Tea and history: new oral history of black gay men in the South

by on October 24, 2008  •  In Culture, Race

In African-American communities in the South, "tea" can be a code word for "gay." It's also a slang term for gossip; "pouring tea" or "spilling tea," can mean telling tales or dishing up the dirt. With a title playing on those meanings, Sweet Tea, E. Patrick Johnson's oral history of African-American gay men in the South, has just arrived in bookstores.

Sweet tea cover

Johnson, a North Carolina native who is now professor of performance studies at Northwestern University,  argues that southern black gay men draw upon the performance of "southernness"–politeness, coded speech, and religiosity, for example–to legitimate themselves as members of both southern and black cultures. At the same time, according to Professor Johnson, they deploy those same codes to establish and build friendship networks and to find sexual partners and life partners. In addition to filling a gap in the sexual history of the South, Sweet Tea offers a window into the ways that black gay men negotiate their sexual and racial identities with their southern cultural and religious identities.

Traveling to every southern state, Professor Johnson interviewed more than seventy black gay men between the ages of 19 and 93. In Sweet Tea, he presents them in the style of Studs Terkel's long oral histories, with relatively few questions and minimal interruptions – essentially, allowing them to tell their stories their own way.

As is often true in the South, Johnson argues that things are more complicated than they initially may appear. Gay men have found places of honor in countless black church choirs. Drag queens sometimes figure in the sideline antics at athletic events on many historically black campuses. And of course, the Lady Chablis of Savannah – made famous in John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil – is hardly the only diva to make a fabulous living on a local stage.

Along the way, the reader meets Harold and Harold, a mixed-race gay couple who have lived together for more than four decades; "Countess Vivian," a World War II veteran who reigns as a Mardi Gras diva on the gay end of Bourbon Street in New Orleans; or "Chaz," a young trans person who lives as a woman six days a week but dons a suit and tie to attend church on Sundays, to placate his mother.

You can see video clips of Professor Johnson's dramatic readings from the interviews. On November 3, he will be speaking about the book at Indiana University in Bloomington.

HT – Star News


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