Deep Dive with Shawn C. Fettig

Navigating Intersectionality: Queerness, Blackness, and the Southern Experience with Dr. E. Patrick Johnson

September 17, 2023 Dr. E. Patrick Johnson Episode 52
Navigating Intersectionality: Queerness, Blackness, and the Southern Experience with Dr. E. Patrick Johnson
Deep Dive with Shawn C. Fettig
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Deep Dive with Shawn C. Fettig
Navigating Intersectionality: Queerness, Blackness, and the Southern Experience with Dr. E. Patrick Johnson
Sep 17, 2023 Episode 52
Dr. E. Patrick Johnson

How often do we pause and think about the multiple layers of our identities and how they intersect with our experiences? What's the role of our race, gender, sexuality, religion and more in shaping our perception of societal issues? With Dr. E. Patrick Johnson, a renowned scholar, artist, and activist, we navigate the complex course of intersectionality, focusing on the unique fusion of queerness, blackness, and southerness.

Together with Dr. Johnson, I journey through the South and its complexities, understanding how it influences our life paths and identities. We delve into poignant discussions about the intersection of race, class, and sexuality with the Southern experience, and the distinct Black Southern Queer male and female experiences. The conversation follows a trail of resilience stories, the impact of privilege, and the challenges of disentangling from religious structures - a fascinating exploration of the intricate intersection of religion, sexuality, race, and region in the South.

As we tie the threads of our discussion, we highlight the potential of embracing intersectionality to cultivate a more inclusive, empathetic, and equitable society. I invite you to join us in this riveting episode and partake in understanding the beauty of human experiences, their intersectionalities, and their significance in our society. Let's journey together into the heart of intersectionality and its transformative power on our lives.

Recommended:
Honeypot: Black Southern Women who Love Women - E. Patrick Johnson
Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South—An Oral History - E. Patrick Johnson

Mentioned:
Long Division - Kiese Laymon
P-Valley

-------------------------
Follow Deep Dive:
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Email: deepdivewithshawn@gmail.com

**Artwork: Dovi Design
**Deep Dive Music: Joystock

Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

How often do we pause and think about the multiple layers of our identities and how they intersect with our experiences? What's the role of our race, gender, sexuality, religion and more in shaping our perception of societal issues? With Dr. E. Patrick Johnson, a renowned scholar, artist, and activist, we navigate the complex course of intersectionality, focusing on the unique fusion of queerness, blackness, and southerness.

Together with Dr. Johnson, I journey through the South and its complexities, understanding how it influences our life paths and identities. We delve into poignant discussions about the intersection of race, class, and sexuality with the Southern experience, and the distinct Black Southern Queer male and female experiences. The conversation follows a trail of resilience stories, the impact of privilege, and the challenges of disentangling from religious structures - a fascinating exploration of the intricate intersection of religion, sexuality, race, and region in the South.

As we tie the threads of our discussion, we highlight the potential of embracing intersectionality to cultivate a more inclusive, empathetic, and equitable society. I invite you to join us in this riveting episode and partake in understanding the beauty of human experiences, their intersectionalities, and their significance in our society. Let's journey together into the heart of intersectionality and its transformative power on our lives.

Recommended:
Honeypot: Black Southern Women who Love Women - E. Patrick Johnson
Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South—An Oral History - E. Patrick Johnson

Mentioned:
Long Division - Kiese Laymon
P-Valley

-------------------------
Follow Deep Dive:
Instagram
Post.news
YouTube

Email: deepdivewithshawn@gmail.com

**Artwork: Dovi Design
**Deep Dive Music: Joystock

Dr. Johnson:

You know, that's an interesting question because I think when we discover hearts of our history that are disturbing, we can either respond in horror and it becomes a trigger or something that we're going through, or another response is to think about, given that history of violence, or given that history of being stripped of rights, and so on and so forth, given where we are today, think about the resilience of a community.

