Today we welcome a guest post from E. Patrick Johnson, author of Black. Queer. Southern. Women.: An Oral History, just published by UNC Press.
Drawn from the life narratives of more than seventy African American queer women who were born, raised, and continue to reside in the American South, this book powerfully reveals the way these women experience and express racial, sexual, gender, and class identities–all linked by a place where such identities have generally placed them on the margins of society. Using methods of oral history and performance ethnography, E. Patrick Johnson’s work vividly enriches the historical record of racialized sexual minorities in the South and brings to light the realities of the region’s thriving black lesbian communities.
Black. Queer. Southern. Women. is available now in both print and ebook editions.
One of the most important lessons I have learned in conducting oral histories is one instilled in me by my now deceased colleague, mentor, and friend, Dwight Conquergood, whose famous line still rings true today: “Opening and interpreting lives, is not the same as opening and closing books.” Indeed, when a scholar solicits a life history from someone—for academic or nonacademic purposes—they have a responsibility to acknowledge the extraordinary gift that they have been given. Trust is never a given and must always be earned. This is particularly true when there is a divide between the one who shares their story and the one who bears witness to it. As a male scholar on a quest to chronicle the lives of black southern women who love women, I was keenly aware of the tightrope I had to walk to represent these stories that would honor these women without making them too “precious.”
My “come to Jesus” moment happened at the book launch of Black. Queer. Southern. Women.: An Oral History on Saturday, November 10 at Charis Books in Atlanta. Charis is one of the oldest feminist bookstores in the country and just happens to be the site of much black lesbian organizing in the South—where the likes of Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, and Pat Parker first read their work or were part of LGBTQ grassroots organizing. Six of the women I interviewed for the BQSW participated on a panel discussion about their experience of being interviewed for the book and about their lives in general. Aida Rentas, the octogenarian from Puerto Rico; Pat and Cherry Hussain, Mary Anne Adams, and Darlene Hudson from Atlanta; and, Michelle Wright from Winston Salem, NC, all had the audience of over one hundred people smashed in the tiny bookstore, spellbound as they, one by one, shared their stories about how, at first, they were suspicious of my motives for collecting their stories, to warming up to me, to being honored to be included in the book. For Cherry Hussain and Michelle Wright, in particular, this occasion proved very emotional, as they both recounted how important it was for them to share their stories of sexual abuse to the world with the hope that their stories might save lives.
The energy in the room as these women spoke their truth was electrifying. People from all walks of like—black, white, Latinx, Asian, straight, gay, queer, trans, men, women, and so on—were all packed in the tiny bookstore across these differences to express their interest in and love for these women’s stories and to validate their lives. Most moving to me, was to see small children in the audience, brought to the event by their two mommies, who were a part of this beautiful gathering of black southern women who love women.
At the end of the evening, when just a few folks were left in the bookstore and the caterers had begun to take the food away, a woman came and sat down beside me at the table where I had been signing books. She said she would keep me company until the last person asked to get their book signed. As she flipped through her own copy of BQSW, she smiled and then looked up at me and said, “You don’t know what you’ve done. This book is such a blessing.” Humbled by her words, I simply smiled and placed my hand on top of hers. In that moment, I knew that my labor had not been in vain.
E. Patrick Johnson is the Carlos Montezuma Professor of Performance Studies and African American Studies at Northwestern University and author of Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South. For more info, visit his website.