Hemphill, Essex 1957—
Essex Hemphill 1957—
Poet, essayist, editor, gay rights activist
Noted for his candid, impassioned work, Essex Hemphill, an African American poet, essayist, editor, and gay activist has become one of the best known black gay authors since James Baldwin. A recipient of fellowships in literature from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the D.C. Commission for the Arts, Hemphill has published three books of poetry and has had his poems included in several anthologies. In addition, his poetry has been used in some films and documentaries. He has also edited Brother to Brother, a compilation of writings by black gay men—only the second of its kind to be published in the United country.
Essex Hemphill was born into a working-class family in Chicago, Illinois, in 1957. The oldest of five siblings, he grew up in Anderson, Indiana; Columbia, South Carolina; and on Horner Place in Southeast Washington, DC. He began writing in his early teens. A poem called “Fixin’ Things” in his book Ceremonies may provide a clue about his family life: “It wasn’t the sound / of my mother crying that hurt most, / it was the sound of my father leaving / his marriage, his house, his familiars.… I tell you of the hatred / that seized the boyhoods / of my brother and me, / how we fought violently in public.… We are men now, he with a family; / I have a cat and a thousand poems. / We have accepted what we can of ourselves.” In the same book, Hemphill recalled his teenaged years and his neighborhood: “I was a skinny little 14-year-old black boy, growing up in a ghetto that had not yet suffered the fatal wounds and injuries caused by drugs and black-on-black crime. My neighborhood, my immediate homespace, was an oasis of strivers. A majority of the families living on my block owned their homes.”
After graduating from Bailou High School Hemphill went to the University of Maryland and the University of the District of Columbia. He proclaimed his gay identity during a poetry reading at the library of Howard University in 1980, and his mother, Mantalene Hemphill, who held her church’s view of homosexuality, eventually came to accept it. In one of his most poignant poems, “Commitments,” in the anthology Brother to Brother, Hemphill wrote about his position in his family as a gay male son: “In the photos / the smallest children / are held by their parents. / My arms are empty, or around / the shoulders of unsuspecting aunts / expecting to
Born in 1957, in Chicago, IL; grew up in Anderson, IN; Columbia, SC; and Washington, DC. Education: Attended University of Maryland and the University of the District of Columbia.
Poet, writer, editor, and gay cultural activist. Work also featured in black gay films, including Isaac Julien’s Looking for Langston, which appeared on British television in 989 and later was shown in the United States at the New York Film Festival, and Marlon Riggs’ documentary Tongues Untied, which aired on PBS in 1991; narrated the black gay AIDS documentary, Out of the Shadows.
Awards: Fellowships in literature from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in 1986, and the D.C Commission for the Arts.
Addresses: Home —4701 Pine Street, Box 49, Philadelphia, PA 19143–1816. Office—c/o Alyson Publications, 6922 Hollywood Blvd., 10th FL, Los Angeles, CA 90028.
throw rice at me someday.… I am the invisible son. / In the family photos / nothing appears out of character. / I smile as I serve my duty.”
Influenced by black nationalism when he was in his 20s, Hemphill later “moved away from [it]” because it was “too narrow a politic for the interests that reside in me. It wasn’t enough.” In “Loyalty,” a previously unpublished essay in his book, Ceremonies, Hemphill wrote about the need to tell the truth concerning black American history: “The black homosexual is hard pressed to gain audience among his heterosexual brothers; even if he is more talented,” he revealed. “He is inhibited by his silence or his admissions. This is what the race has depended on in being able to erase homosexuality from our recorded history.… It is not enough to tell us that one was a brilliant poet, scientist, educator, or rebel. Whom did he love? It makes a difference. I can’t become a whole man simply on what is fed to me: watered-down versions of black life in America. I need the … truth to be told, I will have something pure to emulate, a reason to remain loyal.”
Instead, Hemphill discovered and developed the voice with which to express “the things that I have been hungering for.” His poetry appeared in black literary, academic, and popular magazines, including Obsidian, Black Scholar, Callaloo, and Essence. His work also was printed in numerous anthologies. In addition, he became involved in publishing a journal called Nethula Journal of Contemporary Art and Literature, and his own poetry chapbooks.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s Hemphill used his own struggle against silence to help him edit Brother to Brother, the companion book to the late Philadelphia author and black gay activist Joseph Beam’s debut anthology of black gay male writing, In the Life, published by Alyson Publications in 1986. Hemphill told Frank Broderick of Au Courant, “My biggest concern, my agenda, is the result of the way the black community as a whole treated In the Life. They treated it as if it were invisible.… My agenda is to get dialogue going on the state of black communities, and the denial of input that black gays and lesbians have in the sustaining of those communities.… I know the book will do very well in the gay and lesbian community. But I realize it’s up to me to get the book into black homes.”
