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, Praxis, solo/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)
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.
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.
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
- E. Patrick Johnson’s website
- E. Patrick Johnson at Northwestern University
- Strange Fruit: A Performance about Identity Politics
- Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South
- ““Quare” Studies, or (Almost) Everything I Know about Queer Studies I Learned from My Grandmother“
- Honeypot: Black Southern Women Who Love Women
- Appropriating Blackness: Performance and the Politics of Authenticity
- Black Queer Studies: A Critical Anthology
- Cultural Struggles: Performance, Ethnography, Praxis
- solo/black/woman: scripts, interviews, and essays
- No Tea, No Shade: New Writings in Black Queer Studies
- Blacktino Queer
Projects and people discussed
- Jane Saks
- About Face Theater
- Ellen Stone Belic Institute for the Study of Women and Gender in the Arts and Media
- Daniel Alexander Jones
- Mark Simpson-Vos
- John Jackson, Jr.
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.
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.
Cathy Hannabach [00:03]:
Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the 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 otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach.
Cathy Hannabach [00:22]:
This episode is brought to you by our Grad School Rockstar Program and Dissertation Rockstar Bootcamp. If you or someone you know is an interdisciplinary grad student who wants to get serious about finishing their dissertation, having better work-life balance or building a career that lets your whole self thrive, come join us. You get a personal coach who knows your projects and is there to help every step of the way, activities and lessons to help you create sustainable habits for writing and self-care, twice-monthly webinars on topics like working with advisers and being an academic while parenting, as well as lifetime access to weekly office hours and our amazing community to help you rock your interdisciplinary career wherever that might take you. You can go to ideasonfire.net for more information on how to enroll.
Cathy Hannabach [01:11]:
This is episode 33. My guest today is E. Patrick Johnson, who’s 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’s written two award-winning books: Appropriating Blackness: Performance and the Politics of Authenticity as well as Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South, An Oral History. He’s also the editor or co-editor of several essay collections, including Black Queer Studies: A Critical Anthology, Cultural Struggles: Performance, Ethnography, Praxis, solo/black/woman: scripts, interviews and essays, No Tea, No Shade: New Writings in Black Queer Studies, and Blacktino Queer Performance.
Cathy Hannabach [02:01]:
He is currently working on a creative nonfiction text called Honeypot: Black Southern Women Who Love Women, which we talk about in the interview. His play, Sweet Tea, which is based on his scholarly book of the same name, was co-produced by About Face Theatre and the Ellen Stone Belic Institute for the Study of Women and Gender in the Arts and Media at Columbia College Chicago.
Cathy Hannabach [02:23]:
In our interview, E. Patrick Johnson and I talk 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 that he imagines otherwise.
Cathy Hannabach [02:42]:
Thanks so much for being with us.
E. Patrick Johnson [02:44]:
I’m really excited to be here.
Cathy Hannabach [02:46]:
You’re the playwright of Sweet Tea, which is based on your scholarly book, Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South, an Oral History. I’d love for you to tell our listeners a little bit about that play and maybe how it relates to the scholarly project.
E. Patrick Johnson [03:00]:
Well, the play Sweet Tea has had various manifestations. It has had four different directors, and it’s been a work-in-progress. It came about because I was actually doing a one-person show that really wasn’t a fully-developed piece. It was more like a stage reading that I called Pouring Tea: Black Gay Men of the South Tell Their Tales. The idea for that came about about halfway in to me collecting the oral histories, really thinking that, “Oh, this should be a performance,” because I met so many wonderful storytellers, so many men who their interviews turned into these sort of like drama within a drama, a play within a play.
E. Patrick Johnson [03:58]:
I was trying to figure out how can I capture this on the page? There really wasn’t a way to do that. Because I’m in performance studies and because I’m a performer, I decided that I would create a show that tried to capture, as best as possible, some of the nuance of the language, the different Southern dialects because the way people speak in New Orleans is very different from the way people speak in North Carolina, which is different than the way people speak in Arkansas, Texas, and Louisiana, and so on and so forth, and also give people a suggestion of the men’s mannerisms.
