E. Patrick Johnson‘s contributions to the conversations on sexuality and race have been remarkable. The author of Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South (2011) transformed the dominant understanding of southern gay men to enrich sexuality discourses and deconstruct oppressive narratives. In Black. Queer. Southern. Women. An Oral History, Johnson lends his writing prowess to the voices of queer women born, raised, and continuing to reside in the American South. As a whole the text is insightful, but it is the lived experiences of these courageous individuals that will restructure the readers’ understanding of a community pushed to the margins of society.
Black. Queer. Southern. Women. is both an oral history and an ethnography. The accounts are heavily located in the past with the subjects’ recollections leading to an awareness of their identity within the contemporary moment. These memories portray cultural fluidity and the mercurial ideologies fortifying individual and collective identities. As Johnson explains in the introduction, “I wanted to learn more about the interior lives of southern black lesbians and their journey toward selfhood in the South” (1).
Johnson includes his voice only when asking questions, otherwise, the text amplifies the women’s standpoints without imposing his agenda. Black. Queer. Southern. Women. is a pivotal text as it brings clarity to the myriad of ways black southern women identify and perform their sexualities. Using storytelling, gender, and sexual theory, in addition to critical race theory, Black. Queer. Southern. Women. fills “a void in the historical accounts of black women’s sexual history in the South” (5). The text complicates the understanding of sexuality, class, and racial identity as situated within a southern cultural identity.
It took 14 months for Johnson to collect 77 narratives for Black. Queer. Southern. Women. The women’s ages range from 19 to 74 and their geographies span from Maryland, south to Florida, then as far west as Oklahoma and Texas. Johnson broadened his view of the South to include Puerto Rico, and indeed, these narratives bolster his purpose and highlight commonalities across space.
Johnson mostly interviewed the women in their homes, in sessions lasting between 90 minutes to five hours, resulting in an amiable textual tone. Consciousness and humanity radiate from the pages, especially when the women address intimate details, empowering and problematic social schematics, and violence. Black. Queer. Southern. Women. disavows patriarchal discourses and holds space for women to construct their own identity narratives.
Black. Queer. Southern. Women. is divided into two sections with the first half of the text grouped by thematic chapters. Part I addresses access to education, courtship, love and coming-out stories, trauma, and violence. Intersectionality is fundamental throughout. Johnson ends the section by identifying art and activism as a “vital part of the patchwork quilt that makes up the cultural representation of the black south” (323).
The chapter “Walk Like a Man, Talk like a Woman: Gender Nonconformity” undertakes how these subjects subverted dominant gender and sexual norms. Q, for example, recalls being given Barbie and Cabbage Patch Kids instead of Ninja Turtles and G.I. Joes. Whereas Q’s narrative is personal, her oral history expands the understanding of gender conditioning and the infinite ways society demands gender conformity.
As demonstrated in the chapters exhibiting the relationships between mothers and daughters or “G.R.I.T.S., girls raised in the South” (19), the experiences were, and are, informed by gendered dress codes, domestic responsibilities, and career and education trajectories, while reflecting behavioral and cultural expectations. This is quotidian to anyone with an understanding of gender theory; what is distinct are the ways in which these women navigated gender expectations.
In Sweet Tea, the church and organized religion are situated as sanctuaries for gay men. For many, the church “encouraged queer gender expression and budding homosexuality” (165). Johnson, however, realized this was not the case for women who begrudgingly attended church, many eventually choosing not to attend. These women found alternative spiritualities including African practices or women-centered and all-inclusive worship.
Others turned to self-discovery as a form of awakening a higher power. Anita, for instance, articulates using religious narratives as a way to reject her own sexuality. Only when studying the bible did she realize religious narratives can be tools of the oppressors, “they don’t understand it and they don’t like it, so they’re doing what they’re doing to try to get rid of it” (170). As reiterated by Kei, “if you want to believe the book you’ve’ got to believe all the book” (180).
Indelibly, there are narratives that do not easily fit into the defined chapters. Hence, Part II illustrates the lives of six women who overcame seemingly insurmountable challenges. Aida Rentas’ narrative recognizes the fluidity of space and experience across temporalities. As she aged, she witnessed the evolution of gay visibility, essential in accepting her mother’s prejudices while living within a culture entrenched in homophobia.
Likewise, Cherry Hussain’s history is a breathtaking model for finding strength in forgiveness. Juxtaposing abuse, violence, addiction, and incarceration to the systematic oppression delivered by poverty, racism, and homophobia, these women edify how injustices cultivate identity. It is this adversity that led to their tenacity. As “Ida Mae” asserts, “I have no qualms with the things that shaped me. I’m alright with it. I understand the process. So, I’m cool with that” (533).
A magnificent text, Black. Queer. Southern. Women. invites the reader to witness the lives of extraordinary individuals. Conveyed with urgency and mindfulness, Johnson creates a space for revisioning critical race and sexual ideologies while affirming the voices of queer black women. The result is rewarding and enlightening.