Brother to Brother, which includes poems, essays, and stories by contemporary black gay writers and deals with the issue of AIDS, was conceived of by Beam, who stopped working on it when he died of AIDS-related causes in 1988. Hemphill had met Beam in the mid-1980s after sending him ten poems in response to his ad calling for writing submissions from black gay males, and they became friends. After Beam died, his mother enlisted Hemphill, whose name kept appearing in Beam’s papers, to help her finish the book. Hemphill worked closely with her in Philadelphia in order to finish it—at one point he moved in with the Beam family—and the book was published by Alyson Publications in 1991.
Brother to Brother received mixed reviews. Publishers Weekly commented that the writings “address the emerging black gay sensibility in all of its glory, pain, and promise,” but the political strength of the book was “undermined by offerings of dubious literary merit.” The Bay Area Reporter, however, called it “raw, fresh, soothing, and unnerving,” a “roller-coaster ride through the diverse landscape of a non-monolithic black gay experience.” The Village Voice’s Donald Scuggs wrote, Hemphill’s “outstanding selection of poetry effectively brackets and enlarges many of the conflicts in the anthology.”
Brother to Brother has been described as a challenge to black gay invisibility and silence. Calling it “a ringing political indictment of the homophobia of the black community and the racism of the gay community,” David Van Leer noted in the New Republic that “hardly reticent about their sexuality, the black gay authors in this volume introduce the topic only to emphasize struggle and supportiveness between and within groups.” He concluded, “And in Hemphill’s own poetic contributions—especially his moving elegy to Joseph Beam, the volume’s original editor—the beauty of the literary language fully equals the power of the political lament.”
Hemphill also contributed verse to the British filmmaker Isaac Julien’s film, Looking for Langston and to the American Marlon Riggs’s award-winning documentary, Tongues Untied, in which he also appeared. Both of these explicit black gay films have generated controversy. The executor of poet Langston Hughes’s estate refused permission for the use of Hughes’s work in Looking for Langston, which depicts the late Harlem Renaissance poet as being homosexual and Tongues Untied, which unabashedly shows the life of gay black men in song, verse, and drama, was dropped by more than half the public television stations scheduled to air it in 1991 because of objections to profane language used in the film. However, it was included later as part of the independent film series, P.O.V. Hemphill has also narrated a black gay AIDS documentary called Out of the Shadows.
In his essay, “Undressing Icons” in Brother to Brother, Hemphill wrote, “The questions that emerge from [the attempt of the Hughes estate’s executor] to prevent American audiences from viewing Looking for Langston emerge directly from the practice among black academicians of ignoring gays and lesbians in almost every articulation and theory concerning matters of race and culture. Additionally, the sexuality of black icons is deemed inappropriate for public discussion.… By creating Looking for Langston, Julien gives us the first black gay film to articulate black gay desire and assert the experience of black gay men into a ‘sacred’ historic context—the Harlem Renaissance.”
Equally forthright was Hemphill’s book of poetry and prose, Ceremonies, brought out by Plume/New American Library in 1992. Ceremonies reflects Hemphill’s entire writing career; in addition to prose pieces and essays, the book includes poetry from his early chap-books, Earth Life and Conditions, which he published himself under his own imprint, Be Bop Books, in the mid-1980s. Calling the book “an urgent, fiercely telling work,” a Library Journal contributor noted Hemphill’s efforts to bridge the “two beleaguered subcultures all too frequently themselves at odds.” Describing the range of the poetry from “hauntingly erotic lyricism” to the “dulled cadences of a dramatic monolog,” and noting that the essays “also roam wide and deep,” the contributor concluded, “He makes passionate common sense.”
A former Washington, DC, resident who has since moved to Philadelphia, Hemphill has received literary fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the D.C. Commission for the Arts. He has written numerous essays for gay publications and has taught a course on black gay identity at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC. In interviews Hemphill has spoken of homophobia within the African American community, the continuing problem of racism in America whether one allies oneself with the gay community or not, and the need for the gay community to become sensitized to larger issues of injustice. “Do I speak now only about issues of sexuality and identity,” he asked during an interview in Vanguard, “or do I look at the issues that go hand in hand with being a black gay man: racism, economic injustice, crime rates in the communities. How do I make my work speak to and make those connections?”
Hemphill has known that he has been HIV positive for a few years, but has been reluctant to speak about it publicly. “It’s just one more thing you have to contend with, and if you believe in yourself fiercely enough, you’ll find a way to deal with it,” he told the Advocate. Hemphill perceives his primary goal as spreading the word about black gay writing. “Mainstream publishing would only allow one icon at a time—a Langston Hughes or a Richard Wright or a James Baldwin,” he told Lambda Book Report. “My whole thing is to disrupt that. When [an editor] calls me up, I automatically recommend four other people. I want white gay men and lesbians who are publishing to know that there is a community of us.”
