Johnson, a professor at Northwestern University, has conducted research and written extensively on race and sexual and gender identities, often incorporating performance arts into his work.
“There's also something about bearing witness to the story with others that makes things really powerful,” Johnson said. “Having people share their stories is a way to give them a platform to speak their truth, to potentially shape public opinion about a population or minority group but also to humanize people in the eyes of those who might be bigoted.”
Johnson, who has spoken at the Stone Center previously, recalled one such experience, when a man repeatedly asked him, “How do you deal with you and your God?” during a Q&A session after a 2008 performance of “Pouring Tea: Black Gay Men of the South Tell Their Tales” in Chapel Hill. The man, who he said was struggling with his own sexuality, later came onstage, “sobbing profusely,” to hug and thank Johnson.
“Hearing the stories of other men who had gone through the same struggle as he had gone through, or was going through, made all the world of difference because it would let him know that he was not alone,” Johnson said. “So that's the work oral histories can do, that's the work performance can do, that's the work that sharing the stories of marginalized people can do.”
The performance piece was a staged reading based on the oral histories of Johnson’s book “Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South – An Oral History,” published in 2008. Johnson said he originally intended to include the voices of women as well in “Sweet Tea,” but the responses from men were so overwhelming that he focused solely on their narratives. In 2012, he started conducting oral history interviews with women that would eventually become "Black. Queer. Southern. Women.”
Jordan said the Stone Center frequently invites writers and scholars to talk about their work, but in 2006, the Center started the Writer’s Discussion Series in collaboration with Bull’s Head Bookshop. The series aims to focus on scholarly work, with speakers working in some capacity in the field of African-American and Diaspora studies. Jordan said hearing about Johnson’s work could be especially impactful for attendees.
“Particularly for students, they need to understand that professor Johnson was sitting in their seat not too long ago, dreaming about how he was going to fulfill all of his aspirations to be someone who found ways to intermix performance studies with his own interest in the history and the current conditions of gay communities in the country,” Jordan said.
Johnson said he hopes that people who come to his session of the Writer’s Discussion Series realize the “complexity of sexuality.”
“All gay people aren't the same, all Black people aren't the same, all Southerners aren't the same,” Johnson said. “I hope that these stories reflect the diversity of the South, the diversity of queer people, the diversity of Black people, the diversity of the category one in itself.”