E. Patrick Johnson [04:43]:
When I came up with the idea for the performance, I didn’t know whether I would do the performances or if I would cast other actors. Then I decided, well, I’m the one conducting the interviews. I’m the one who met these men, interacted with them and become a part of their lives, so it would be interesting for me to actually do the performance, and also because I’m a performer, so it, in some ways, made a lot of sense.
E. Patrick Johnson [05:12]:
I started doing the stage reading and then, in 2008 I think it was, Jane Saks, who at that time was at… She was director of a center at Columbia College, and she had a program where she invited artists to come to her center and develop work. She approached me about developing what was then a stage reading into a full production. I became a fellow at the center and started working with other artists, particularly directors, choreographers, musicians, actors doing workshops of the script.
E. Patrick Johnson [06:03]:
Out of that, those workshops, came this idea for a play that would still have me as the solo performer, but one of the things that everybody who participated in those workshops said, “We need your story.” I was very hesitant about that because my impetus for doing the book was never about me. It was about these men’s lives. Everyone said, “The thing that’s interesting about this work is your relationship to these men. Since you are black and gay and from the South, it only makes sense that your story will be a part of it.”
E. Patrick Johnson [06:48]:
That was very daunting, and I resisted but finally relented, and so I wrote my story into what eventually became the play. The conceit of the play is that I, E. Patrick Johnson, have to go on a journey of self-discovery listening to other black gay men’s story of the South in order to find my own voice and tell my own story.
E. Patrick Johnson [07:17]:
The first iteration of the play, which debuted in Chicago through a collaboration with Jane Saks and About Face Theatre, it premiered in April of 2010, and the first director was Daniel Alexander Jones out of New York.
Cathy Hannabach [07:37]:
That’s a fascinating process.
E. Patrick Johnson [07:39]:
Cathy Hannabach [07:39]:
It’s interesting that it was actually collaborative work. It was workshopping it that your own voice came to be added to it. Was this the first time you had done autobiographical material?
E. Patrick Johnson [07:52]:
No, it wasn’t. My first show, actually, was autobiographical called Strange Fruit. That was a show that I developed in the late ’90s. That show, it was autobiographical, but it was also very academic. There was a lot of academic jargon in it and so on and so forth.
E. Patrick Johnson [08:15]:
I guess the difference between that first show and this one was I started Sweet Tea with the idea of it not being about me. That was my hesitance about inserting myself into the project because 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.
Cathy Hannabach [08:53]:
It’s a really fascinating work of translation, right, moving from the more scholarly oral history approach to the performance to the autobiographical material. These are genres that don’t often get to crisscross with one another. I mean that’s what’s so fantastic about it.
Cathy Hannabach [09:12]:
For this project, you started with the scholarly approach, the oral history collection, and then it got translated into a performance. Do you ever go the other way, like start with a performance or a play idea and then translate into scholarship somehow?
E. Patrick Johnson [09:27]:
Yes. Perhaps one of my most well-known essays called “Queer Studies, or Almost Everything I Know About Queer Studies I Learned From My Grandmother.” It’s a tongue-twister.
Cathy Hannabach [09:43]:
That’s a great title.
E. Patrick Johnson [09:44]:
That started out as a performance piece, a script that I wanted to write to talk about queer theory and how I felt outside of it as a person of color because at that time… This is actually also the late ’90s, early 2000s when queer theory was really taking hold in the academy, but it was still… There was a lot of work that didn’t have to do with race. There was also the sense that people of color had the privilege of dismissing or discounting members of their own communities who also might be homophobic in order to privilege sexuality as the key identity marker, and that’s not true.
E. Patrick Johnson [10:37]:
My grandmother was a classic example. My grandmother was homophobic, but it was also my grandmother from whom I learned feminist ideas and feminist practice as she worked as a live-in domestic worker for 18 years to provide for her family. I thought about creating a play about that, but it wasn’t working in that genre, and so it then became an essay. Again, that essay, to this day, is probably the one that I’m most well-known for.
Cathy Hannabach [11:12]:
How do you figure out if it’s working in a genre, and then how do you figure out what… Is it experimentation, you try it in different mediums and see what seems to stick more? Do you have a particular ritual or way you determine that?
E. Patrick Johnson [11:27]:
I just let the muse do its thing and guide me because my process is this. I work in a sporadic way. I’ll sometimes just wake up in the middle of the night because something has come to me, and I’ll get up and I’ll just start writing. I just go with the flow, and I get into these zones. There are other times where it’s me looking at a blinking cursor.