Shawn:

Welcome to Deep Dive with me, s C Fettig. I've been thinking a lot lately about intersectionality the different components of ourselves, our experiences, our identities that all influence who we are. Intersectionality is a powerful concept that recognizes the intricate web of identities and experiences that shape who we are as individuals. It acknowledges that our identities, such as race, gender, sexuality, religion and more, are not isolated categories that we each carry in silos, but intersect and overlap within us, creating a unique mosaic of perspectives and challenges. Intersectionality influences the way we navigate the world, impacting everything from our interactions with others to the opportunities and barriers we encounter. It shapes our understanding of social issues, as it reveals the complexities of discrimination and privilege. Intersectionality highlights that our experiences are not uniform, even within the same identity group, and that privilege and the lack of it affects people differently, based on their intersecting identities. So I've been thinking about my own intersectionalities and how they've informed my life, my career, my relationships, my outlook, my personality, etc. Here are some of my identities and experiences that intersect I'm white, I'm gay, I'm male, english is my first language, I'm born and raised in the Midwest and I'm a West coaster now. I grew up poor and I grew up religious. All of these things have influenced the trajectory of my life and they continue to. They are not ancillary players in who I am. They are, individually and taken together, the actual components of who I am. They are my recipe, they are my constitution. And that makes me curious about other intersectionalities, those that are not a part of my life but are of others, and how equally powerful those intersectionalities are in ways that I don't experience and therefore understand. And yet, for all the difference in our identities and experiences, we also all share many similarities, and I want to recognize and honor that difference and that similarity in contributing to our unique stories and our overlapping lives. My guest today is someone whose work and contributions have been instrumental in shedding light on intersectionality, specifically the unique intersection between queerness, blackness and southerness.

Shawn:

Dr E Patrick Johnson is a distinguished scholar, artist and activist. He's the Dean of the School of Communication and Annenberg University, professor of Performance Studies and African American Studies at Northwestern University. E Patrick Johnson is a named synonymous with groundbreaking research, illuminating performances and fierce advocacy. He's the author of numerous influential books, including "Honeypot, Black Southern Women who Love Women and Sweet Tea, black Gay Men of the South, and Oral History. But Dr Johnson's work doesn't stop at the written word. He's also a performer, a storyteller, who brings these narratives to life on stage and, recently, on the screen, making history tangible, relatable and profoundly moving. He's also an advocate of voice for LGBTQ plus rights, particularly within the black community, and he actively engages in discussions surrounding race, sexuality, gender and intersectionality, challenging stereotypes and promoting understanding and acceptance.

Shawn:

With a wealth of accolades, including the 2020 induction into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, dr Johnson's contributions to both academia and the arts have earned him well-deserved recognition and have paved the way for vital conversations, including the one we have today, which is wide-ranging, personal and hopeful. If you like this episode, or any episode, give it a like on your favorite podcast platform and or subscribe to the podcast on YouTube and, as always, if you have any thoughts, questions or comments, please feel free to email . Let's do a deep dive, d Johnson. hanks for being here. How are you?

Dr. Johnson:

I'm well. Thanks for having me.

Shawn:

Absolutely. I'm really excited about this conversation.

Dr. Johnson:

I am as well.

Shawn:

Are you not anxious at all?

Dr. Johnson:

No, anxious no, which is ironic because I am naturally shy and people don't believe that because I don't either. But I become another person when I'm on, when I have to perform. But it's funny.

Shawn:

Let me ask you this, because I feel the same when I tell people that I'm actually somewhat introverted, they don't believe me, and I think what I've learned to do is kind of perform, yeah, but it's exhausting right. I don't know if it's true for you, but when I'm done with my day of you know, quote unquote performing, I just don't want to talk to anyone.

Dr. Johnson:

I do not. I love alone time. I am really a recluse at heart. I love being alone, and I think that partly is because I spend so much time giving, giving, giving and having on for people that I really treasure being alone.

