Excerpt from an interview with author and scholar E. Patrick Johnson on the Black South

Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South by E. Patrick Johnson was first a book then a documentary and a play. It tells the stories of Black LGBTQ people in the South as it explores and immortalizes their lives. This includes the effects of HIV/AIDS. As he likes to quote scholar Michel de Certeau, “What the map cuts up, the story cuts across.” The following interview, which Johnson performs spiritedly, comes from Duncan Teague in Atlanta. What THRIVE SS (see Southern gospel) brings out through the art of fiction, Johnson brings out through the art of truth.

Enid Vázquez

E. Patrick Johnson: Were there other people in your community that the community saw as gay? And how did they treat those people?

Duncan Teague: That’s interesting because the African American community does not hate gay people. We hate those who we think are gay. We don’t ostracize gay folk. We never have. And if they’re rich enough, we’ll make excuses for them. And if they have children, we’ll make excuses for them. The only reason you have this very racist, sexist notion of the down low brother—and I will explain that—is because of HIV. In fact, we invented—well, it’s not invented—it’s called a “closeted person.” That’s been going on since, hmmm, way back when. But we all but told folk, “Be in the closet. We don’t care what you do, just get married, have some children, adopt if necessary.” It sounds like we’re talking about a Supreme Court justice nominee. But we invented that.

And I will state this. I always hear Oprah say, “Well, why not be honest?”

Well, [what] incentive is there to be honest? There is no incentive of being honest. Zero.

I love to tell this. First of all, let’s go back. It’s racist because we assume only African American men are down-low brothers. That they’re the only ones that are cheating on women with other men. That’s racist and stupid. Obviously, it can’t be just black men with all the white men who want big black dick. Obviously, that’s not the case! They don’t want to see you on Sunday or what else through the week, but on Saturday you are the latest rage. You are it! You are the it girl or the it boy, or whatever. But it’s also sexist because we assume that women do not marry to hide their sexual identity. And as far as the issue of HIV, I cannot tell you how many sisters have told brothers, “Why you wearing a condom? You must be a punk.” Take ownership. You want to talk about why I can’t trust this man? My world view is assume everybody’s HIV-positive and conduct yourself accordingly. Conduct yourself accordingly. I mean, nobody’s telling you not to use condoms.

“Well, he doesn’t act this way.” Well, why would he? Because I would then have said, you’re going to ostracize this person if they do this or that, so they do exactly as you say. “Well, we don’t mind you being gay, just don’t be the flaming guy.” So you give them what they want. And you’re mad about it? I mean, you’re the lie that the liar produced. Don’t get mad that the person evolved to the lie that you told them to produce. If you don’t want a dog, don’t raise a puppy. You want the truth, then you start the truth at the beginning. So you know this idea of the down-low brothers causing AIDS. No.

No one told you to spread your legs and have unprotected sex. Nobody made you, do that. Unless in a case of rape, nobody made you do that. Nobody. And sisters need to take ownership. I would love to speak to them. In fact, I have.

I said, “Why have so many of you told brothers who were willing to be responsible… heterosexual brothers and told them, ‘If you use a condom that’s proof that you’re a punk’?” And a few of the brothers that I know said, “Well, you know I can go somewhere else.” Number one, I can’t afford a child now. Number two, I don’t know what you have. And number three, maybe I’ll just get some baby oil and call it a day. And they have said that.

Where are those comments on Oprah? Where’s that? Where is that written? I don’t hear that. Where is the part about, “Well, I’ll make a deal with you. I’ll be honest about who I am if you don’t fire me the next year from that HBCU [Historically Black College or University] [for] not being married in my thirties.” You can’t have it both ways. And the African American community is going to have to decide, “Do we really want to be honest about these issues or not?” And right now, while we’re being academically dishonest about this issue, a lot of people are dying. And that’s the tragedy, you know. If lying means death… You know, ACT UP says, “silence means, equals death.” I think lying equals death for the African American community. And we have been involved with this vicious, understood lie among each other and it’s time to start telling the truth. And if we’re going to hate, quote faggots, then don’t be surprised if, by social evolution, that these faggots are going to mimic what you say should be a successful brother. I don’t understand why that would not be the case. I really can’t understand that. I mean, I would love to ask them, “What do you expect?”

I think lying equals death for the African American community. And we have been involved with this vicious, understood lie among each other and it’s time to start telling the truth.

This is what you want. This is what you’re saying is acceptable. The person’s giving you what you claim you want, and you’re upset about it. And then you don’t take responsibility for your own bodies and then you blame the other party. I have a problem with that. I have a major ’tude about that. Again, nobody told you to open your legs. And I’m saying wide-open unprotected sex.

Nobody. And that’s what men, women, dogs, cats, rats, I’m like, as far as I’m concerned, every time I enter a sexual relationship, that is potentially Russian roulette if I’m unprotected. Being protected is not 100 percent, but I know I have zero percent chance if I don’t use protection. Sorry. And I think it’s a sin for the black church not to have an AIDS ministry since the cases of AIDS are so high in our community. It is a sin. Everybody wanna talk about Christ and deities and all that. But I happen to have read that book—that sixty-six volume book—a few times. Yes, I actually read it. It just doesn’t sit on a desk and collect dust and have everybody’s birth certificates in it. I actually read it.

And I remember that deity said, “Feed my sheep. If you love me, feed my sheep. Take care of my sheep.” It also said in Matthew 25:40, “Whatsoever you do to the least of these, you do unto Me.” So that person that’s singing in the choir that might have purple spots on in two years or three years later, is still a part of the African American community.

And we are going to have to be very honest. I mean we can’t even call it AIDS.

We call it “the ninja.” Oh yeah, usually the term for AIDS, “the ninja.” Or they’ll say, “Oooh, he’s siiiick. He’s siiiiiiiick.” And you can tell by the voice inflection, like you know what it is. I mean I’m almost waiting for somebody to say, “He has R-o-l-a-i-d-s.” I’m waiting for that to come out, but I mean that is what we have here. A lot of dishonesty.

From Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South by E. Patrick Johnson. ©2008 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. GO TO uncpress.unc.edu.

E. Patrick Johnson, PhD, is dean of the School of Communication and Annenberg University Professor of Performance Studies and African American Studies at Northwestern University. He has published widely in the areas of race, class, gender, sexuality and performance. He is the founder and director of the Black Arts Initiative at Northwestern and is also the author of Appropriating Blackness: Performance and the Politics of Authenticity. He is currently at work on the companion text to Sweet Tea, titled Honeypot: Southern Black Women Who Love Women and an edited collection of new writings in black queer studies tentatively titled No Tea, No Shade: New Writings in Black Queer Studies.