RHETA GRIMSLEY JOHNSON: Different voices from one lift the veil on a mostly unseen history

By Rheta Grimsley Johnson

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – Once you’ve recorded 558 pages’ worth of oral history on any subject, you become somewhat of an expert. You know your subject.
Getting strangers to listen to that expertise, to open their minds enough to consider a different point of view – and perhaps to buy the book – that’s the real challenge.
E. Patrick Johnson, 44, Chicago professor of performance studies but son of the South, sits alone on a stool on an auditorium stage with a pitcher of sweet iced tea, a choir robe and a microphone. In voices and accents as different as, well, New Orleans is from Tupelo, Miss., he tells the stories of nine of his 63 subjects from his 2008 book called: “Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South.”
There’s Countess Vivian, a 93-year-old New Orleans man, World War II veteran, nurse and bon vivant. He never left his home during Hurricane Katrina, or any other time for long. He remembers the bars with no signs during Prohibition and the 1920s dance floors before jukeboxes:
“They had pianos. Put a nickel in the piano and it’d play a tune and you could dance … And they would have maybe two, three little pieces of music, they have a drum and a horn or something like that, and you go back there and you’d dance like nobody’s business …”
And Johnson speaks in the lilting voice of Freddie, a Madison, Ga., native who now lives in Atlanta. The son of a domestic and a sawmill worker, Freddie calls himself “an unwanted child,” and says it’s best to give up on “this sainted mother myth.”
“One of her favorite things to say was, ‘If it wasn’t for you, my life would be wonderful.’ So, hearing that as a kid, I think, was why … I started to have thoughts of suicide. Because just think of it. If you’re a little kid and your mother says, ‘If it wasn’t for you, my life would be wonderful,’ you’re going to think, ‘Well, I hate making her life awful.’ And you start thinking about not being here …”

Flat words come alive
As Johnson becomes nine different men without benefit of makeup or costume, you forget he’s only one, the author. His goal, he said, was “to lift the stories off the pages” and make flat words come alive. And he does.
As desperate as his subjects and their voices, Johnson found common themes in 63 stories. The most obvious thing: None of them left the South, despite conventional wisdom that it’s the toughest place to exist as a gay black man. The book, Johnson says, debunks that myth.
His subjects, in fact, were able to use their “Southernness” – politeness, religiosity, coded speech – to try to fit in, to become “legitimate” members of the greater community.
Or, as one man said, “Southerners often accepted (or forgave) almost any eccentricity so long as it posed no threat to the established order.” That, of course, was also the rub.
His one-man performance has been well-received, Johnson says, from Mobile, Ala., to ultra-conservative Colorado Springs. He’s caught no flak, he claims. He’s preached to a lot of choirs, but that’s OK. Audience members take away different things.
When E. Patrick Johnson dons the choir robe that’s been hanging there like a bit player and sings a booming hymn, only the narrowest mind would close and fail to hear.

Syndicated columnist Rheta Grimsley Johnson lives near Iuka. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852. To find out more about Rheta Grimsley Johnson and her books, visit www.rhetagrimsleyjohnsonbooks.com.