Shawn:

Okay, well, I'm going to ask you to perform for the next hour. I do want to say so. One of the things that really draws me to the work that you've done is there's an academic quality to it, but it's also very artistic and story driven, which gives it a very consumable and entertaining quality and, frankly, in my opinion, makes it more powerful. But you're also so prolific. You produce work in so many different formats that it's really engaging, but, frankly, it's like overwhelming. I don't know how you find time to do all the things that you do.

Dr. Johnson:

Or do I?

Shawn:

Fair enough. One of the things that you have done that's particularly interesting to me is you draw into the picture, in telling your stories and lifting up the voices of other people and their experiences, some, maybe, identities that we don't traditionally think of as identity in the same way that we do with things like race or religion or sexuality, et cetera. And so, for instance, like southernness is a big part of some of your work and you almost treat this as part of an intersectionality that gives richness to a human experience. So maybe we can start with this why do you treat this the way that you do? That the experience of being southern and having come up southern and having southern identity is unique and formative?

Dr. Johnson:

I think that the South as a region is so complicated in terms of the history of the formation of this country and that particular history has informed the way that people who are born and reared and continue to live in the South move in the world, whether that be the way they prepare food a lot of fried things or the way they communicate with each other.

Dr. Johnson:

An example of that would be, through a lot of talking around, something as supposed to be direct about it, or time in general, is everything is slower Now.

Dr. Johnson:

Some of that has to do with it's hot and so you don't move as quickly in that space as you would in other spaces.

Dr. Johnson:

So the region, which has to do with the land, which has to do with the weather, which has to do with the architecture, all of that informs what it means to be a southerner and unless you have lived in the South for a long time or unless you were born there, it's quite difficult to pinpoint or to describe to people because it's just an experience that you have and it's a knowing experience. You say something to another southerner or you hear southerner's talk and if you're from the South, you sort of nod and ah, I know that, that's familiar to me, and so in that way, the South is a space in which you experience the world in a very specific way. That informs a lot of how you move in the world. And then you add on those other layers of race, of class, in particular of sexuality, then it becomes a really interesting mix, and for me that was what was so interesting about talking to people who have multiple identities shaped through the Southern experience.

Shawn:

I'm glad you talk about layering or intersectionalities and southerness being an anchor, as opposed to just some type of frosting on that story. So one of the things that's really jumped out to me in reading some of your work is that how you talk about these layers or these intersectionalities and how you focus on them in ways that I think we don't traditionally do, and so let me just kind of prime you for what I'm talking about here. So two of the ways that you do this is related to how you talk about the Black Southern Queer experience, and you actually distinctly divide that out between the Black Southern Queer male experience and the Black Southern Queer female experience, and I really appreciate this for a handful of reasons. But I think that as a society, the ways that we talk about communities, especially traditionally underrepresented communities, loses a lot of nuance in the telling.

Shawn:

And we talk about queer maleness and we talk about queer femaleness, but when we add race or ethnicity or maybe religion, I think what we tend to do in society is we lose something like the importance of maleness and femaleness to an identity. So there's the gay male experience and there's the queer female experience, but then when we add race it becomes the queer Black experience, we lose some of that nuance and I think that each of these identities, taken on its own, is complex and rich, but taken together it's really nuanced and speaks to some very specific qualities and contributions to a community that gets lost in the narrative or the dominant narrative and I know this might sound like a dumb question, so I'm going to apologize in advance if you take it this way, but I do. I'm asking this question because I think there's something really profound in picking at the edges of this. Why is it important to talk about Southerness and Queerness and Blackness together, from both and distinctly the perspective of maleness and femaleness?

