Essex Hemphill: Brother From Another Planet

The first time I heard Essex Hemphill‘s name was in the documentary Black Is… Black Ain’t by Marlon Riggs. His poetry was interwoven into the documentary beautifully. Hemphill began writing at age 14 and studied English at the University of the District of Columbia.

Not only was Hemphill a poet but also an activist for equality and gay rights. In 1980 Hemphill outed himself during “a poetry reading at the Founders Library at Howard University. From the mid-1980s until his death, Hemphill became perhaps the most well-known Black gay male writer in the United States since James Baldwin,” according to Dr. Wilfred D. Samuels, General Editor of A Gift of Story/Encyclopedia of African-American Literature.

Watch When My Brother Fell Performed by a D.C. Native

Hemphill “first gained national attention when his work appeared in the anthology In the Life (1986), a seminal collection of writings by black gay men. In 1989, his poems were featured in the award-winning documentaries Tongues Untied and Looking for Langston.” In 1990 Hemphill finished compiling Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men, started by Joseph Beam. Beam died to AIDS-related complications in 1988. Brother to Brother won a Lambda Literary Award. Hemphill later published Ceremonies: Prose and Poetry (Plume/New American Library), which was awarded the National Library Association’s Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual New Author Award in 1993.

Hemphill’s poetry is in the new anthology, Persistent Voices: Poetry by Writers Lost to AIDSPoetry Anthologies), edited David Groff and Philip Clark (Alyson Books). Their have been readings from the anthology in San Francisco, D.C., and New York. Other poets anthologized in Persistent Voices are: Melvin Dixon, Chasen Gaver, Jim Everhard, Tim Dlugos, Reinaldo Arenas, Tory Dent, James Merrill, Paul Monette, and Joe Brainard.

“Persistent Voices is more than a catalogue of strong poetry by poets who were equally strong (in many ways),” Bryan Borland, an Amazon reviewer wrote. “Persistent Voices reminds us of the importance of poetry, of its place in society and of how it creates a degree of immortality. It teaches us, again, of how, with pen and paper, the truly persistent voices of these men and woman continue to be heard, to change lives, and to touch souls.”

Hemphill’s poetry is immortal. His poems have appeared in Essence, Black Scholar, Callaloo, Obsidian, Painted Bride Quarterly, The Advocate, and numerous other journals. His poems Dear Muthafuckin Dreams, Where Seed Falls, and American Wedding are in the anthology. In American Wedding Hemphill says:

They don’t know
we are becoming powerful.
Every time we kiss
we confirm the new world coming.

A powerful statement.

Watch Justin Vivian Bond Performing American Wedding

At an event titled Take Care of Your Blessings curated by Black Gay & Lesbian Archive Project, rare and unpublished manuscripts of Hemphill’s were featured. “Hemphill left three projects uncompleted: Standing in the Gap, a novel in which a mother challenges a preacher’s condemnation of her gay son who is suffering from AIDS; Bedside Companions, a collection of short stories by black gay men; and The Evidence of Being, narratives of older black gay men, which he had been working on since the early 90s in order to satisfy his curiosity about cultural and social history before the term “gay” entered popular usage.” Hemphill died in 1995 to AIDS-related complications.

One of my favorite Hemphill poems is The Father, Son and Unholy Ghosts. Read The Father, Son and Unholy Ghosts below and watch two YouTube performances of Hemphill’s work.

Watch Jeremy Pace Performing Where Seed Falls

Click here to watch Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore performing at Persistent Voices: Poets reading and performing works by poets lost to AIDS curated by Kirk Read in San Francisco.

The Father, Son and Unholy Ghosts by Essex Hemphill

i

We are not always
the bravest sons
our fathers dream.
Nor do they always
dream of us.
We don’t always
recognize him
if we have never
seen his face.
We are suspicious
of strangers.
Question:
is he the one?

ii

I stand waist deep
in the decadence of forgetting.
The vain act of looking the other way.
Insisting there can be peace
and fecundity without confrontation.
The nagging question of blood hounds me.
How do I honor it?

iii

I don’t understand
our choice of angers,
your domestic violence,
my flaring temper.
I wanted tenderness
to belong to us
more than food or money.
The ghost of my wants
is many things:
lover, guardian angel,
key to our secrets,
the dogs we let sleep.
The rhythm of silence
we do not disturb.

iv

I circle questions of blood.
I give a fierce fire dance.
The flames call me.
It is safe. I leap
unprepared to be brave. I surrender
more frightened of being alone.
I have to do this
to stay alive.
To be acknowledged.
Fire calls. I slither
to the flames
to become birth.

v

A black hole, gaseous,
blisters around its edge,
swallows our estranged years.
They will never return
except as frightening remembrances
when we are locked in closets
and cannot breathe or scream.

I want to be free, daddy,
of the black hole between us.
The typical black hole.
If we let it be
it will widen enough
to swallow us.
Won’t it?

vi

In my loneliest gestures
learning to live
with less is less.
I forstalled my destiny.
I never wanted
to be your son.
You never
made the choice
to be my father.
What we have learned
from no text book:
is how to live without
one another.
How to evade the stainless truth.
Drug pain bleary-eyed.
Harmless.
Store our waste in tombs
beneath the heart,
knowing at any moment
it could leak out.
And do we expect to survive?
What are we prepared for?
Trenched off.
Communications down.
Angry in alien tongues.
We use extreme weapons
to ward off one another.
Some nights, our opposing reports
are heard as we dream.
Silence is the deadliest weapon.
We both use it.
Precisely. Often.

Recommended Readings

Persistent Voices: Poetry by Writers Lost to AIDSPoetry Anthologies)

Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men

Ceremonies: Prose and Poetry

Freedom in this Village: Twenty-Five Years of Black Gay Men’s WritingAfrican-American Studies Books)

Looking for Langston (B&W)Gay & Lesbian Dramatic Movies & TV)

Black Is… Black Ain’t

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1 Comment

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One response to “Essex Hemphill: Brother From Another Planet

  1. Pingback: Notes on Shoe Shine Boxes: Another Essex Hemphill poem | victor yates

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