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Remembering Essex Hemphill


“The Black homosexual is hard pressed to gain audience among his heterosexual brothers; even if he is more talented, he is inhibited by his silence or his admissions. This is what the race has depended on in being able to erase homosexuality from our recorded history. The ‘chosen’ history.”       

This opening statement is part of a longer quote given by Essex Hemphill discussing in his 1992 book, Ceremonies: Prose and Poetry, the willful erasing that black gay men have experienced from the heterosexual community. Hemphill is considered by many to be one of the greatest poets whose words have ever graced this earth. His words, now over 25 years later, continue to live on and teach the world about the erasure black queer people have faced generation to generation, as the fight continues for LGBTQ acknowledgment and protection.

For many black queer writers, Hemphill serves as the mentor many of us will never get to know. He is one of those queer icons left out of the conversation when we talk about the great historical figures throughout black history. The body of work he left behind still remains a tool for many of us growing up and trying to figure out this thing called blackness, and trying to be inclusive of queerness, as well. Essex, like many others, was taken from us on November 4, 1995, at the age of 38 and due to complications from AIDS.

Although Hemphill is held in high regard throughout the HIV and AIDS community for his contributions to the arts and the movement, he personally didn’t talk much about it. He kept the status of his health very personal, and would only refer to himself as “a person living with AIDS” in discussions. It wasn’t until 1994 when Essex would write about his experience with HIV in the poem “Vital Signs.” After his death, on December 10, 1995, was announced by three organizations (Gay Men of African Descent(GMAD), Other Countries, and Black Nations/Queer Nations, was there a National Day of Remembrance for Essex Hemphill at New York City's Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center.

Essex Hemphill also made appearances in a number of documentaries between 1989 and 1992. In 1989, he appeared in “Looking for Langston,” a film directed by Isaac Julien that was the subject of poet Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance. Hemphill also worked with Emmy award-winning filmmaker Marlon Riggs on two documentaries: “Tongues Untied” (1989), which looked into the complex overlapping of black and queer identities, and “Black is... Black Ain't” (1992), which discussed what exactly constitutes blackness.

His most known work would be “Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men.” This book was written as the follow-up to Joseph Beams’s “In the Life,” in which he worked very closely with the mother of Joseph Beam—who passed from AIDS in 1988—to ensure the story on black gay men was told properly. This anthology archived the work of about three dozen authors, including Hemphill, and went on to win the prestigious Lambda Literary Award.

I often imagine who these men would have been to us had it not been for the HIV/AIDS epidemic taking them all so soon. How would our community have embraced these queer pioneers now? And, I wonder, if the black queer community would have supported them or if it would have fallen into the issues we have within the generational gap of black gay men now?

I can only hope that if Essex were alive today that he would know that his work laid a foundation upon which many of us continue to stand. Although we still fight with erasure, black queerness is a movement; one that is bold and very public.

Continuing with the quote that started the piece off:

“But the sacred constructions of silence are futile exercises in denial. We will not go away with our issues of sexuality. We are coming home. It is not enough to tell us that one was a brilliant poet, scientist, educator, or rebel. Whom did he love? It makes a difference. I can't become a whole man simply on what is fed to me: watered-down versions of Black life in America. I need the ass-splitting truth to be told, so I will have something pure to emulate, a reason to remain loyal.”

We must continue to fight to prevent erasure of our community.