From April 7th through the 12th, the department of Africana Studies and Rites and Reasons Theatre at Brown University will be hosting the Black Lavender Experience, a series of theatrical performances and conversations sparked by Black queer artists. This year’s lineup includes a keynote speech, film screenings, performances, and roundtable discussion. The Black Lavender Experience grew out of Professor Elmo Terry-Morgan’s course Black Lavender, which focuses on plays centering on Black LGBTQ voices. This course, which Professor Terry-Morgan has taught since 1998, is one of the first of its kind in the nation.
Playwright, director, and performer, E. Patrick Johnson, presented Monday’s keynote speech about his work collecting oral histories for his upcoming project, Honeypot: the Lives of Southern Black Women who Love Women. These narratives, Johnson feels, have not been adequately addressed by other research. He aims to bring to the fore “women whose identities have positioned them on the margins of society.” Both in and outside of southern culture, Johnson explained, southern Black women have been portrayed by others as asexual mammies or oversexed jezebels. His work seeks to deconstruct blanket assumptions like these through the nuanced collection of oral histories and eventual performance.
Johnson also acknowledged the role of his own gender in collecting these histories. He works to remain attuned to the sensitive aspects of women’s stories, such as trauma and sexual abuse, which he realizes may prevent some of them from speaking openly with him. He further admitted concern about “reinscribing the trauma being described” by recreating a gendered power dynamic. However, he feels that, so far, these fears have not been realized – the women of Honeypot have shared deeply emotional stories with him.
Based on Monday’s keynote, Johnson’s work seems on track to meet its two goals of, firstly, creating an archive of Black, queer, southern women’s experiences and, secondly, in Johnson’s words, “de-mythologizing the South”. In my experience, many northerners, myself included, tend to stereotype the entire region as full of homophobia and religious fundamentalism. Johnson’s keynote destroyed these assumptions, describing the multiplicity of experiences of Black southern women he has found in his research, many who work within different social structures, including the church, to create relationships with other women. Johnson’s keynote made clear that viewing the South as monolithic and oppressive does nothing to promote meaningful understanding between geographically and/or racially divided communities of queer women.
Check out the Africana department’s website for a complete schedule of Black Lavender events. Events continue through Saturday, April 12th, concluding with Johnson’s Sweet Tea, an exploration of the lives of southern black gay men.
Images Courtesy of The Black Lavender Experience