Cathy Hannabach [11:58]:
Oh, the curse of the blank page. I’m quite familiar.
E. Patrick Johnson [12:00]:
Yeah. It’s just like, “Oh, my God.” There’s nothing. There’s no motivation. There’s no anything. I just go with what feeling that I’m having, at that time, and just give into it, but I also let things sit for a while. I may write something, and then I’ll let it sit to marinate and then come back to it to see if I still like it. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I tweak.
E. Patrick Johnson [12:32]:
For instance, I’m working on the follow-up to Sweet Tea, right now, which is called Honeypot. It’s actually going to be two different books. One version is going to be a traditional oral history project, but the other version of the book is going to be creative nonfiction. The creative nonfiction version I finished in January, but I’ve let it to sit for a minute, and now that I’ve had time to be away from it, I know that the ending is wrong, so I’m going to change the ending.
E. Patrick Johnson [13:08]:
It really just depends. My process is, when I have to get it out, when the muse is sitting on my shoulder, I just let her speak to me, and we go, and when she’s not, I don’t try to force it.
Cathy Hannabach [13:24]:
I’m curious if you find it more challenging to do creative work or artistic work, I should say, versus scholarly, or does it depend on the topic? Does it depend on that month or that mood or whatever? What are the unique challenges of both of those genres?
E. Patrick Johnson [13:44]:
Yeah, and they do both have their challenges. One of the things that they both have in common, for me, I won’t speak for other scholar artists, is you always have the audience that you’re speaking to in your head. For instance, when I’m working on an academic book, I’m always thinking about my colleagues in the field who are going to be reading it. That shapes the voice of the piece. It shapes the argument and so on and so forth.
E. Patrick Johnson [14:17]:
Same thing with creative work. You anticipate, well, who’s going to come see this or who’s going to read this piece of creative work? That guides you too. For instance, one of the funny thing that happened in the process of working on the creative nonfiction version of Honeypot is my editor read the draft of the preface. I thought that I had taken out all academic jargon because we really want to market this to a general audience. He pointed out all these places where I had lapsed, from his perspective, into a kind of academic speak, and it was like, “No. You got to take that out. Take that out. Take that out.” [crosstalk 00:15:11]-
Cathy Hannabach [15:10]:
That’s a good editor. That’s a sign of a good editor.
E. Patrick Johnson [15:13]:
Yeah. It was great to have his eye thinking about it from could my mother, for instance, pick this up and read it? Would she understand what I was saying in this particular one? You have the audience in your head when you’re working on an academic piece or a creative piece.
E. Patrick Johnson [15:34]:
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 are going to say or an audience because, at the end of the day, everybody comes to a piece of work from their own perspective and will read it the way they’re going to read it. You have no control over that, and you shouldn’t try to have control over it.
Cathy Hannabach [15:59]:
So many of your projects are collaborative. I mean you talked about the development project with Sweet Tea and so many… You’ve edited a number of scholarly essays and worked with the authors in that process. You’ve done performer interviews. So much of your both written and your performative work is done with others. It’s certainly something that, to a certain degree, performance studies emphasizes, but not a lot of other academic fields do, that image of the lone scholar in their office by themselves untouched by the rest of the world, which we all know is not true, but the myth persists. I’m curious what draws you to collaboration as a mode of creation?
E. Patrick Johnson [16:48]:
What I think is the irony about that, Cathy, is the hard sciences do a lot of collaboration. They have-
Cathy Hannabach [16:57]:
They do, in labs and… Yeah.
E. Patrick Johnson [17:00]:
Yeah. There might be 10 people working on the same problem. I mean there’s usually a principal investigator, but there are all these people working on trying to find a cure for cancer, or trying to find some genome, or trying to do this, and so on so forth. In the humanities, it’s just the opposite. We’re all squirreled away sitting hunchback in front of a computer by ourselves with our own thoughts and madness. That’s the paradox.
E. Patrick Johnson [17:29]:
I think one of the things, for me, about collaboration is just like that lab for the scientists. When you have a group of creative minds together working on your project, it is such a joyous and frustrating and challenging and rewarding process.
