Redefining the Southern Belle

Meaghan Duncan

On Friday night, Colgate witnessed an acclaimed and widely published professor describe the practice of oral sex.

This is hardly a topic one would expect to hear a Chair and Director of Graduate Studies at Northwestern University address. However, while possibly the most shocking subject covered, it was only one of many significant issues that pertain to the black gay men of the South that E. Patrick Johnson interviewed for his aptly titled and forthcoming book, Sweet Tea: An Oral History of Black Gay Men of the South.

In his performance, Johnson assumed the personas of his interviewees and presented their responses in monologue form, capably adopting their dialectic idiosyncrasies. Each participant in his study presented a different social theme pertinent to the community in which they belonged. One man addressed issues related to growing up in the South while another related the story of coming out to his friends and family. Another described the physical and emotional challenges of being transgendered. Other men tackled coming of age in the depression era, challenges of masculinity, and “being a Southern diva” respectively. And of course, as alluded to earlier, the topic of sex was dealt with.

Every narrative, which was distinctly broken up by a few moments of a recorded statement in the participant’s own voice, contained moments that were at times both hard to listen to and inspiring. One of the interviewees, referred to as Michael, described the emotional pain he felt as an unplanned and unwanted child who had to cope with a mother that blamed her shortcomings on his birth.

The most pervasive issues, undertones of which were present in all the narratives, were those of spirituality and social acceptance. Almost every man interviewed described a crisis of faith related to his gayness, and the subsequent reconciliation of the duality of being a man of faith and a homosexual.

Transgendered participant Chaz/Chastity particularly addressed this difficult topic, recounting his initial movement away from the church, to his experience of being “saved,” back to a compromise of spirituality and self acceptance. Other men described their endeavors to create their own form of religious belief that allows them, in the words of one subject, to “forgive themselves for being gay.”

The other unifying thread through each interview was a quest for love and acceptance. Whether trying to find such companionship through sexual encounters, as one man Larry did, or by finding an emotional life partner, like another man Freddie did, all of the subjects interviewed revealed hopes for a future that contained a loving relationship.

Although most of the audience, being neither black, nor gay, nor from the south, had little in common with Professor Johnson or his interviewees, the stories were compelling and poignant. His intimate performance style and use of multiple narratives made the show interesting and gave it a very unique quality. As a whole, the presentation was a great way to expand horizons and commemorate the first day of Black History Month.