When Essex Hemphill spoke, people listened.
Back in the 1980s, the poet and activist would fill the District’s coffeehouses and artsy theaters for his readings. He was the unofficial voice of the city’s black gay community — lyrical, charismatic and fiercely political.
“He had this intensity,” his friend and performance partner Wayson Jones recalls. “And the audiences, he really had not just their attention but their whole energy.”
From 1981 till his death from AIDS in 1995, Hemphill captivated the D.C. arts scene. He was a focal point for what people were calling a second Harlem Renaissance, and one of the sole writers to articulate what it meant to be both black and gay during the 1980s and early 1990s.
Today, Hemphill’s impact is largely invisible, obscured by the passage of time and, his supporters say, the biases that have left black LGBT authors out of the literary canon.
But to Hemphill’s proponents, he remains a giant — arguably America’s most important black gay poet, and certainly D.C.’s. Among them are scholar and activist Martin Duberman, who met Hemphill only once but was drawn to write a book about him two decades later, published this May; New York literary agent Francis Goldin, who cared for Hemphill when he was weakened by AIDS and now wants to republish his collected works. And of course, Hemphill’s friends in Washington, who can still recite whole stanzas of his poetry from memory and who speak of him with a mixture of affection and awe.
For this group, the “Speaking of Essex” tribute event at the D.C. Center for the LGBT Community this past Friday was something of a reunion. Duberman was there, discussing his book, as were several of Hemphill’s friends and admirers from the renaissance period of the 1980s. Older and bespectacled now, they greeted one another with long hugs and lots of cheek kissing, then settled into folding chairs facing a podium at the front of the unadorned room.
Twenty years after Essex Hemphill was silenced by AIDS, they’re hoping to once again get people listening to what he had to say.
Hemphill was born in Chicago and raised in Southeast Washington, “in poverty so deep I don’t even want to remember it,” he once told Jones. Poetry was his refuge — every night after dinner, Hemphill would hole up in his bedroom and work through his feelings about his race and sexuality by putting words on the page. By the time he started college at the University of Maryland in 1975, Hemphill readily identified as a writer, although he was not yet prepared to publicly call himself gay.
Hemphill left college after his freshman year and spent the following four years in Los Angeles. When he returned to the District in 1981, his poetry was stronger, sharper, simultaneously more elegant and more visceral.
He began staging rigorously rehearsed performances of his poetry with Jones, who had been Hemphill’s roommate during his sole year at U-Md. Their readings soon graduated from cramped coffeehouses to small, alternative theaters, then to the Kennedy Center, then to New York and London.
By his early 30s, Hemphill was being heaped with accolades: a Lambda Literary Award in 1991 for editing the anthology “Brother to Brother: New Writing by Black Gay Men,” a National Library Association award in 1992 for his own collection, “Ceremonies.”
“What he was doing was something people were hungry for,” Jones says.
E. Ethelbert Miller, director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University, said that Hemphill’s words “put an end to silence” in the black lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
Miller became a mentor and patron to Hemphill — he organized readings, put him in touch with other artists. And, conscious that such things would be valuable one day, he saved Hemphill’s letters, first drafts and newspaper clippings, which he wound up donating to George Washington University.
These are the memorabilia that fill the slim manila folder on Hemphill, maintained by the university’s Gelman Library — D.C.’s sole public collection of the poet’s unpublished writing. There are posters for poetry readings, letters that all conclude with Hemphill’s signature sign off: “Take care of your blessings.”
“He had a big heart,” Miller says, warmly, as he scans the folder’s contents during a recent visit to the library.
But his mouth tightens when he sees what’s beneath them. It’s Hemphill’s obituary — the last item Miller put in this folder, nearly two decades ago.
Talking about it makes Miller wonder: What would Hemphill have become had he not died at 38, before the peak of his literary career?
“You know, maybe you would look up and he would be seen as a [James] Baldwin or someone like that, someone of that stature,” he says.
Instead, interest in Hemphill’s work faded. Even Duberman, who knew of Hemphill during his heyday, had largely forgotten about him.
But when he started work on his book “Hold Tight Gently” in 2009, Duberman came across Hemphill’s name while searching for a second figure to profile alongside activist Michael Callen for a history on the early years of the AIDS epidemic.
He’d met Hemphill just once before: As director of the City University of New York’s Center for Gay and Lesbian Studies, he had invited Hemphill to perform at an event in 1993.
“He was mesmerizing,” Duberman recalls. “He had these wonderful sort of alive eyes, and a beautiful speaking voice. It was electric.”
So Duberman began looking back at Hemphill’s poetry. He was simultaneously struck by its power and by the fact that no one else seemed to have written about it. He scanned dozens of poetry anthologies, but Hemphill’s name appeared in almost none of them. There were no biographies, no academic analyses of Hemphill’s impact.
Though “egregious,” Duberman says, the lack of scholarship on Hemphill isn’t surprising. It’s hard enough to find studies of LGBT writing in mainstream academia, let alone black LGBT writing. And research on Hemphill is made more difficult by the fact that with the exception of “Brother to Brother,” all of Hemphill’s works have gone out of print.
That’s something Frances Goldin is trying to change. She had been Hemphill’s agent during the early 1990s, and she is working on a book: a complete collection of Hemphill’s poems, including a few that have never been printed.
Goldin was also Hemphill’s close friend. He stayed at her house when he visited New York and later, when AIDS had ravaged Hemphill’s body, Goldin would cook for him.
It’s unclear when Hemphill got his diagnosis — he resisted speaking about it publicly, and in those days, AIDS was not something people told you about, his friends say.
Hemphill stayed in touch with Goldin throughout his illness, calling her occasionally and always sending her drafts of new poems. In a 1993 letter, he wrote to her: “I am not too frightened, but simply stated . . . all is a mess right now.”
Hemphill died Nov. 4, 1995 — just a month before the approval of the very first protease inhibitors, a type of AIDS treatment that made a manageable disease out of what was once a death sentence.
The memory of it still stings: Goldin can barely describe the day she found out about Hemphill’s death. Instead, her voice cracking, she says, “He left too soon. He left too soon.”
That same sense of unjust loss makes events such as the one at the D.C. Center on Friday difficult for those who knew Hemphill.
“It brings back all kinds of memories and the years and where we were and how we were growing up together,” says Michelle Parkerson, a friend and collaborator of Hemphill’s. “There’s an emotional level at which you prepare for tributes like these.”
But she finds them heartening as well. Parkerson notes that there have been a number of Hemphill tributes in the past year — a sign, she speculates, that the readers are more interested now in the works of black LGBT writers.
For Jones, too, it was an emotional night. After reading “Balloons” — the first poem he had ever heard Hemphill perform — Jones had to ask the audience for a tissue.
Having wiped his eyes, he closed out the program by reading aloud a letter Hemphill had written to him in the year before his death, as AIDS was beginning to take its toll. It ends, as they all do, with Hemphill’s trademark:
“Take care of your blessings.”