Dr. Johnson:

Well, I think if, going back to what I was saying earlier about the history of the South, there are particular experiences of Black men and Black women in that context that differentiates them, based on the history of the South. For example, if we think about slavery and the kinds of roles that Black women who were enslaved had to endure under that institution, such as cooking and cleaning and bearing the children of their enslavers in addition to mothering the children of their enslavers, and so on and so forth, and then the men working in the fields, also used as breeders to produce more humans who would be enslaved, but also being hyper sexualized as well, all of those experience inform how Black men and women experience their gender in the Southern context. So when I am interviewing Black gay men who were born and raised in the South, they come at that experience in a particular way. Given the history of Black masculinity in the Southern context, how they relate to traditional tropes of masculinity are very specific to them being Black men. If you are an effeminate Black gay man growing up in the South, that means something very specific. Given how Black masculinity is thought of or how it's presented in the South, black men are supposed to be Black Southern men, for instance, are supposed to be stoic, hyper sexualized and so on and so forth, rugged, and again, some of this is stemming from how they were represented in popular culture. But then even within that there were contradictions, because on the one hand there was the brute, rapist stereotype. At the same time there was the lazy zip-coon stereotype, and that's just for heterosexual men. And so if you are a Black gay man growing up in the South, your experience of masculinity is informed by that, whether it's assimilating to those stereotypes, pushing against them or presenting something different.

Dr. Johnson:

For Black women, a similar thing the ways in which they weren't allowed to express a Southern femininity that white women were and that is being put on a pedestal, having been treated like you, are the gold standard. Black women did not have that luxury, they did not have that privilege. They were the ones working in those domestic spaces, they were the ones taking care of the children and so on and so forth, so they weren't put on a pedestal. So again, all of these historical ways in which Black men and women in the South, in the institution of slavery, has informed how Black men and women post slavery move inside of gender.

Dr. Johnson:

When you add sexuality to that. It adds yet another layer, another texture to that. So it's important to me, for instance, to tell the story of black queer women, because some of the experiences of sexual trauma I had no idea that the majority of the women that I would talk to in an interview, as in two thirds, had experienced some form of sexual trauma. That's very specific to being a black woman in the South, which was not the case for black men. So those are some of the reasons why it's important to parse out how gender affects how people experience their lives in a Southern context, or just in general, I would say. But the specific history of the South totally informs how people experience their gender.

Shawn:

I think what maybe is kind of implicit in this work and what is so important to me in reading some of your work, is that I think you're really distilling and parsing out of dominant narratives threads that tell stories that really get lost when we package things into dominant narratives, and I've been thinking a lot lately about this that we developed these social dominant narratives.

Shawn:

This is a shocker right, but that in doing so we really do a disservice and I think in a way we depress and erase the stories and influence of non-dominant communities in society.

Shawn:

So when I think about things like the queer movement, at least in the United States, it's really a story that begins in roughly the 50s and it's predominantly a story of white men, sometimes white women, but it treats our story as if it's like a monolith, as if the needs and policy preferences about the people in the queer community have been and continue to be shared across the different letters in our queer acronym, so like LGBTQIA plus.

Shawn:

But I think in end that the consensus that we come to is really just a snapshot of what the dominant components within the community so again, white gay men define as who we are and what we need. We can think about this other ways. When we talk about like being American or being Christian, we think about the white community right, like that's the lens we see it through. Or if we think about liberalism, we think about people living in places like Chicago and Seattle, and what we lose in that is that the experience of being a liberal in these places misses the needs or preferences of people that might identify as being liberal but live in vastly different regions, perhaps rural Louisiana. So what do you think we've lost in taking up the mantle of white gay men from the most liberal urban places as being the quote unquote queer story?

Dr. Johnson:

I think what we've lost is the voices, the stories, the experiences of people, and not just white gay men who live in urban areas, but even white gay men in the South as well, or white queer women. Focusing on the urban, north or the coast when it comes to queer activism has left out a whole part of the story, and that's why it was so important for me, as someone who is black, who's gay, who's born and raised in the South, to have my experience be included in a narrative about what it means to be queer in this country, and so I'm really excited about how the narratives of those voices that have not been heard they are starting to emerge. I did my part with my work with Sweet Tea and with Honeypot and Black Christian Women, but there are a number of other young activists and scholars who are also bringing to light the voices of trans people, black trans people in particular, of poor queer people. We don't talk enough about how class informs the experience of being queer. A number of homeless, unhoused queer folks has reached an epidemic proportion. We don't talk enough about the experience of immigrant queers and undocumented queers. All of these voices are important to telling our story, and if you look at the history of any social movements, none of them were as monolithic as they were either deliberately represented in the media or on the ground.

