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10/28/2009

A Taste of Sweet Tea

johnson-e-patrickWhat makes someone officially incredible? I’d say having a day named after them qualifies. Meet E. Patrick Johnson, (his day is July 20th.) Thus he is officially amazing. Let me explain. Johnson is a writer, scholar, artist and department chair of African American Studies at Northwestern University. Most recently he has written a book called Sweet Tea which details the life experiences of gay men living in the South. He traveled collecting these stories in person and documenting them. After, he even created a performance peice, Pouring Tea which lets the audience see more of the interview process.
Best of all he is coming to Philadelphia to share with us. He’ll give a presentation, allow for Q and A, and have a book signing – Sunday Nov. 8th 6-7pm at the Painted Bride. Johnson was also interviewed by the University of North Carolina Press; here’s a taste of the what the author has to say about his book.

Q:What does the title refer to?
A: In the black gay community, “tea” refers to “gossip.” Also, sweetened iced tea is a staple drink of the South. And since some black gay men in the South are often disparagingly referred to as “Sweet Thing” or as having a little “sugar in the blood,” I thought that Sweet Tea would be an appropriate title to combine all of those references.

Q: How wide a variety of informants did you have? What age ranges and which southern states are represented?
A: The informant age range was 19 to 93 at the time of the interviews, which began in 2004. Every southern state is represented, including Oklahoma and Missouri, which were slave-holding states at one point.

Q: You’ve chosen to tell this story through oral histories. Why?
A: Unlike my colleagues in literary studies, I like doing research on living people! Seriously, I’m invested not only in the content of the story, but also how the story is told. In other words, I look at oral histories as performance. For me, it means something if someone pauses or hesitates when telling a particular story, or if they take delight in it. I also wanted to have a “living archive” of these men’s stories—to have them share their
stories in their own words.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish with the publication of Sweet Tea?
A: First and foremost, I hope these men’s lives are affirmed. Every one of us has a story to tell, but we often we don’t get to tell it. Why? Because no one has bothered to ask. Hopefully, because I bothered to ask, these men will feel some sense of affirmation. Also, I hope that these stories will help other gay men—of all colors and regions—who might be struggling with their sexuality—to let them know that they are not alone.
Finally, I hope that the book will debunk some myths about what it might mean to be black and gay in the South.

Q: What do you think gave rise to the myth that it’s more difficult to be a black gay man in the South?
A: I think most people think that sexual expression of any variety is difficult in the South because it is known as such a repressive space because of religion. Thus, it follows that people would think that homosexuality would be even more taboo. But, just like most things in the South that are considered taboo, homosexuality flourishes. Ironically,
one of the places that black gay men have found community is in the black church.

Q: Lastly, your hometown of Hickory, NC has named an “E. Patrick Johnson Day” in your honor. What’s the story behind this?
A: I’m the first African American born and raised in Hickory to receive a PhD. Because of this accomplishment, the black community decided that it wanted to celebrate that and convinced the city council to honor me with my own day. So, on July 20, 1996, I was honored with my own day in my hometown. It was quite a moving occasion.

You’ll have to wait until July to celebrate E. Patrick Johnson Day, but don’t wait to get tickets to see the man himself! Get them before they run out!

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