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Thoughts on “Sweet Tea”

I am not a tea person. I’ve tried it, loved it, stocked my pantry with delicate varieties of it, and then (it usually happens like this) exams come along, life gets busy, and coffee enters stage left, bitter and powerful, calling me with the exact same force with which I rejected it as a child.

I’m sipping from the coffee tumbler that follows me around everywhere, indestructible and even tip-proof. The coffee tastes good, strong, a perfect complement to writing.

***

For the past three weeks I’ve been working with E. Patrick Johnson’s oral history interviews that he used in the writing of Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South. That category, “black gay men of the South,” is a label that will produce a reaction. In fact, UNC’s Library Catalog (which follows the national model), lists Sweet Tea like this:

Subjects

African American gay men – Southern States – Social conditions.

African American gay men – North Carolina.

African American gay men – Southern States – Identity.

Southern States – Social conditions.

It does not seem to be a topic that fits in neatly into our established categories (which are often the subject of debate) in the library community. But more on the category of black gay men of the South later.

As I transfer the old audio from minidiscs (remember these?) to digital mp3 files, I tune in and out as I work on other projects for the Southern Oral History Program, but lately I’ve been tuning in more and more. Maybe it just feels that way because, not having read Sweet Tea, these experiences and memories of these men interviewed by Johnson are starting to collect in my mind.

The way I see it, there are two routes to take with these interviews: either focus on the similar events, coming-out experiences, struggles with being accepted for oneself in the community one grew up in, the respect or lack thereof with which these men are treated, and the common bumps they experienced along the course of their lives that shaped their experiences as black gay men of the South.

The second option is to take the sum of these lush oral histories and use them to show just the opposite—the ways in which we differ, the ways in which black gay men of the South differ—not only from people who do not fall into the same category as they do (more on that later), but rather the many ways in which their experiences as individuals are unique to the point that somehow creating a conglomerate out of their experiences would be a sort of reductio ad absurdum (read: useless).

Now the thought just struck me—What if Johnson took either of these two routes? Is the point I’m about to make completely off the mark?

(But it’s not.)

Here goes: if my history major (and cherry-picked humanities courses across many departments at UNC during undergrad) gave me any one understanding of scholarship, it is what follows:

Progress comes from learning to reconcile two opposing viewpoints.

The history major lobe in my brain immediately blurts out—“HEY! It’s like Hegel’s notion of thesis–>antithesis–>synthesis!”—The more relatable (that is, normal) part of my brain reminds me that this is a fancier definition of compromise.

And who doesn’t want compromise?

Think Congress, think state politics, think of marriage, or think of trying to get your child to put up their laundry. (Woe to me if my mother sees this.)

If it seems as though I have a personal take on these interviews, you’re not incorrect—and here’s why. I started out working on this project from the perspective of an information technologist (I am in library science school, after all, so learning to work with new file formats is kind of my soup du jour, today at least.) It started out as impersonal, but something changed. Because the process of transferring the audio often results in a heavy reverberation in the headphones, I still do not listen to the entire interview. Even so, the moments I’ve heard have accumulated, and now they bounce off of each other in my mind. Something I had not anticipated.

I relate most to the recognizable descriptions of life in the South, but that is not wholly accurate, because being black in the South is often such a different experience than being white, no matter what people who think we live in a post-racial society say. (I could say the same about life north of the Mason-Dixon Line.) There are some figurative rugs that I do not want to look under in my own family’s past that I know are not going away–though that is its own blog post, if not something much more substantial—and it’s knowledge of these unspoken sub-narratives hidden away in my ancestors’ pasts that make me say, “How could I relate to these black gay men from the South? That is beyond presumptuous.”

There is something so strong in me that identifies with these men and the stories they tell. They seem familiar. They seem like me. But they’re not.

And they totally are.

If I’m right about Johnson’s book—and let’s hope I am—then when I pick up that copy of Sweet Tea that they’re getting in soon at the Bulls Head Bookshop, I’ll see a narrative that strikes a balance. I do not know what conclusions Johnson will make from all the oral histories, but I have to think that he’s placed emphasis not just on the commonalities black gay Southern men experience, but that he’s also given voice to the rich differences. These differences do just as much to illustrate what it means to be a human as our similarities. If I could only learn from my own experience and not anyone else’s, I’d be lost.

When I laid it out like fact that the category of black gay men of the South is one that is bound to produce a reaction, the reaction as I imagine it is usually unsatisfactory. I imagined talking to a friend about this book, and them saying, “Whoa. That’s heady stuff,” or, “I bet that’s fascinating.” Among my acquaintances (a group with its own biases, to be sure), most everyone would find the topic exciting, but few would know much beyond that. Maybe my acquaintances and I know what the “DL” is, or that “sissy” does not always have the connotations we may know it for.

Ultimately, it comes down to the question, “What do I know about black gay men of the South?” The answer is unsatisfying, and I think it’s not just that I don’t know much, I think society does not know that much. Certainly not enough.

I’m still trying to understand why these interviews speak to me so strongly. As I continue with this project (I need to pop in a new minidisc in about 10 minutes), the answer I get is probably what you would expect. And that’s okay.

The interviews are so powerful because they not only teach me about people I do not know enough about, but because they teach me how easy it can be (and should be) to relate to each other, regardless of the category we fall into.

***

At the end of each interview, Johnson asks each interviewee, “Do you like sweet tea?” There are laughs and a telling variety and overlap in responses—some reply, “Do I ever!” Some say, “I guess, but my version is more of a punch,” “I steep it in the sun,” or “Not so much.” Or the response nearest and dearest to my heart, “But not TOO sweet.” It brings things to such a nice close after these intensely personal interviews, which ask so much bravery on the part of the interviewee.

It may not be tomorrow, or the next day, but when that book arrives at the Bulls Head and there’s enough sun outside for me to sit on the porch, I’m going to be out there reading. And I won’t be drinking coffee.