Dr. Johnson:

People talk about Stonewall or many people know about Stonewall. Until very recently people didn't realize that Stonewall, the riots at Stonewall, were spearheaded by a Latin trans woman, sylvia Rivera, and a black female presenting person, marsha P Johnson. Now their story is being told, but for years and years and years people thought, oh, the Stonewall riots was white. That's not true. And so those early, early treatments of white queer movements and activism were not telling the whole story. But I think now we're at a moment when those other stories that are not. I think that the story of white gay men is important. I'll say that.

Dr. Johnson:

I think what's also important is that that's not all of the story of queer folk, because we're in this moment where people get riled up about well, why do we have to have a separate this and a separate that?

Dr. Johnson:

Because we're all human. Yes, we're all human, but that's a kind of naivete around what it means to live in difference, and difference isn't a negative thing. But because of our differences we experienced a world differently, we're treated differently, and it just means that we have to be at least aware that one person's difference means that their experience of their humanity sometimes puts them in positions of vulnerability that others don't. And if we're going to tell the story of queer people, we also are telling the story of black people, of Latinx people, of poor people, of other labeled people and so on and so forth, because none of us have one identity. We just don't, and that's just the way things are, and it's nothing to feel. In my opinion, it doesn't mean that your experience in the world is any less than it's just a part of this patchwork quilt that we call humanity.

Shawn:

I tend to be wow what's the best word? Horrified in my reflection. I think and I wanna preface this by saying that I am a gay white man. So coming up, stepping outside of that identity is not something that we're particularly taught. It's just easy in being within in some way privileged dominant society to just accept the story that you're told in a different way than I think. Communities that aren't part of that dominant society have to choke down these stories. So for me and I'm almost ashamed to say this I'm still to this day realizing how distorted the stories have become or how they've been spun, or how certain people have been erased from our history, or communities and their influence have been erased from the story that we tell.

Shawn:

This is what's particularly shaming and I'll just give you an example is I always knew that during reconstruction in the United States that enfranchising black folks well, black men led to an influence and an influx of black folks in the political sphere right. What I didn't know until very recently was just how influential the black community became in the South and how many positions of power they were elected into. That was then stripped away from them during Jim Crow. But the reason I'm even talking about this is because I, in my privilege position within the community, sometimes find it traumatic, and I don't wanna infantilize anybody, including myself in this, but I wanna be sensitive to it. Do you ever find that uncovering this history right, that's what you're doing? Do you ever find it traumatic in any way?

Dr. Johnson:

You know, that's an interesting question because I think when we discover parts of our history that are disturbing, we can either respond in horror and it becomes a trigger or something that we're going through, or another response is to think about, given that history of violence, or given that history of being stripped of rights, and so on and so forth, given where we are today, think about the resilience of a community. One of the things that is sort of a through line in the narratives of the men and women that I interviewed for my research is resilience. People tell stories about horrific things witnessing lynchings or being bullied or being raped, or growing up in abject poverty, and so on and so forth, but they don't stay stuck there. There are things about those experiences, as difficult as they were, that motivated them, propelled them to where they are today. Now, that's not the case for everybody and not everybody makes it out of that or survives that. But just like the South is not monolithic, everybody's experience of trauma is not the same in their response to it.

