Imagine Otherwise: E. Patrick Johnson on Oral History and Creativity Rituals

Imagine Otherwise: E. Patrick Johnson on Oral History and Creativity Rituals

March 22, 2017

E. Patrick Johnson wearing a black button-down shirt, looking over his shoulder


To what extent should we embrace our personal connections to our work? How much should we let our audience influence our work? What are the best ways to collaborate in academia and performance?

In episode 33 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, Cathy Hannabach interviews E. Patrick Johnson about his creative process, how he translates scholarly ideas into artistic work and vice versa, how Black gay men and women are crafting community-based oral histories, and how artistic and scholarly collaboration is a key way he imagines otherwise.

Guest: E. Patrick Johnson

E. Patrick Johnson is the chair of African American studies and also a professor of performance studies at Northwestern University.

As a scholar/artist, he has published widely in the areas of race, gender, sexuality and performance. He has written two award-winning books, Appropriating Blackness: Performance and the Politics of Authenticity and Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South—An Oral History. He is also the editor or co-editor of several essay collections, including Black Queer Studies: A Critical Anthology, Cultural Struggles: Performance, Ethnography, Praxissolo/black/woman: scripts, interviews, and essays, No Tea, No Shade: New Writings in Black Queer Studies, and Blacktino Queer.

He is currently working on a creative nonfiction text titled Honeypot: Black Southern Women Who Love Women, which we talk about in the interview.

Patrick’s play, Sweet Tea, which is based on his scholarly book of the same name, was co-produced by About Face Theater and the Ellen Stone Belic Institute for the Study of Women and Gender in the Arts and Media at Columbia College, Chicago.

We chatted about

  • When to separate yourself from your subject matter, and when to embrace your relationship to your work (06:27)
  • Working in multiple genres (09:53)
  • The balance between heeding your audience’s voice as you write and speaking your mind (13:50)
  • Collaboration in academic and creative work (16:52)
  • Making academic work legible to a broad audience (23:19)
  • Imagining otherwise (32:00)

Text reads: It was very important to me that the people I interviewed be able to pick up the book and understand it. For me, that's also a kind of activism.


E. Patrick’s relationship to the subject matter of Sweet Tea

I was very hesitant about [offering my story to the play] because the impetus for doing the book was never about me, it was about these men’s lives. But everyone said the thing that’s interesting about this work is your relationship to these men, and since you are Black and gay and from the south, it only makes sense that your story will be a part of it.

Your role in your work

I started Sweet Tea with the idea of it not being about me, so that was my hesitance about inserting myself into the project. I didn’t want it to be about me, not realizing that no matter what you do, what kind of scholarship you do, you’re always in it—because you’re the one crafting the questions, you’re the one telling the story that’s being told to you. So you’re always implicated in it.

Speaking your mind

At some point, you have to be true to your own voice and say what you want to say, regardless of what you think your colleagues or an audience are going to say. Because at the end of the day everybody comes to a piece of work from their own perspective, and they’ll read it the way they’re going to read it and you have no control over that. And you shouldn’t try to have control over it.

Collaborating well

Getting feedback from people is really what you want, and you’re asking people for their professional opinion or even just their gut reaction. But it’s also important that you have people who will be supportive and on the same page with you about the goals that you have for the work.

Making academic scholarship legible to a broad audience

Sometimes academics get so caught up in writing for other academics that we forget that we have (I would argue) an ethical and moral responsibility to provide access to some of these theories and discourses to people who are outside the ivory tower. It’s important to me to make the work legible.

Imagining otherwise

I have a saying that my friends associate with me. And that saying is “I just want everyone to be free.” I mean that on multiple levels. I want people to be free to be themselves, to be free to just move in the world unencumbered by what other people think of them based on their race, their gender, their sexuality, their economic status. I want that kind of freedom for everyone.

More from E. Patrick Johnson

Projects and people discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at Imagine Otherwise is hosted by Cathy Hannabach and produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

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