In the 1980s and early 1990s, Essex Hemphill (1957 – 1995) was poet and activist would perform in Washington DC coffeehouses and small theatres. He was the unofficial voice of the city’s queer black community. His work is lyrical, charismatic and fiercely political.
Hemphill captivated the D.C. arts scene. He was a focal point for what people were calling a second Harlem Renaissance, and one of the sole writers to articulate what it meant to be both black and gay during the 1980s and early 1990s.
Today, Hemphill’s impact is obscured by the passage of time and a bias that has left black LGBTQ writers out of the literary canon. But he is one America’s most important black gay poets.
Hemphill was born in Chicago and raised in Southeast DC, ”…in poverty so deep I don’t even want to remember it”. As a kid, every night after dinner, Hemphill would retreat his bedroom and work through his feelings about his race and sexuality by putting words on the page. By the time he started college at the University of Maryland in 1975, Hemphill already identified as a writer, although he was not yet prepared to publicly come out as gay.
He began staging rigorously rehearsed performances of his poetry with Wayson Jones, who had been Hemphill’s roommate in college. Their readings went from from cramped coffeehouses to small, alternative theaters, then to the Kennedy Center, then to New York City and London.
By his early 30s, Hemphill was a Lambda Literary Award-winner for editing the anthology Brother To Brother: New Writing by Black Gay Men (1991), and a National Library Association Award-winner for his own collection, Ceremonies (1992).
Hemphill’s work helped put an end to silence in the African-American LGBTQ community, but somehow his significance has faded and all of Hemphill’s works have gone out of print. While alive, his poetry was published in more than a dozen magazines and several anthologies. He also appeared in films by the director Marlon Riggs, including Tongues Untied (1989) and Black Is . . . Black Ain’t (1992) in which he recited spare, intense verses that affirm both his black and queer identities. In 1989, he appeared in the film Looking For Langston, directed by Isaac Julien about gay poet Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance.
Martin Duberman’s book Hold Tight Gently: Michael Callen, Essex Hemphill, And The Battlefield Of AIDS (2014) documents the life of Hemphill, along with author and activist, Michael Callen. It won the Lambda Literary Award for LGBTQ Nonfiction.
It’s unclear when Hemphill got his HIV diagnosis; he resisted speaking about it publicly, and in those days, AIDS was not something people told you about. He died in November 1995, just a month before the approval of the very first protease inhibitors, a type of AIDS treatment that made a manageable disease out of what was once a death sentence.
Hemphill repeatedly invoked loneliness throughout his work. Loneliness in Hemphill’s work is a traumatic feeling, a constant sense of rejection. Many gay black men felt rejected by white gay communities, only to be rejected within black communities as well. In Hemphill’s poetry, he defines loneliness as a sense of separation from the public that creates a social longing because even though the journey is lonesome, fighting against that journey not to kill you, as Hemphill said in one of his poems, makes you yearn for community and support.
I drink champagne early in the morning
instead of leaving my house
with an M16 and nowhere to go.
I’m dying twice as fast
as any other American
between eighteen and thirty-five
This disturbs me,
but I try not to show it in public.
Each morning I open my eyes is a miracle.
The blessing of opening them
is temporary on any given day
I could be taken out.
I could go off.
I could forget to be careful.
Even my brothers, hunted, hunt me.
I am the only one who values my life
and sometimes I don’t give a damn.
My love life can kill me.
I’m faced daily with choosing violence
or a demeanor that saves every other life
but my own.
I won’t cross-over.
It’s time someone else came to me
not to patronize me physically,
sexually or humorously.
I’m sick of being an endangered species,
sick of being a goddamn statistic.
So what are my choices?
I could leave with no intention
of coming home tonight
I could go crazy downtown
and raise hell on a rooftop with my rifle.
I could live for a brief moment
on the six o’clock news,
or I can masquerade another day
through the corridors of commerce
and American dreams.
I’m dying twice as fast
as any other American.
So I pour myself a glass of champagne,
I cut it with a drop of orange juice.
After I swallow my liquid valium.
my private celebration
for being alive this morning,
I leave my shelter.
I guard my life with no apologies.
My concerns are small