20th Century African American Writers
Wilfred D. Samuels, Ph.D., Department of English, University of Utah
                 
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A Gift of Story/Encyclopedia of African-American Literature

Dr. Wilfred D. Samuels, General Editor

Sample Essays

ESSEX C. HEMPHILL (1957-1995) Renowned poet, essayist, editor, activist, Essex C. Hemphill was born in Chicago, Il, in 1957; he grew up in Anderson, IN; Columbia, SC; and southeast Washington, DC. The second oldest of five children, Hemphill began writing at age fourteen. After graduating from Washington, D.C.'s Ballou High School, Hemphill studied English and Journalism at the University of Maryland, before completing a degree in English at the University of the District of Columbia. Soon thereafter, Hemphill became involved in various writing collectives on the East Coast.

In 1980, he publicly proclaimed his gay identity during a poetry reading at the Founders Library at Howard University. From the mid-1980s until his death, Hemphill became perhaps the most well-known Black gay male writer in the United States since James Baldwin*.

Although initially influenced by the Black Nationalist ideology of the Black Arts Movement, Hemphill eventually distanced himself from what he came to see as its narrow political perspective and spectrum. In the end, this ideology did not address issues that concerned him, specifically the Black gay man's exclusion from the collective African-American community. Hemphill was most interested in exploring in his poetry such difficult subjects as estrangement, racism, isolation, homophobia, denial and fear. For example, in his poem "Commitments," Hemphill says poignantly of his family photos,


My arms are empty
in those photos, too,
so empty they would break
around a lover . . .
I am the invisible son . . .
nothing appears out of character.
I smile as I serve my duty (Brother to Brother 58)

It is this complacency on the part of Black gay men within the larger context of Black American politics and community that Hemphill's poetry often struggle against.

The co-founder of the Nethula Journal of Contemporary Literature, Hemphill's poetry appeared in Obsidian*, Black Scholar*, Callaloo*, and Essence*. He wrote numerous essays for gay publications and taught a course on black gay identity at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC. Hemphill's first collections of poems: Earth Life (Washington, DC: Be Bop Books, 1985) and Conditions (Washington, DC: Be Bop Books, 1986) were self-published chapbooks. He gained national attention, however, after his work appeared in In the Life (Los Angeles: Alyson Publications, 1986), the first contemporary anthology of writings by Black gay men, edited by Hemphill's friend Joseph Beam*. He also contributed to Tongues Untied (London: GMP,1987), a British collection that also included the work of Dirg Aaab-Richards, Craig G. Harris, Isaac Jackson and Assotto Saint*.

After Joseph Beam's death to AIDS in 1988, Hemphill compiled and edited Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men (Los Angeles: Alyson Publications, 1991), a follow-up collection to In the Life. Brother to Brother won a Lambda Literary Award. Hemphill, who received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry in 1986, later published Ceremonies: Prose and Poetry (New York: Plume/New American Library, 1992), the only complete collection of his works. In it, he offers provocative commentary on such topics as Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs of African-American men, feminism among men, and AIDS in the black community. Ceremonies was awarded the National Library Association's Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual New Author Award in 1993.

Hemphill's bold, assertive poems were often written to be performed aloud, as he believed strongly that poetry was not solely intended for the page, but was meant to be heard. He performed readings and lectured at Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of California at Los Angeles, the Folgers Shakespeare Library, The National Black Arts Festival at the Whitney Museum, and many other institutions. He received four grants from the District of Columbia Commission for the Arts, and was a visiting scholar at The Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities in Santa Monica in 1993.

Hemphill, together with Larry Duckett and later Wayson Jones, created Cinque, a Washington, D.C.-based performance trio that first performed at the Enik Alley Coffeehouse at 816 I St. NE. The trio also worked with Emmy and Peabody Award winning filmmaker Marlon Riggs* on his final film Black Is . . . Black Ain't*, which deals with the explosive conflicts over African-American identity. Hemphill's work was also featured in two other award-winning films: Isaac Julien's Looking for Langston*, (1989), and Marlon Riggs' documentary Tongues Untied* (1991) in which he also performs his poetry.

At his death, Hemphill left three projects uncompleted: Standing in the Gap, a novel in which a mother challenges a preacher's condemnation of her gay son who is suffering from AIDS; Bedside Companions, a collection of short stories by black gay men; and The Evidence of Being, narratives of older black gay men, which he had been working on since the early 90s in order to satisfy his curiosity about cultural and social history before the term "gay" entered popular usage. Unlike some gay activists, Hemphill was greatly concerned that black gay men recognize the entire range of possibilities that exists in their lives, and that they not disconnect from primary institutions like family and community. He saw gay life as only a part of the greater African-American family and experience. Hemphill died in Philadelphia, PA, on November 4, 1995 from complications related to AIDS.

SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY

Abbott, Franklin. Ed. Men and Intimacy: Personal Accounts Exploring the Dilemmas of Modern Male Sexuality. Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 1990.

- - - . Ed. New Men, New Minds: Breaking Male Tradition. Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 1987.

Avena, Thomas. Ed. Life Sentences: Writers, Artists and AIDS. San Francisco: Mercury House, 1994

Bean, Joseph. Ed. In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology. Los Angeles: Alyson Publications, 1986.

Hemphill, Essex. Ed. Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men. Los Angeles: Alyson Publications, 1991.

- - -. Ceremonies: Prose and Poetry. New York: Plume, 1992
Larkin, Joan and Carl Morse. Eds. Gay and Lesbian Poetry in Our Time. New York: St. Martin's, 1988.

Humphries, Martin. Ed. Tongues Untied. London: Gay Men's Publishers/Alyson Publications, 1987.

G. Winston James
Brooklyn College


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