project has been a positive experience.
“One of the real benefits of this book, especially for the people whose lives are in here is you find out that you aren’t alone,” he remarked. “It has made me even more accepting of myself. It’s given me a lot of pride about who I am and recognizing that I have something to offer, even as a gay man.”
Dr. Angela Mazaris, director of Wake Forest’s LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning) Center, invited Johnson to campus as part of the school’s Faces of Courage, a yearlong celebration of the admission of Wake Forest’s first African American student. Mazaris uses “Sweet Tea” in the Queer Public History course she teaches.
“My students loved it – it just blew their minds, completely blew away a lot of misconceptions about what it means to be black and gay in the South,” related the Brown
University alumna. “It was really an eye opening experience for a lot of them.”
Johnson will be visiting several classes on campus prior to the 7 p.m. show. Mazaris said she is expecting a standing-room-only crowd at the 150-seat Ring Theatre. The Wilmington, Del. native said she hoped her students and the greater community would take full advantage of the opportunity to explore the deeper meaning behind the book and the performance.
“What’s amazing about it is to see both those stories that are so incredibly specific but also to see those universal themes that are in the book,” she remarked. “…I hope they gain an understanding of the complexity and diversity of the human experience and understanding that none of us are as simple as any one category; we all have these very complex stories that intersect in ways that define our identities.”
Johnson, who is currently working on his next book, “Honey Pot,” an oral history of the black lesbian experience, said Pouring Tea attendees won’t be disappointed.
“They should expect to laugh, to cry, to be challenged, but also more than anything, to witness the unfolding of the human experience onstage,” he commented. “No matter what people’s race, class, sexual orientation or gender, they will find something in these stories that reflects who they are as humans.”
The Feb. 5 performance is free and open to the public. “Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South, An Oral History” is available on amazon.com. For more information about Johnson, visit http://epatrickjohnson.com.