E. Patrick Johnson [17:58]:
When I’m working on traditional scholarship, it is very lonely, and I’m sitting in front of the computer by myself. The only time I get feedback is the moment in which I give a talk somewhere, but that’s only a little tiny piece of entire book, or when my editor gives me feedback or when he or she sends it out for reviews. That’s usually two to three people, so it’s a very tiny circle of people that are giving you feedback about the work, whereas when you’re doing performative work and you have a whole team of folks, it’s a very different experience.
E. Patrick Johnson [18:44]:
The feedback is amazing sometimes because you’re getting responses from people who are coming to the work fresh. It’s all in your head as the artist, but for other folks, they’re hearing it for the first time. They see blind spots in the work. They see gaps that you didn’t see. It’s like, “Well, this doesn’t make sense because you had this person do this in this part of the play, but how did we get from point A to point B?” You’ve made that leap in your own head, but not thinking about, “Oh, yeah. I guess I kind of have to help you get there as the audience.” That’s wonderful.
E. Patrick Johnson [19:29]:
Also, I love working with people who have expertise in areas I don’t, for instance, when I was working on the play Sweet Tea and working with a sound designer who you get to talk to about, “This is what I was thinking when I was writing this particular passage, and how can we make that come alive sonically?” and then have that person go away and then bring back something and you go, “Oh, my God. That’s it,” or, “Oh, my God. That’s not it, those kinds of things, or a light designer who really get the feeling that you’re trying to create and creates this other world, or a prop person, or a musician, or a choreographer, or the director who you always have a love-hate relationship with even when it’s your own work. I love that kind of collaborative process because, for me, it only makes the work better.
E. Patrick Johnson [20:38]:
I also like collaborating on traditional scholarship, and so I’ve done three anthologies that were co-edited with scholars, and I really enjoy that process as well. I love working with other scholars on projects.
Cathy Hannabach [20:56]:
Do you have any advice for folks who might be more inclined to collaboration or wanting to incorporate more collaboration into their work either artistically or scholarly?
E. Patrick Johnson [21:07]:
Yes, I do, because one of the things that I also know is that, while collaboration is great, collaboration is hard. It’s really important that you be very comfortable with your collaborators because nothing can torpedo a project quicker than having people who are working together who don’t like each other or who don’t enjoy each other’s company. For me, it’s important that I trust my collaborators. It’s important that I respect my collaborators because, if you don’t have trust and you don’t have respect, then that’s not going to work out very well.
E. Patrick Johnson [21:48]:
That doesn’t mean that you need to surround yourself with people who are just going to agree with you. That’s not what I’m saying, because as I said before, getting feedback from people is really what you want. You’re asking them for their professional opinion or even just their gut reaction to it. It’s also important that you have people who are going to be supportive and who are on the same page with you about the goals that you have for the work that you’re trying to do.
Cathy Hannabach [22:18]:
I’m curious how you see your work combining academia, art and activism. So much of your creative work, your scholarly work is such a fantastic braid of those three realms. I’m curious what drew you to that braid? Why do you combine these things?
E. Patrick Johnson [22:37]:
I often describe myself as an academic trickster because you can’t really locate me in any one discipline, per se, which is why I have three different affiliations at Northwestern. I’m in performance studies, African-American studies, gender and sexuality studies, and my work is interdisciplinary. My goal has always been, as a academic, as a professor, performer, is to do that work in the service of changing the world.
E. Patrick Johnson [23:17]:
For me, I can’t approach any project or follow through with any project that I don’t think is going to have some substantive impact on the world in which I live. Now, it may not be as impactful as changing a particular law, for instance, but it may change the discourse around a particular topic such that people who do have the ability to affect laws think differently so that, when they go in to vote or they go into that meeting, that’s going to impact the lives of people because they’ve seen Sweet Tea, and they can now put a human face on a particular issue, then there’s a potential for change there.
E. Patrick Johnson [24:08]:
It’s also important to me, too, that my work be legible to the people about whom I write. That was really important to me for Sweet Tea, that the people that I interviewed be able to pick up the book and understand it, that I wouldn’t render their lives in a way that they didn’t even recognize. For me, that’s also a kind of activism because sometimes so many academics get 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 some of these discourses to people who are outside the ivory tower. It’s important to me to make the work legible.
