Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South – An Oral History
The African-American community and the gay community have come under scrutiny since the passing of Proposition 8 banning gay marriage in California. Black voters reportedly came out in unprecedented numbers to support the ban, furthering the stereotype of rampant homophobia among the black community.
Northwestern University professor E. Patrick Johnson has compiled an excellent collection of stories and interviews with gay black men from the South in Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South. A strength of this book lies in its ability to highlight the relationship between the gay community and the black community as well as the relationship between the gay community and the South.
Johnson has chosen to keep the interviews in the original transcribed versions. This ensures that each narrative is distinctive. The conversations are often lyrical and musical, particularly with the older subjects.
The stories inspire a varied set of emotions and responses—many are heartbreaking, some are infuriating, and there are a few that will leave smiles and chuckles. This text is extremely readable because Johnson steps back and allows for the narrators’ voices to shine through. For the uninitiated, a helpfully glossary of Southern or gay phrases is included.
Oral histories are important in the African-American community. During the days of slavery when it was illegal to teach black people to read, narratives were handed down to generations through oral histories. Johnson links his stories to that tradition by using idiosyncratic voices of his subjects.
The book is organized into different topics, which creates some confusion because the reader has to remember interview subjects who make appearances throughout the book. Topics range from growing up in the South, the "down low", and AIDS/HIV. Most laudable is Johnson’s inclusion of transsexuals and transvestites—a population that often is ignored.
This is an important book because Johnson provides a forum for a topic that is often shrouded in misinformation, cliché, and prejudice. Black gay men have the unfortunate burden of straddling two subcultures that are sometimes at odds with each other. After reading this book, readers will also learn that the South’s reaction to the gay community is more complicated than just "Southerners hate gay people."