Dr. Johnson:

So I guess that my answer to your question is both, and I think it depends on the person, it depends on the context, it depends on the actual event of what happened. When I sometimes watch these documentaries and see footage or photographs of people being beaten or dogs sick on them or whatever, it is traumatizing to know that humans did that to other human beings, and it's also inspiring is not the word. It makes me feel even prouder of coming from people who survived that so that I could be where I am today, and it does sometimes motivate me to be more committed to making it better for the folks who will come after me. It's humbling to know that someone suffered through something really horrific, lost their lives even so that I could be where I am today, and so when I find myself complaining about what's going on and how it's affecting me, I have to put it in context.

Shawn:

You also mentioned coming up as a queer black kid in the South and I've been thinking a lot about I.

Shawn:

Came up as a queer white kid in the Midwest and I've been thinking a lot lately about how that formed who I've become like, what elements were really important in directing my life. So I left the Midwest because I found it kind of suffocating. For my own unique personal reasons and I think what I've had difficulty in trying to identify those things that have really informed who I am and those things that were really profound influences on my life and the trajectory of my life. As a gay man, I found it difficult to parse out and remove just the passage of time itself as being an influencer, or maturity as being an influencer or progression. However, we wanted to find progress on social issues specifically related to like the queer movement or the queer community and just really identified those things in my life that were true markers and the reason I'm mentioning this. I'm wondering, when you are reflective on your own upbringing as a queer black kid in the South, what do you think are those things that are unique to that experience that profoundly influenced the trajectory of your life?

Dr. Johnson:

Well, I guess this also again goes back to something that I was talking about at the top of our conversation is that growing up in the South and the ways of Southern folks has a lot to do with not talking about things hard, talking around them. So I wasn't conscious of being gay or queer and certainly would not have used that terminology when I was growing up. You wouldn't have used gay, I would not have used no, and part of the reason I would not have used gay is because no one was called gay in my neighborhood. It was these other euphemisms. It was oh he's sweet, oh he's that way, or he got a little sugar in his tank or all of these other very colloquial, colorful terms, but never gay and certainly not queer.

Dr. Johnson:

The way I experienced my queerness was through my expression of it, ironically, in the church. I grew up in the church choir sang soprano, was the only boy in the soprano section of the children's choir and I was praised for my vocal theatrics this little boy singing soprano, and I have a noticeable list, but the church folk sort of really affirmed my expression of what I know now was my queerness, even though no one was talking about. I wasn't talking about myself being gay or queer, but I was a big old queen, or what I call a church sissy, and there were many church sussies around and we expressed our sexuality in that context and it was affirmed. And so that kind of affirmation of something that was yet unnamed was transformative, because in other stories that kind of gender expression was not affirmed and folks were punished for sort of acting outside the boundaries of traditional expressions of masculinity if you were a sign male at birth, or expressions of non-normative expressions of femininity if you were a sign female at birth.

Dr. Johnson:

So that's why I say, when you grow up in the South, and particularly when you grow up in the church in the South, it becomes really complicated in terms of how your sexuality is affirmed or denied, because in that same space not my church but certainly in other churches around me even though you could be this big church sissy and that be affirmed the pastor may give this very homophobic fine brimstone sermon, but all of those rhetorics are swirling around in the same space and so that's why it's very interesting to me to think about how religion and sexuality and race and region are this really interesting mix of things that come together and these things emerge in the narratives that the people that I've spoken to express.

Dr. Johnson:

I don't know if I would have been as comfortable as I am now as very middle-aged Maybe people would call me upper middle-aged at 56 with being soft-spoken, with being feminine and being okay with that had it not been for my gender expression being affirmed in the church and this is as you're speaking, I'm remembering things from my own childhood and I've talked about this a little bit in more general terms or in different terms on the podcast.

Shawn:

actually, I think the last episode was about the intersection between sexuality or queerness and the religion.

