“Lyrical, charismatic and fiercely political”: Legend of poet Essex Hemphill remains relevant
Let’s take a look back at one of the most iconic Black LGBTQ folks out there ahead of this year’s recognition of LGBTQ History Month (October).
While born in Chicago in 1957, Hemphill grew up in the southeast region of Washington, D.C. as the oldest of Mantalene and Warren Hemphill’s five children.
His passion for writing and poetry didn’t start until his teenage years, eventually stemming into openly addressing race, identity, sexuality and the AIDS epidemic, all through the lens of a queer Black man, according to the Poetry Foundation.
The Washington Post cites Hemphill’s upbringing in deep impoverishment.
“Poetry was his refuge — every night after dinner, Hemphill would hole up in his bedroom and work through his feelings about his race and sexuality by putting words on the page,” The Post wrote.
Black Past described Hemphill’s poetry as “outspoken, direct and often confrontational” as “one of the most celebrated Black, openly gay performance poets of his generation.”
Following his graduation from high school, he pursued an English degree at the University of Maryland.
However, he left university after his freshman year and lived in Los Angeles until 1981, where he returned to the D.C. area. In 1980, he proclaimed his homosexuality during a poetry reading at Howard University. During the stint of his return to D.C., “he would fill the District’s coffeehouses and theaters for his [poetry] readings.
“He was the unofficial voice of the city’s Black gay community – 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.”
His first collections of poems were self-published in Earth Life in 1985 and Conditions in 1986. Following this, his first full-length collection Ceremonies: Prose and Poetry (1992) won the National Library Association’s Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual New Author Award.
“Although the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) epidemic had already ravaged the gay community for some time, by the mid-1980s the majority of Americans were now aware of its devastation,” Black Past noted. “Hemphill’s first books both addressed the impact of AIDS on both the Black community and the larger gay community.”
NMAAHC notes Hemphill’s involvement in the poetry group “Cinque” with Wayson Jones and Larry Duckette, whose work was later featured in the Tongues Untied documentary.
In addition to this, Hemphill also appeared in numerous 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 narrated the Black gay AIDS documentary, Out of the Shadows.
His death in November 1995 from AIDS-related complications was a tremendous loss for the Black queer community, which lulled with the passage of time. In remembering Hemphill today, we can begin to recognize unconscious biases against queer Black folks in the arts and start the steps to heal those wounds.
“The precarity of Black life made Hemphill a fierce defender of our right to dignity as Black Gay Men,” Encyclopedia.com wrote of the poet. “He was a staunch critic of white supremacist depictions that reduced Black men to sexual stereotypes.”
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.
More information: Here’s a title with more information on D.C.’s Black LGBTQ+ community in the 1980s, and a dual biography of Hemphill and Michael Callen.