Essex Hemphill (1957-1995)

Essex Hemphill
Courtesy Jim Marks, Fair use image

Brash, bold, provocative, and edgy. These are just some of the many words that were used to describe the poet and performer Essex Hemphill who was known for his outspoken, direct, and often confrontational poems and articles. Hemphill was also unapologetic about his open homosexuality. The oldest of five children, Hemphill was born on April 16, 1957 in Chicago, Illinois to parents Mantalene and Warren Hemphill. Although he was born in the Midwest, he was raised in Washington, D.C during his formative years. During his early teens, Hemphill began to write poetry.

In the fall of 1975, Hemphill enrolled at the University of Maryland at College Park where he studied English. While an undergraduate student at the university, he began to further explore and cultivate his literary curiosity and talents. In 1978, he and fellow student Kathy Elaine Anderson founded a journal entitled Nethula Journal of Contemporary Literature. It was during a poetry reading at Howard University in 1980 that he proclaimed his homosexuality.  After his tenure at Maryland, Hemphill joined the performance poetry group, Cinque, in the early 1980s. His partners in this effort were Wayson Jones and Larry Duckett.

Although the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) epidemic had already ravaged the gay community for some time, by the mid-1980s the majority of Americans were now aware of its devastation.  Hemphill’s first books, Earth Life (1985) and Conditions (1986), both addressed the impact of AIDS on both the black community and the larger gay community. His critically acclaimed anthology, In the Life, which also appeared in 1986, brought Hemphill his first significant national recognition. In the Life, one of the first collections of writings by gay black men, opened to the general public the topic of homosexuality in African America. Hemphill’s Brother to Brother (1988), a collection of essays written by gay black men, was also considered groundbreaking at the time.

In 1989, Hemphill starred in the Marlon Riggs film Tongues Untied, which took a critical look at the still deafening silence in the United States on the interplay of racial, gender, and sexual orientation. It was also during this year that his poetry was included in the highly acclaimed documentary film Looking for Langston.

By the 1990s, Hemphill, already a significant voice in the black gay community, began to gain influence in the larger gay community. His critically acclaimed anthology Brother to Brother: New Writing by Black Gay Men, published in 1991, won the Lambda Literary Award.

By 1993 he had received fellowships and grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, The Pew Charitable Trust, In The Arts, and other foundations. Also in 1993, he received his first academic appointment when he became a visiting scholar at the Getty Center for the History of Art and Humanities in Santa Monica, California. By mid-1994, however, Hemphill’s health was rapidly declining and he died of complications from AIDS on November 4, 1995 at the age of 38.