Shawn:

But, as you're talking, I'm remembering being the little kid that had a beautiful singing voice that I remember going to church and the older women would ask if I could sit next to them just so they could hear me sing. When we were in church and really flourishing in that context. I felt it was a place that I was really valued for something, that I wasn't outside of that space. But then in my teens, really realizing that at least in this church I couldn't continue evolving into who I believed, I was and I am as a gay man and also remain in the same context in the church, I really see that church and I almost wanted to say a very public break, but it wasn't. I just had a break from the church and I've never gone back. How has your relationship with the church evolved, or maybe you can even put this through the lens of some of the folks that you've talked to. How has the relationship with their queerness and, as it intersects with their religion or spirituality, evolved as they've aged.

Dr. Johnson:

Oh yeah, I mean, my journey is similar to yours. You're not grouping church, singing church, church, church, church. But then there comes a point in time when your ginger nonconformity isn't cute. When puberty hit, oh yeah, yeah, and when it's clear that this is about same-sex desire, then it becomes, you know something else.

Shawn:

It's not as benign. No, it is not.

Dr. Johnson:

And so I have not gone to a church service on purpose in over 20 years because you know I pretty much stopped going to church when I went to college and then, you know, went with other people off and on over the years. But what I got tired of was waiting for the homophobic moment.

Shawn:

Yeah, yeah.

Dr. Johnson:

And so, even if one didn't come, I was anxious about when, you know, is this going to devolve into homosexuality being an abomination, blah, blah, blah. So the institution of religion is something that I've moved away from.

Shawn:

Me too.

Dr. Johnson:

But the spiritual part of it. It is deeply ingrained within me and it is something, actually, that I find comfort in when I've gone through a certain troubling experience in my life, I've often put on my gospel music to comfort me or started singing I'm not singing myself, because I really am. If nothing else, people listening to this interview will take away nothing else. If they take away anything else, they'll take away that I am a both and person, as opposed to either or, because religion for me is both something that is comforting and something that is traumatic and something that can be a source of a lot of pain. And so I think that my relationship and I think it's important for me to say this, my relationship to religion necessarily had to change for me to be whole.

Shawn:

I totally understand that.

Dr. Johnson:

And so, while I left the church, the church didn't leave me.

Shawn:

Oh, that's so fascinating because I always say the church left me. I think you're saying the same things that I have felt, and maybe this is a better way to characterize it.

Dr. Johnson:

And the reason why I say it the way I do is because I carry that experience within me.

Shawn:

So I want to talk about Sweet Tea, because this was my introduction to you and your work. I love this project and I think it's really kind of become an odyssey. So, to my understanding, this is an oral history project that started in book form and then it became a play and then a feature documentary. Yes, so I'm interested in the roots of this project, how it came to be, what it was that grabbed you and why it grabbed you so completely that it's really informed such an important part of your life and your career.

Dr. Johnson:

Yeah, I often tell people that sweet tea is the gift that keeps on giving.

Shawn:

Yeah.

Dr. Johnson:

You know, again, going back to our conversation earlier, Sweet Tea came about because there was nothing out there like it. You know, the oral histories that were available at the time focused on white gay men on the coast. There was an oral history about queer Southerners John Howard had done some work and there was one other, but I didn't tell the story of black folk. So I said, you know, we need, we need something. And so that's how it sort of came about. And initially the goal was to create an archive in book form. But when I started interviewing people I met such interesting storytellers that I knew that these stories couldn't just live on the page. And also I knew that the page couldn't provide the kind of nuance that a performance could. So then I said, well, they need to be lifted off the page and performed. And I didn't know at the time if I would perform or if I would direct other people performing them. And I decided I'm a horrible director, so I'm gonna stay in my lane because I'm a good performer, so I'm gonna perform the stories. And so I started doing like a vagina monologues kind of version of the show, which I continue to do. Actually it's just me sitting on a stool with a music stand, had a script there and I do the voices of the men.

Dr. Johnson:

And then a colleague of mine at University of Pennsylvania, john Jackson, saw the theatrical production of it. He said, oh, you know, I'd be interested in doing a film about the making of the play. And I said, okay, several years past, nothing happened. And then he came back and said, no, I really want to do this.