Cathy Hannabach [25:00]:
I think that’s a great transition into talking about your next project or your current project, I guess.
E. Patrick Johnson [25:08]:
Cathy Hannabach [25:08]:
What’s that all about, and how did it come out of maybe the work you did on Sweet Tea?
E. Patrick Johnson [25:12]:
Yeah. Originally, I was going to focus on men and women when I first started Sweet Tea. I love saying this. As with all things, the gay men just took it over. They just took over the book. I thought, for a while, that there would be someone else that would actually write a book that focused on black Southern women who love women. At all of these performances that I was doing around the country, inevitably, a woman in the audience would ask the question during the Q&A, “Well, when you going to write our story? When you going to do a book on us?”
E. Patrick Johnson [25:49]:
After a few years passed and no one had done it, in 2012, I made the decision to go back to the South and start interviewing women. That process was over a two-year period. I started the first interviews in, think, May of 2012 and conducted the last interview in September of 2014. I think that’s pretty much the coverage. I interviewed 79 women ages 18 to 74 in pretty much the same Southern states that I did for Sweet Tea.
E. Patrick Johnson [26:32]:
This time, I went into it knowing that there would be some kind of performance that came out of it, but because I had so much material and because I wanted to be even more creative with the form for this book, my editor, Mark Simpson-Vos is his name, he’s my editor at the University of North Carolina Press, came up with this idea of two different books. I thought he was absolutely nuts. He said, “Why don’t you think about doing what I’m calling the archival version where you can include big chunks of the original oral history interviews, and you can do all the academic stuff to talk about methodology and the politics of you being a man collecting these stories of women? That book can be as long as you want.”
Cathy Hannabach [27:30]:
Oh, wow, free reign.
E. Patrick Johnson [27:31]:
Yeah, yeah, because they’re just going to print that on demand, and that’s going to be-
Cathy Hannabach [27:37]:
Yeah. Oh, I see.
E. Patrick Johnson [27:38]:
… marketed to academics.
Cathy Hannabach [27:40]:
E. Patrick Johnson [27:41]:
That book is called Black. Queer. Southern. Women.: An Oral History.
E. Patrick Johnson [27:47]:
Then the other book, he said, could be the creative nonfiction book. He said, “You can let your imagination and creativity just go wild. You can go full throttle with that version,” he said, “but it needs to be much shorter, and we’ll market that to a general audience.” That one is still called Honeypot. It was such a freeing and rewarding experience to be able to focus on a creative version of this material.
E. Patrick Johnson [28:20]:
I had so much fun. I went to Australia, which is my place to write because it’s the only place that I can really get away and no one really bother me because I’m… There’s so many pulls on my time. I have friends over there who allow me to come and stay with them. They don’t bother me. They know I’m there to write. I went there this past December, and I finished a draft of the creative nonfiction book. I’m really excited about it. Hopefully, both books will be out this time next year.
Cathy Hannabach [28:57]:
It’s almost like the creating more books gave you more freedom, oddly enough, right?
E. Patrick Johnson [29:02]:
Cathy Hannabach [29:02]:
It sounds counterintuitive, like it should be more daunting because it’s like, “Oh. One was bad enough. Now I have to make two.”
E. Patrick Johnson [29:10]:
Cathy Hannabach [29:10]:
It’s fascinating that it actually gave you more freedom.
E. Patrick Johnson [29:13]:
Yes, it did. It gave me a whole lot more freedom and in a way that I didn’t even realize until I started writing. The creative process just sort of took over. The muse was really with me, and I was in a zone. It was great.
E. Patrick Johnson [29:31]:
The other thing that I’m working on is a documentary film about Sweet Tea. That is another collaboration. That is a collaboration with a colleague of mine by the name of John Jackson, Jr. John is an anthropologist by training and a documentary film maker and a dean at the University of Pennsylvania. He approached me about making a film about Sweet Tea not too long after the play debuted in 2010. We talked about it for years, and we never moved on it. Then, three years ago, we moved on it, and we started shooting footage.
E. Patrick Johnson [30:08]:
The film is also experimental in that we go back to interview some of the men that I interviewed for Sweet Tea, but this time filming them. Because it’s been over a decade since the original interviewed, it’s sort of a where are they now? What’s happened to them? It’s also me performing their stories in front of them at their homes, in their church, where they work with them sometimes directing me.
