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 (b. 16 April 1957; d. 4 November 1995), writer, performer, activist.
Essex Hemphill was arguably the most talented and most critically successful black gay male poet to emerge after the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Born in Chicago, Illinois, as the second of five children, he was raised in southeast Washington, D.C., where he began to write poetry at the age of fourteen. He briefly attended the University of Maryland at College Park but left before receiving a degree. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Hemphill became a prominent member of the quickly developing community of black LGBT artists and intellectuals in Washington, D.C., a community that included filmmaker Michelle Parkeson, activists Gil Gerald and Louis Hughes, and musician Wayson Jones. Washington was also visited often by the likes of black lesbian critic Barbara Smith, writer and editor Joseph Beam, and poet Pat Parker. Indeed, "Chocolate City," as it was often called, was for a time the recognized center of black LGBT cultural and political activity in the United States, housing the now defunct National Coalition of Black Lesbian and Gays as well as several black lesbian and gay businesses and local civic organizations.
With Wayson Jones, Hemphill started to present his poetry at various venues in the city, eventually developing a style that built upon the aesthetics of the black arts movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Like that earlier generation of poets, Hemphill stressed the idea that poetry should be performed, even sang, in order to reach the masses of black and LGBT people. Hemphill's highly rhythmic, jazz-influenced poetry and performance soon captivated audiences in Washington and elsewhere. Many saw him as not only one of the very first writers to portray the reality of black and LGBT experience without apology but also one of the finest technicians of contemporary American poetry. As comfortable with black American vernacular traditions as with classical poetic forms, Hemphill was able to portray to his audiences—black, LGBT and otherwise—that the everyday reality of their lives was, in fact, the substance of which poetry is made.
Self-publishing his first two collections of poetry, Earth Life (1985) and Conditions (1986), Hemphill first came to national attention when his work appeared in the 1986 collection of black gay male writers In the Life , edited by Joseph Beam. That same year Hemphill received a poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. He soon became something of a cult figure when in 1989 he was featured in two films by black gay directors, Tongues Untied by Marlon Riggs and Looking for Langston by Isaac Julien. Hemphill's star status among American poets continued to develop as he read and lectured at, among other places, Harvard University, Yale University, the University of Pennsylvania, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of California at Los Angeles, the City University of New York, the Folger Shakespeare Library, and the Whitney Museum, as well as a host of LGBT venues. Honoring the memory of Joseph Beam, who died in 1988, Hemphill moved to Philadelphia and continued the work that Beam had begun on a second collection of black gay male writers. When Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men was published by Alyson Publications in 1991, Hemphill became the undisputed leader of an emergent black gay male arts community. The following year, Hemphill published his first work with a major press, Ceremonies: Poetry and Prose , for which he won the National Library Association's Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual New Writer's Award.
In this work Hemphill demonstrates with absolute clarity that the work of the intellectual is necessarily both aesthetic and political. He treats topics such as AIDS, racial stereotyping, homophobia in the black community, and the pleasures of sex with a precision and delicacy that is, at times, breathtaking. In 1993 his contributions to American arts and letters were further recognized when he became a visiting fellow at the Getty Center for the History of Art and Humanities in Santa Monica, California.
During the last years of his life, Hemphill continued to speak out with great courage and poise about racism, both inside and outside the LGBT community, and homophobia, both inside and outside the black American community. He also pointed out, however, the ways in which AIDS was ravaging both communities. Strangers and friends alike will remember the phrase that Hemphill repeated whenever he took his leave, "Take care of your blessings." Essex Hemphill died in November 1995 in Philadelphia from complications related to HIV. He was thirty-eight.
Hemphill, Essex. Earth Life: Poems. Washington, D.C.: Be Bop, 1985.
——. Conditions: Poems. Washington, D.C.: Be Bop, 1986.
——. Ceremonies: Prose and Poetry. 2d ed. San Francisco: Cleis Press, 2000.
see alsobeam, joseph; literature; riggs, marlon.
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)