Essex Hemphill at City University of New York reading in 1993. I
scoured all of the poetry books at St. Mark’s Bookshop and found his
collection of poetry and essays, Ceremonies.
This was at the height of multicultural publishing and the beginning of
the spoken word poetry slam movement. I was looking for every possible
role model as a writer and when I saw Essex deliver his poetry
with unabashed sexuality and sardonic wit, I was witnessing the wedding
of social justice, verse & performance. Essex Hemphill advocated
gay marriage rights in "American Wedding":
I place my ring
on your cock
where it belongs.
no soldier of doom
will swoop in
and sweep us apart.
He wrote about the AIDS epidemic, religious homophobia,
Mappelthorpe's hyper-sexualized images of black men and the sordid red
light district of 14th Street, NW. I stood before Essex trying to
absorb as much of his fearless strength and conviction to be a proud
gay male of color. He smiled at me and signed my copy of Ceremonies: "To Regie take care of your blessings 3.5.93."
At that time, poets and artists had to make the decision whether or not
to come out of the closet. Though I had many openly gay teachers and
acquaintances, many of them kept their sexual identity private.
Essex Hemphill was born in 1957, a little over a decade before me.
Reading his works, I am still in awe at how daring and relevant his
poetry and essays are. I also see just how influential he became as I
found myself as a young poet performing at the Nuyorican Poets Café.
My early poem "gameboy" owes a debt to Hemphill’s confrontational tones to a lover. In "Pressing Flats," Hemphill wrote:
You wanna sleep on my chest?
You wanna listen to my heart beat
all through the night?
It’s the only jazz station
with a twenty-four-hour signal
if you wanna listen?
I adopted his brave model, writing:
you wanna play with me? you can
just quit orientalizin’ cuz I ain’t gonna change my cotton knit calvins
if I lose…
Had Essex Hemphill wanted to, he would have done well in the poetry
slam world but his voice found itself in arenas larger than any coffee
house or bar.
Essex Hemphill’s trailblazing black gay identity was not just in editing Brother To Brother, an anthology of African American gay writing; he collaborated with Isaac Julien on the film, Looking for Langston.
This work gives us the first film to depict black gay desire and assert
the experience of black gay men into a sacred historic context, the
Harlem Renaissance. The executor of 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. Hemphill also worked on Tongues Untied,
which shows the life of gay black men in song, verse, and drama;
however the film was dropped by more than half of the public television
stations scheduled to air it in 1991 because of objections to profane
language used in the film. It was later screened as part of "POV," an
independent film series.
Essex Hemphill also demonstrated an uncompromising vision as artist.
When the DC Commission for the Arts asked Essex Hemphill to take the
word “corruption” out of his poem "Family Jewels" at the Mayor’s Arts
Awards, Hemphill at first agreed, then went ahead and performed his
poem in its entirety. Hemphill reminds me that poetry is dangerous and
reminds me to assess the risk in my own work and to hold dear to my own
convictions as a Catholic gay Filipino man living in the same capital
city that other gay iconoclastic and quixotic poets have lived in, most
notably, Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes.
After graduating from Ballou High School, a DC Public School, Hemphill
went to the University of Maryland and the University of the District
of Columbia and proclaimed his gay identity during a poetry reading at
the library of Howard University in 1980. His mother, Mantalene Hemphill,
who held her church's bigoted view of homosexuality, eventually came to
accept it. However, that did not stop Hemphill’s literary colleagues
from protecting his writings. In the final days of Essex’s life, Chuck Tarver recounts in blackstripe.com:
My friend called in tears. He
said that Essex was no longer able to speak, he could only point and a
horrible rattle came from his throat. I asked him was it "the death
rattle." He said it was. He also put me on standby because he had not
spoken with Hemphill's family who is very religious and did not know if
they would honor his wishes regarding his work. Essex had been working
with Charles Nero to have his
papers donated to the New York Public Library. The library had agreed
to accept the papers but things were still in process. In the event
that it appeared the papers were in jeopardy, my friend wanted me to
drive to Philly with my minivan and get the works to a safe place.
It would take almost two decades for Hemphill’s work to be made
available to the public after much resistance from his family members.
Even in death, his writings remain controversial.
Hemphill passed away in 1995 at the age of 38. Chuck Tarver
asked Hemphill what “Take care of your blessings” meant. Hemphill
replied, "Some of us bake wonderfully, write, paint, do any number of
things, have facilities with numbers that others don't have. Those are
your blessings. Some of us are very strong and candid and some of us
are nurturers or combinations of all of those things. Just be aware of
what your particular things are and nurture them and use them toward a
positive way of living."
Hemphill accomplished so much and connected to so many, during a time
before social media and the internet. His words are inextricably linked
to African-American gay life in DC and across the country. His
poems and essays evoke the despair and joys of African-American gay
life and his confidence and joy in himself and others is seminal in its
influence on the community.
He wrote as the enraged African American male labeled as a sexualized
Mandingo in the media, the headless black male in Mappelthorpe
photographs. He was the face of AIDS and brazenly opened the sexual
taboos and homophobia within the African American community, uniting
black lesbians and gay men. He tackled his own spirituality and
religious morals, in his essay "Loyalty":
At other moments it is sacred
communion, causing me to moan and tremble and cuss as the Holy Ghost
fucks me. It is a knowledge of fire and beauty that I will carry beyond
the grave. When I sit in God’s final judgment, I will wager this
knowledge against my entrance into the Holy Kingdom.
Inspired by Hemphill’s "In The Life," and upon battling my own Catholic upbringing, I wrote:
If you listen to my words you
will never notice the absence of bridesmaids being serenaded by chords
of rice or miss the sound of baby footsteps. If you listen, my words
fall without the sound of stars like grace of your denial. Don’t ever
think that I am not your son or that I honor you any less. Here are my
poems: love them.
Essex Hemphill’s writings have shadow-mentored me since I came back to
Washington, DC. The 25th anniversary of the AIDS quilt and my recent
participation in a poetry reading at the Smithsonian Folklife festival
reminded me of the loss of gay artistic lineage. How stronger would I
be if all the artists who died were back? As liberal as Washington, DC
is, I still come up against audience members who find my work too edgy
for the open mic community which has been littered with misogynistic
and homophobic verses. As a literary curator and poet performer, I feel
blessed to have Ceremonies as an artistic and political manifesto, a bible in a time of spoken word renaissance in DC.
BibliographyCeremonies: Prose and Poetry, 1992
Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men, 1991 (editor, anthology)
Conditions: Poems, 1986
Earth Life, 1985
Diamonds Was in the Kitty, 1983 (chapbook)
Plums, 1982 (chapbook)
Work also included in anthologies:
Full Moon on K Street: Poems About Washington, DC, ed. Kim Roberts, 2010
Boys Like Us: Gay Writers Tell Their Coming Out Stories, ed. Patrick Merla, 1996
Life Sentences: Writers, Artists, and AIDS, ed. Thomas Avena, 1993
Tongues Untied, ed. Martin Humphries, 1988
Gay and Lesbian Poetry in Our Time, ed. Carl Morse and Joan Larkin, 1986
In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology, ed. Joseph Beam, 1986
Black Is...Black Ain't, 1994
Tongues Untied, 1989
Looking for Langston, 1989
An earlier version of this essay
was first presented at the 2011 Associated Writers and Writing Programs
Annual Conference in Washington, DC, in a panel entitled "Four by Four:
Beltway Poetry Quarterly Celebrates the Poetic Lineage of the Capitol City." The panel was moderated by Holly Bass, and the presenters, in addition to Cabico, were Brian Gilmore, Kim Roberts, and Dan Vera.