Author tells tale of gay, black Southern men

Published: March 20, 2011

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 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."

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