Essex Hemphill

(1957 - 1995)

One of America’s first openly gay Black writers, Essex Hemphill was a poet, editor, essayist, and activist. He was born in Chicago, the second eldest of five children. His family moved to Southeast Washington, D.C., during his youth, where he attended Ballou High School. Hemphill began writing at fourteen; every night after dinner, he dedicated time to crafting poetry about his inner world, his family life, and his growing understanding of his race and sexuality. He studied journalism at the University of Maryland for one year before dropping out in 1976. He spent the next few years in Los Angeles.

When Hemphill returned to Washington, D.C., the city was developing into a hub for Black LGBTQ+ writing and performance, compared by some critics to a second Harlem Renaissance. Hemphill threw himself into this blossoming literary scene. He co-founded the Nethula Journal of Contemporary Literature and began performing at institutions including Harvard University, the University of Pennylvania, UCLA, the Folger Shakespeare Library, and The National Black Arts Festival at the Whitney Museum. He publicly came out during a poetry reading at Howard University in 1980. In the early 1980s, Hemphill joined with friends Wayson Jones and Larry Duckette to form the performance jazz poetry group Cinqué, named for the famed Amistad mutineer Joseph Cinqué. Their distinctive collaborative readings would later be highlighted in Marlon Riggs’ documentaries Tongues Untied (1989) and Black Is … Black Ain’t (1994). Hemphill had also begun self-publishing poetry chapbooks, which included Diamonds Was in the Kitty, Some of the People We Love Are Terrorists, and Plums. The more ambitious Earth Life (1985), which garnered a review in the Washington Post, was followed by 1986’s Conditions, a collection notable for its groundbreaking focus on the AIDS epidemic and its ripples through the Black and gay communities.

The inclusion of Hemphill’s poetry in In the Life (1986), an early collection of gay Black men’s writing edited by his friend and lover Joseph F. Beam, helped bring his work to national attention. His poems were also anthologized in Gay and Lesbian Poetry in Our Time (1986) and Life Sentences: Writers, Artists, and AIDS (1993), and other collections, and included in the Isaac Julien documentary Looking for Langston (1989). Hemphill edited the Lambda Literary Award–winning essay anthology Brother to Brother: New Writing by Black Gay Men (1988). Ceremonies: Prose and Poetry (1992), his first full-length collection, won the National Library Association’s Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual New Author Award. The book’s poems and essays expand on many important social concerns unvoiced by other writers at the time, such as the white objectification of Black men, as epitomized by Robert Mapplethorpe’s The Black Book; AIDS in the Black community; and the complex dynamics gay Black men experience in both the white LGBTQ+ community and in Black culture.

Over his career, Hemphill received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and grants from the Pew Charitable Trust Fellowship in the Arts, Washington Project for the Arts, and the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. He was a visiting scholar at the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities in 1993. He died of complications from AIDS in 1995. Although less well known today than his work merits, Hemphill is still celebrated for his role as a pioneering Black gay poetic voice: in 2019, he was named one of the inaugural fifty American “pioneers, trailblazers, and heroes” featured on the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor in New York City’s Stonewall National Monument.


More on Essex Hemphill

Text: Hemphill's poem "American Wedding" at Poetry Foundation

Video: Hemphill's "In the Life" read by Justin Smith for the Counter Narrative Project


Photo by Barbara N. Kigozi.