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literature

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Hemphill, Essex (1957-1995)  

Despite a relatively short literary career, Essex Hemphill became arguably the most critically acclaimed and best known openly gay contemporary African-American poet. Through his writing and editing, he helped break the silence surrounding Black gay experiences and enabled other Black gay men to find their voices.

Born in Chicago, Illinois, on April 16, 1957, he was raised in Southeast Washington, D. C., where he began to write poetry at the age of fourteen. "I started writing about and addressing my homosexuality because it wasn't there in the black text," he remembered. "And I needed something to be there to validate that my experience was real for me."

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Hemphill studied English at the University of Maryland, but decided to complete his degree at the University of the District of Columbia. With another student from the University of Maryland, he founded the Nethula Journal of Contemporary Literature in 1978, and ran the magazine for several years before leaving to devote more time to writing and presenting his work.

Hemphill believed that poetry should be heard; and he regularly performed his work, often in collaboration with other Washington, D. C. Black lesbian and gay artists. In 1983, he teamed up with Wayson Jones and Larry Duckette to create Cinque, a performance poetry group that combined cutting-edge political verse, vivid imagery about Black gay life, and tightly woven harmonies.

Cinque first performed at the Enik Alley Coffeehouse in Northeast Washington, and quickly developed a loyal local following. Its poetic style gained national attention after the group's work was featured in Marlon Riggs's widely acclaimed films Tongues Untied (1991) and Black Is . . . Black Ain't (1994). Hemphill's poetry was also included in Isaac Julien's award-winning film Looking for Langston (1989).

With few publishers at the time interested in the work of openly gay Black writers, Hemphill self-published his first two poetry collections: Earth Life (1985) and Conditions (1986). He became more widely known when he contributed to Joseph Beam's groundbreaking In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology (1986). Inclusion in anthologies, such as Tongues Untied (1987), Gay and Lesbian Poetry in Our Time (1988), The Road Before Us (1991), and Hometowns (1991), increased his renown. Hemphill's work also appeared in Obsidian, Black Scholar, Callaloo, Painted Bride Quarterly, Gay Community News, The James White Review, Essence, and many other publications.

As Hemphill writes in "When My Brother Fell," after his close friend Beam died from AIDS in 1988, Hemphill "picked up his weapons." At the time of his death, Beam had been working on a follow-up collection to In the Life entitled Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men. Hemphill moved to Philadelphia, where he lived with the Beam family, to complete the anthology. Published in 1991, Brother to Brother won a Lambda Literary Award and garnered widespread critical acclaim.

The following year, Hemphill's Ceremonies: Prose and Poetry was published by a major press and won the American Library Association's Gay and Lesbian Book Award in Literature. The poems and essays in Ceremonies provide powerful insights into the constructions of race, gender, and sexuality in the United States. Among the topics addressed are the sexual objectification of Black men in white gay culture, relationships among Black gay men and with non-gay Black men, HIV/AIDS in the Black community, and meanings of family.

In addition to the honors bestowed on his books, Hemphill received four grants from the D. C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities and was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry in 1988, a Pew Charitable Trust Fellowship in the Arts in 1993, and the Emery S. Hetrick Award for community-based activism from the Hetrick-Martin Institute that same year. He was also a visiting scholar at the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities in Santa Monica, California, in 1993.

After fighting against AIDS for several years, Hemphill died from AIDS-related complications on November 4, 1995 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was thirty-eight.

Brett Genny Beemyn

     

 
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Essex Hemphill in a film still from Marlon Riggs' Tongues Untied (1989).
  
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    Bibliography
   

Aaab-Richards, Dirg, Craig G. Harris, Essex Hemphill, Isaac Jackson, and Assotto Saint. Tongues Untied. London: Gay Men's Press, 1987.

Beam, Joseph, ed. In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology. Boston: Alyson Publications, 1986.

Hemphill, Essex, ed. Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men. Boston: Alyson Publications, 1991.

_____. Ceremonies: Prose and Poetry. New York: Plume, 1992.

Morse, Carl, and Joan Larkin, eds. Gay and Lesbian Poetry in Our Time: An Anthology. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988.

Preston, John, ed. Hometowns: Gay Men Write About Where They Belong. New York: Dutton, 1991.

Price, Deb. "Discovering the Voice of Black Gay Men." www.qrd.org/qrd/www/culture/black/articles/essex.html.

Saint, Assoto, ed. The Road Before Us: 100 Gay Black Poets. New York: Galiens Press, 1991.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Beemyn, Brett Genny  
    Entry Title: Hemphill, Essex  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2005  
    Date Last Updated January 23, 2011  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/hemphill_e.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2005, glbtq, inc.  
 

 

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