In the booK Sweet Tea, scholar, author and activist E. Patrick Johnson interviewed five generations of gay African American men in the South—72 in all, ages 19 to 93—to begin filling in the missing history of that community.
This week, Johnson stars in his stage adaptation of the book before a national tour later this year. Joseph Megel directs. On Feb. 28 and March 1, The Process Series will present a workshop production of Johnson's newest work, Gathering Honey: Stories of Black Southern Women Who Love Women, at the Sonja Haynes Stone Center at UNC Chapel Hill.
We interviewed the author before a rehearsal last week in Chapel Hill.
One of the questions I often get is "How did you get these men to talk to you?"
My response is always this: "I asked."
These people were waiting to tell their stories to someone. And though I knew the current history of queers in the South ... I'd never found my story or my ancestry there. When I heard these older men recounting a time and place in the South where there was a vibrant black gay community, it struck me as odd because I didn't know that history at all.
Part of that was because the record hadn't been created. Part of it was because I wasn't out when I lived in the South. And part of it is because those stories lived in bodies that hadn't yet been tapped to tell the story.
One thing I thought going in was that college-age students would be really more forthcoming about their lives. And that actually wasn't the case. The older gentlemen were more than happy to share their stories. For some of them it was, "Well, I have nothing to lose; I've lived my life and I don't care who knows what I am or who I'm with. So, yeah; what do you want to know?"
My first interviews were here in the Triangle. I was sleeping on peoples' couches. I had some adventures to say the least. A few people were a little reticent about talking about certain things, particularly very intimate parts of their life, like the kind of sex they might have had. Some people were more than willing to go there. In great detail.
One thing specific to the Triangle was the house party. In other places, the club was the place where people congregated. But for the men I spoke with here, the house party was the more common place for gay men to find out who else was gay in the community.
One of the oldest men I interviewed was Jeff Smith: 86 when I interviewed him, lived in Durham, and had a record shop on Fayetteville St. But for 50 years he hosted parties at his home. And several months before I interviewed him the black gay community came together to honor him for all his years of community building. Instead of him hosting the party, they had a party for him.
There's a 70-year difference between the oldest and youngest men I interviewed. Yet they go through the same experiences: self-doubt, self-hatred, reconciling their spirituality and sexuality—and they come out, whole. Not all did, but the youngest and oldest did.
But when someone born in the early part of the 20th century shares the same struggles with someone born 70 years later—what does that say about the snail's pace at which we evolve as a culture?
We're creatures of habit; we have a difficult time dealing with change, whether it's for the best or not. We settle into what we know, what we're comfortable with. So changing our ideas and belief systems is a confronting thing to do, but one we nonetheless must do.
I think Maya Angelou says it best, and Oprah is always quoting it: "When you know better, you do better."