Thursday, February 12, 2009

Black History Month: Honoring Essex Hemphill

ESSEX was one of my literary mentors. I received the honor of my life when I was invited to read with him at the Walt Whitman Cultural Center in Camden, New Jersey, a year before he fell. Ceremonies, his first collection of prose and poetry, inspired the self-publication of my own Rituals: Poetry and Prose. Ever since receiving a signed copy of his collection, I decided to sign copies of all of my work with his same imperative:

Take care of your blessings. Fiercely.

The following from is the best biography I could find.

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."

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.

1 comment:

Ron Buckmire said...

One of the happiest memories I have is attending an Essex Hemphill poetry reading at Vassar College sometime in the early 1990s