Johnson, E. Patrick. Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South. Chapel Hill: the University of North Carolina Press, 2008.
Subject: Johnson looks at the stories of 63 gay black men that grew up in or continue to live in the Southern states of the U.S. The book addresses themes of race, gender, class, and sexuality.
Research Questions: Is the black community actually more homophobic than white society? In reality, how constricted is the life of a gay black man growing up in the South? Which parts of Southern culture (across the racial divide) allow gay subcultures to develop and thrive? The South is stereotyped (and rightly so) as being ‘more religious’ than other areas of the U.S., so what role has church played in the lives of these men? How have these men themselves perceived their racial, gender, and sexual variance? How do they conceptualize, contextualize, and express their life experiences?
Arguments: According to Johnson, despite stereotypes and preconceived notions, gayness is not completely suppressed in Southern culture (or, as is the focus of this book, in Southern black culture). This is not because of a broader acceptance of homosexuality per se; instead, Johnson attributes it to an aspect of Southern culture that he feels to be special (if not perhaps unique) to the South: a prevailing sense of “respect” or “dignity.” The need to keep a “respectable” image for both the individual and the family dictates that while a transgression (any transgression: alcoholism, abuse, adultery, homosexuality, etc.) may be known, it must not be flaunted, made public, or even explicitly addressed; doing so could tarnish the respectability and name of those involved. “The gentility, acts of politesse, and complicity of silence that form around taboo issues in southern tradition often take precedence over an individual’s need to name that identity” (4). In other words, respect reigns. While this may, upon first glance, be interpreted as the continuation of oppression and suppression, Johnson argues that this system actually creates a space within which gay men can exist, create relationships, and create spaces of their own. So, while Southern society may set boundaries for gay men (indeed, it sets boundaries of transgressions on all members of society), this does not eliminate gay (sub)culture. The men in this book found other intricate ways to navigate relationships, meanings, connections, and their own identity – often (or perhaps always?) using the very structures of “acceptable” Southern society, such as the church to meet other men like themselves, as well as using the passive-aggressive Southern “politeness” in new, nuanced ways as their own codes. In this way, the men in Johnson’s book resemble the gay men of Chauncey’s New York City study (and some of the terminology is there too – some of these gay men still use the term “trade,” for example; page 277).
Johnson’s book reveals that all of these men (who ranged from men in their twenties to men in their nineties at the time of the interview) had experienced some form of overt racism and/or segregation. The focus of many of the narrators’ stories was also on their childhood and their family situation. Many spoke of how it was the “Southern way” for the entire neighborhood to help raise you, and their stories indicate that the notion of most black families being single-parent families is ungrounded. What’s interesting is that those narrators who grew up without a father or any other strong male figure in their life did not associate this lack of a male-figure with having any influence on their being gay. (I think that Johnson includes these sections on childhood, race, and education to try to demonstrate that their gayness [he shies away from ‘homosexuality’] was only one aspect of their life, and was often not the defining axis around which their life revolved; in other words, they had to wear multiple identities at once: black, Southern, poor, country, educated, middle class, gay (or “sissie,” “different”), etc.
Johnson also addresses “the closet” and notes Marlon Ross in saying that “the closet” is not necessarily an apt metaphor for the place where black men who choose not to announce or visibly articulate their (homo)sexuality in a pubic way find themselves” (109). This is because, many of the men in the book did not “come out” in the sense of making their homosexuality visible. Most only revealed (it was always in the framework of a “secret”) their gayness to their immediate family. The men felt the strong dictates of trust compelled them to tell their immediate family members, “because that’s what families do; thy trust each other.” However, Johnson reveals the irony in this “private gayness” or “complicit silence”: in many instances their homosexuality IS public, because they live with their partners, or they have brought partners home. However, it is seldom explicitly discussed. This goes back to the “Southern politeness” thing, in that sexuality (not just homosexuality) was not seen as an appropriate topic for direct conversation. Johnson asserts that this private acceptance without public acknowledgment (while seen as internalized self-hatred by some) is a way to accommodate taboo sexuality while still sustaining the veneer of southern religious morals (109). Another point to note: many of the narrators explained that they never had to “come out” (as in a direct conversation in which they had to explicitly tell straight members of their family that they were gay) because most of their family “just already knew.” (And just a point that I found particularly interesting: more narrators than I expected expressed the fact that their fathers responded more positively to the news than their mothers did.)
Perhaps the most interesting section of the book was the chapter “Church Sissies: Gayness and the Black Church.” Johnson explains how the relationship between the Black Church (which has overt anti-homosexual tenets) and gay black men is not one of mutual exclusion; the Church does not unrelentingly hunt out its gay community members (despite the biblical rhetoric), and gay black men do not (all) avoid the church, because the church plays such a central role in Southern black culture. However, this relationship is obviously full of contradictions (for example, Johnson believes that the church often exploits the creative talents of its gay members even as it condemns their gayness). But Johnson explains that the church is often the place where young gay men first felt a sense of belonging in a community. The church choir in particular provided an acceptable outlet for young men to perform, to sing and dance, when such behavior would not be acceptable outside of church (and Johnson points out that the fact that the long choir robe resembled a dress didn’t go unnoticed). As Johnson puts it, “Participation in the church choir provides a way to adhere to the religiosity of southern culture but also build a sense of community within what can sometimes be a hostile space” (184) (It is also interesting to note that in the chapter(s) on sexual experiences, many narrators told that their first (and many subsequent) sexual experiences with other boys/men occurred in the church! Johnson doesn’t find this surprising, given the central role the church played as a gathering spot and given the large amount of time that young boys spent together at church during the normal week and during summer camps.)
Method: The fact that Johnson’s book is an oral history makes it incredibly better than it would have been without the narrators’ stories. First of all, like with Kennedy and Davis’ Boots of Leather, these stories would have been impossible to retrieve without oral history and interviews. Secondly, oral history lets these men tell their stories in their own words – how they experienced, remembered, and dealt with growing up gay in the South. It also grants them agency on another level because it now gives them a say in how their history will be written.
Johnson does make some interesting points about the methodology of oral history, too: First, he sweeps aside the notion that an interview is some type of academic transaction, in which the narrator hands over nuggets of “historical information” to the interviewer. He acknowledges the power of personal experience, time, and memory to shape our recollections of past events, therefore moves away from the notion of “the Truth” and moves towards “truths” as the narrators experienced them. He also notes that he does not use the “traditional” hierarchical position of interviewer (higher/more power) and interviewee (lower/less power), because the interviewee actually has a good deal of “power” – he has information that the interviewer wants. So, instead it is a reciprocal relationship and Johnson provides the analogy of being invited as a guest to a Southern family’s home for dinner: you are the guest, but you are asked to help shell peas, chop onions, and set the table. In other words, both parties involved must work and provide input, but both also get something out of the interview experience. The interviewer gets information and insight into a research question, while the act of telling the story to someone else (and a “professional” at that) often provides a sense of validation for these narrators’ life. Such validation can come in the form of a feeling that their life story is important enough for a scholar to capture it and include it in history. There is power in storytelling.
My Comments: I really enjoyed Johnson’s book. It was fresh and thus refreshing. Perhaps it was because he was not a historian by training, and so he didn’t feel compelled to completely conform to academic standards of writing (there were a lot of exclamation points, and he often said stuff like “so-and-so took shit from no one.”) So that makes it entertaining as well as insightful!
For more books on the history of sexuality and gender, see my full list of book reviews.