Book Reviews

Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South and Speaking From the Body: Latinas on Health and Culture

By Juba Kalamka Mar 24, 2009

Black Gay Men of the South
Culled from interviews during travel across 15 southern states, Northwestern University performance studies chair E. Patrick Johnson’s Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South (University of North Carolina Press) profiles 63 gay Black men ranging in ages from 19 to 93. The stories—like the men—are as diverse and complex as Johnson’s memories of his mother’s and aunts’ metaphorized iced tea recipes. “Sweet tea” serves as a double entendre referring to both Black gay men and to gossip (as in “pouring tea” or  “spilling the tea”). The term serves as both a literal and figurative backdrop for a series of powerful, touching life narratives.

Johnson’s introduction sets up the collection with affinity and respect for his participation in the process, and the dialogues function as a series of intricate exchanges from Black performance and storytelling traditions. As a result, Sweet Tea easily shatters many narrow perceptions around the intersections of class, sex, love, age, religion, family and gender expression in Southern communities, as well as the simple and complex reasons that the men profiled have chosen to remain in the South.

Deconstructing Northern urban and academic assumptions and mythology about Black gay men’s navigation of Southern homophobia and racism is crucial to Johnson’s effectiveness as a writer and scholar. Contextualized and approached as a sharing as opposed to a distant anthropology, the collection testifies that there are more stories to tell if we’re willing to listen.   
—Juba Kalamka

The Mind Body Culture Connection
Speaking From the Body: Latinas on Health and Culture (University of Arizona Press) is hardly a “how-to” guide on cultural sensitivity and health. Instead, editors Angie Chabram-Dernersesian and Adela de la Torre have collected the stories of 12 Latinas and uncovered a reservoir of knowledge on the complexities of pain and healing through the language of cultura.

One story that’s typical of the collection centers on a woman’s arthritis, which worsens as she struggles with the loss of a close friend. The woman suffers a series of sustos (loosely translated as fears that shake the body) while dreaming about her own death. Her symptoms are eased only by an unlikely mix of traditional therapy, Tylenol and a chili powder ointment.

What makes this book particularly useful to health researchers, policymakers and practitioners are the editors’ suggestions. They recommend that practitioners reaffirm patients’ own interpretations of their illness rather than just read test lab results for a diagnosis. Through statistical data, they show that traditional healing as well as Western medicine are complementary systems of healthcare that build on Latino cultural knowledge.

Unfortunately, the academic language of the narrative analysis flattens the nuance of experience. Nonetheless, Speaking From the Body validates how culture shapes the body’s expression of illness and also of healthcare, while introducing new approaches to healthcare through practical remedios and holistic healing.
—Leticia Miranda