Cathy Hannabach [30:43]:
Oh, that sounds fascinating.
E. Patrick Johnson [30:45]:
Yeah. When John came up with that idea, I was like, “Oh, well, that’s weird,” but seeing how it all came together, it’s like, “Oh, wow. That’s really interesting.”
E. Patrick Johnson [31:00]:
The other thing that is a part of the film is my own journey back home to where I grew up, and my relationship to my hometown, and being black and gay and from a small town, and how I negotiated that and my relationship with my family. That’s also a big part of the film as well.
Cathy Hannabach [31:25]:
This brings me to my final question, which is my favorite question that I get to ask people, and that is their version of a better world. Obviously, the title of this podcast is Imagine Otherwise, and I get to talk with amazing people like yourself who are doing just that when they step in front of a classroom, in your case when they step on stage, when they sit down in front of that scary blinking cursor and that blank page, what comes out in response, so that world that you’re working towards. I’ll ask you what kind of world are you trying to build? What kind of world do you want?
E. Patrick Johnson [31:58]:
I have a saying that my friends know they 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 about them based on their race, their gender, their sexuality, their economic status. I want that kind of freedom for everyone. I know that’s kind of a utopic vision, but I want that.
E. Patrick Johnson [32:35]:
I also want a world in which people feel free to be themselves in a interior way. In other words, I want people to feel like it’s okay for you to… If you are gay, that’s okay. Be gay. If you are into certain kinds of things, that’s okay. Do that, but don’t cordon off parts of yourself to yourself or to other people because of fear.
E. Patrick Johnson [33:04]:
One of the things I tell young people who are struggling with coming out to their parents or their families, in general because of the fear of rejection, I tell them often, “You have to love yourself more than your fear of being rejected by your family, because your family has to go through the same process that you went through in terms of accepting who you are, your sexuality for instance. That didn’t happen overnight. You went through multiple stages of feelings and in recognition of those feelings, acknowledging those feelings, to feeling uncomfortable with accepting who you are, and you have to give family, parents time to do that as well.”
E. Patrick Johnson [33:49]:
Now, sometimes that happens quickly, or sometimes your family will say, “Oh, well you’re not telling us anything new. We already knew that. Next question,” or sometimes it doesn’t go well, but you can’t worry about that. You have to stand inside your own truth and allow the family members and loved ones to go through that process, but you’ve got to really love yourself. The more you love yourself, the more confident you will be in your own skin. I want a world in which more people feel that they can do that.
E. Patrick Johnson [34:22]:
I also want to live in a world where people are generous not only with their feedback to people but generous with the things that they’ve been given or that they worked for. I told someone very recently that capitalism has already happened. I mean that’s the world in which we live in, and we can’t really change that. One person is not going to change that. One nation is not going to change that. What we can change is our relationship to capitalism.
E. Patrick Johnson [34:54]:
I’m a person who names and claims his bougieness. I love nice things, and I also like sharing things. My partner and I built a home that is far too big for the two of us, but the home was not just for us. We consider it a community home. We have gatherings here for the community. We think of our house as a community space. If I were a different kind of person, we could’ve just built this home for us and have people admire it from afar but not share it, not open it up to the community.
E. Patrick Johnson [35:34]:
I want to live in a world in which other people who have reached a certain status or who have certain things to share those things with others, empower other people to go out and share their gifts with other folks by giving them a platform, by giving them a place to break bread with people, by giving them a place to dance, by giving them a place to sing, by giving them all kinds of resources that they may not have access to for whatever reason, but you have access to those things, so share them to empower them. That’s my version of paying it forward, and I think that that’s the kind of world I want to live in.
Cathy Hannabach [36:15]:
Well, thank you so much for being with us and sharing your version of imagining otherwise.
E. Patrick Johnson [36:20]:
It was my pleasure. Any time.
Cathy Hannabach [36:26]:
Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Check out our website at ideasonfire.net to listen to full episodes, read show notes, and see links to the people, books and projects discussed on the show. While you’re there, be sure to sign up for our newsletter to find out when new episodes are released and to get tips to help you rock your interdisciplinary career.