Dr. Johnson:

So we did it, and then, of course, the film became much more than about the making of the play. It became about me going back to my hometown and sort of having a reckoning with my own past, in addition to highlighting my relationship with some of the men that I've interviewed, in addition to me performing the men's stories in front of them in their homes, at their church. And so I think the reason why Sweet Tea has lended itself to all these different genres, to a scholarly book, to a stage reading, to a theatrical production, to a documentary film, is because the stories are so rich that you can do anything. Someone was joking with me, in fact it was one of the people who were in the book. Duncan T said what's next musical? And I was like, hmm, so the stories are just so compelling that they can be told through any genre.

Shawn:

I am in no position to say this, but on behalf of the community, I want to thank you because I think this is such a beautiful addition to the canon. It's just such great work.

Dr. Johnson:

Thank you. Well, I think, the men and women who dared to share their stories. I think it's such a gift that they were willing to open up their lives in such intimate ways to a stranger in many instances and talk about their experiences, their experiences of joy, their experiences of grief, of trauma, of being devilish, of sex, you know, oh, my goodness, there were some stories there. So I thank you for your gratitude for me and I'll bring it full circle. My gratitude goes towards those folks whose stories are collected.

Shawn:

So what's next for you?

Dr. Johnson:

You know I am thinking about a memoir. Oh, Because I am who I am. It won't be a traditional memoir. I'm thinking about a memoir that will be a memoir. That's basically a biography of my mother.

Shawn:

Oh, okay.

Dr. Johnson:

That's what I'm thinking now.

Shawn:

Okay, final question Are you ready for it? Yes, what's something interesting you've been reading, watching, listening to or doing lately.

Dr. Johnson:

So lots of people were telling me about this show on stars called P-Valley that I had never seen, and so I recently been watched it and my mouth was open the entire time. Really, I have not seen it. Oh my goodness, get ready. So it brings all my worlds together. It's about a strip club in the south in Mississippi, and it's told from the perspective of these women who strip in this club. The owner of the strip club is a gender nonconforming person named Uncle Clarence, who you know every episode. Uncle Clarence's clothes are sort of over the top. A signed male at birth but does some gender-bending stuff. It's, oh, my goodness.

Shawn:

Really.

Dr. Johnson:

Yeah, it's all of that. So I think I'm actually going to teach an episode in a class this year. So P-Valley has been something I've been watching, something I've been reading. There's a again. He's also a southerner. Casey Layman has a book called Long Division that I've been reading and it's fascinating. I read his book Heavy, which was Heavy, oh my goodness. But he is a black, straight, southern writer whose books are really fascinating. So I'm reading Long Division by Casey Layman. I love to cook and so the last two weeks of August I spent a lot of time cooking soup and casseroles and freezing them for when I get really busy and don't have time to cook, I can just take it out of the freezer and pop it in the oven or microwave.

Shawn:

Dr Johnson, I've really enjoyed this conversation. Thanks for taking the time to be here. It was my pleasure. Understanding and appreciating intersectionality is essential because it promotes inclusivity, empathy and social justice, and if you don't think those things matter, just take a look at the state of our contemporary politics and politicians and the deterioration of basic decency and dignity in our daily discourse. By recognizing the multifaceted nature of identity, we can better support marginalized communities, we can challenge stereotypes and we can work towards a more equitable society. It allows us to embrace the diversity of human experiences across all spectrums and foster a deeper sense of empathy and solidarity with others. In essence, intersectionality invites us to see people in all their complexity, honoring the rich tapestry of identities that make each of us beautiful and unique. This is not exclusive. This is inclusive. It includes people like Dr Johnson and the folks he's written about, and it includes people like me and it includes people like you. All right, check back soon for another episode of Deep Dive Chat soon, folks. Thank you.

Intersectionality and the Power of Identity
Southern, Queer, and Black Intersectionality
Resilience and Unique Upbringing
Queerness and Religion in the South
Embracing Intersectionality for Inclusive Society