Essex Hemphill

Essex Hemphill Pioneers Portrait

Essex Hemphill arrived in Washington as a child. 
Photo © Jim W Marks

"Take care of your blessings!”

“I want to start
 an organization
to save my life.

If Whales, snails, 
dogs, cats,
Chrysler, and Nixon
can be saved,
the lives of Black men
 are priceless
and can be saved.

We should be able
to save each other.” 
-- Essex Hemphill, “For My Own Protection”, Ceremonies, 1992.

“I always tell people I can be gay in only a few cities in this country, but I’m Black everywhere I go.”
--from Untied Inspiration, by Chuck Tarver, Network, December 1990

“... new worlds do not come delivered on silver platters. New worlds, new ways of living do require getting the hands dirty. New worlds require more than lip-service and appearances.”
--from a letter to African-American lesbian poet Audre Lorde

"[Tongues Untied] is about desire and diversity, which we have not fully addressed. That is why we are having so much trouble coming into our communities and talking about AIDS. We do not want to recognize that we are not a sexual monolith."

Born in Chicago and raised to manhood in Washington, DC, Essex Hemphill gave voice and metaphor to the lives of African-American gay men.  As a performer, partnering in Cinque with playright Larry Duckette and musician Wayson Jones, Essex gave voice to his own work and that of others in a uniquely syncopated a capella style. 

He was at the heart of Washington, DC’s African-American gay and lesbian literary and performance renaissance of the 1980s and 1990s which centered on the ENIKAlley Coffeehouse and on dc space.  His poetry and his performances proved memorable evocations of the challenges of being black and gay and young in the midst of the AIDS epidemic.  For filmmaker Marlon Riggs, he brought voice and energy to Tongues Untied and Black is ... Black Ain’t as well as to Isacc Julien’s Looking for Langston.

Essex’s poetry and prose is inextricably linked to African-American gay life in DC and across the country.  Evocative of the despair and joys of African-American gay life and seminal in its influence on the community about him, Hemphill’s confidence and joy in himself and others, his anger at discrimination and violence, and his strong belief in “being accountable to ourselves and to one another, truthful and honest, and of course open to change” ran like an anthem through his community.”  His writings on AIDS articulated the anger, despair, and commitment of his generation.

Essex Hemphill was a fierce defender of artistic priorities.  In a famous dispute with DC’s literary mavens he refused to delete a reference to “corruption” from a performance of his poem “Family Jewels.”  Having agreed to delete it before the performance with Wayson Jones, he went ahead and performed the poem in its entirety.
Essex was at the center of the African-American gay and lesbian euphoria that enveloped Washington, DC following the creation of the DC Coalition in 1978 and the publication of BlackLight and the convening of the Third World Conference in 1979.  The creation of authentic political and cultural organizations in the African-American gay community provided an essential audience and performance spaces for artists.

Essex Hemphill’s work continues to speak to audiences today.  As each new generation discovers his work, the words, metaphors, and convictions find a new echo.