Since the early 1990s, Hemphill has been working on a historical project, interviewing black gay men 60 years of age and over. His aim, he said, during an interview in Lambda Book Report was to look at the past “not just through the lens of the Harlem Renaissance … [but] … to look for the popular story, for the story beneath that.” He prefaced this remark by saying, “I want to know what it was like before the idea of ‘gay’ came into being. [For example] how did you relate to your family? your community and your church? to the other men who were in this life?”
What concerns Hemphill is what his generation will leave to those that follow. “Our work isn’t just for this present moment of empowerment,” he told Outweek. “It is for the others coming behind us who need to know all of the range and all of the possibility of this life. They need to know that it does need to be a life disconnected from primary things like family and community because, this life is part of the greater African American family.”
Earth Life (poetry chapbook), privately printed, 1985.
Conditions (poetry chapbook), privately printed, 1986.
(Contributor), In the Life: A Black Gay; Anthology, edited by Joseph Beam, Alyson Publications, 1986.
(Editor), Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men (anthology), Alyson Publications, 1991.
Ceremonies: Prose and Poetry, Plume/New American Library, 1992.
Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men, edited by Essex Hemphill, Alyson Publications, 1991.
Gay and Lesbian Poetry in Our Time, edited by Joan Larkin and Carl Morse, St. Martin’s, 1988.
Hemphill, Essex, Ceremonies: Prose and Poetry, Plume, 1992.
Tongues Untied, edited by Martin Humphries, Gay Men’s Publishers Ltd./Alyson Publications, 1987.
In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology, edited by Joseph Beam, Alyson Publications, 1986.
Men and Intimacy: Personal Accounts Exploring the Dilemmas of Modern Male Sexuality, edited by Franklin Abbott, Crossing Press, 1990.
New Men, New Minds: Breaking Male Tradition, edited by Franklin Abbott, Crossing Press, 1987
Advocate, February 12,1991, pp. 33, 34, 40; June 2, 1992, p. 38.
Au Courant, July 29, 1991, pp. 7, 24.
Bay Area Reporter, May 30, 1991, pp. 29, 60.
Daily News, July 16, 1991, p.72.
Gay Community News, June 9–15, 1991.
Lambda Book Report: A Review of Contemporary Gay and Lesbian Literature, May/June 1991, pp. 8–10.
Library Journal, October 1, 1992, p. 88.
New Republic, October 12, 1992, pp. 50–53.
Newsday, July 16, 1991, pp. 46, 47, 51, 67.
New York Times, October 1, 1989, p.61.
Out! Magazine, June 1991, p. 32.
Outweek, May 29, 1991, pp. 55, 56, 57, 62.
Philadelphia Inquirer, August 25, 1991, Section C.
Publishers Weekly, May 10, 1991, p. 278; May 22, 1995, p. 15.
San Francisco Weekly, June 5, 1991.
Vanguard, August 23, 1991, part II, pp. 7, 10.
Variety, March 2, 1992, p. 40.
Village Voice, September 26, 1989, p.64; November 7, 1989, p. 70; October 1, 1991, p. 74.
Washington Blade, August 2, 1991, pp. 1, 35.
Washington Post, August 17, 1991, Cl, C5.
Washington Post Book World, October 27, 1991.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Alyson Publications.
—Alison Carb Sussman
"Hemphill, Essex 1957—." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 29, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/hemphill-essex-1957
"Hemphill, Essex 1957—." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved May 29, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/hemphill-essex-1957
April 16, 1957
November 4, 1995
Essex Hemphill was an author, poet, performance artist, and black gay activist who challenged silence, exclusion, and homophobia within black communities and institutions. The eldest of five children, he was born in Chicago and grew up in Washington, D.C. Hemphill fought to create an accessible African-American gay history. In 1978, he founded the Nethula Journal of Contemporary Literature, and he ran the journal for several years before becoming increasingly involved in performance poetry. He performed at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, the Folger Shakespeare Library, the 1994 National Black Arts Festival, and at the Whitney Museum. Hemphill self-published three books—Diamonds in the Kitty (1982), Plums (1983), and Earth Life (1985)—and a larger collection, Conditions (1986).
His work may be seen in the film Looking for Langston and in two docudramas by Marlon Riggs, Tongues Untied and Black Is, Black Ain't. Hemphill won the National Library Association's New Authors in Poetry Award for Ceremonies, published by Penguin in 1992. His radical poems, prose, and expository writing in Ceremonies explored African-American urban and gay realities. He also won a Lambda Award for editing the 1991 anthology Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men —his best-known work. In 1986 he received a fellowship for poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts. Hemphill died from AIDS complications on November 5, 1995.
Walsh, Sheila. "Essex Hemphill Dies." Washington Blade, November 10, 1995.
rachel zellars (1996)
"Hemphill, Essex." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 29, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/hemphill-essex
"Hemphill, Essex." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . Retrieved May 29, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/hemphill-essex