Tag Archives: Ceremonies

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.

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black lgbt artsy event: san francisco: 4/21/11: tongues untied film screening @ GLBT History Museum

**Updated Info Below**

One of the perks working at the Ann Arbor District Library was having an unlimited amount of time to check out materials. I abused that policy. Especially with DVD’s. Marlon Riggs‘s film Black Is Black Ain’t stayed on my work desk for about a month. I accidentally discovered the film shelving a documentary. The cover caught me. I flipped it over to the back. The description read:

BLACK IS… BLACK AIN’T is an unabashedly frank look at black identity in America. In his final project before losing his battle with AIDS, acclaimed director Marlon Riggs challenges the traditional definition of blackness while issuing a ringing call to African-Americans to celebrate diversity within the community.

A powerful and intelligent critique of racism, sexism, and homophobia, the film trains a bright spotlight on the exclusiveness and rigidity of the black institutions of family, church, and community.

Winner of the Sundance Film Festival‘s Director’s Trophy, BLACK IS… BLACK AIN’T is embracing and at moments mystical.

Black Is Black Ain’t shows there isn’t one Black experience. Intermixed with commentary from Bill T. Jones, Essex Hemphill, bell hooks, Cornel West, and Angela Davis is an un-tutorial on creole cooking and Riggs tied to machines battling AIDS and shots of Riggs running naked in the woods. His running in the woods naked represents vulnerability and “yearning to break free of confining notions of identity into an open, inclusive embrace of all that black is,” according to Riggs.  The reoccurring “motif reinforces the underlying point of the film.”

Cover of "Tongues Untied"

Cover of Tongues Untied

One of the best moments of the film for me was discovering Essex Hemphill. Hemphill was a black gay poet and activist best known for his book, Ceremonies.  Ceremonies addressed “the sexual objectification of black men in white culture.” Hemphill reads his poem, I Cannot Come Home As I Am, which talks about his relationship between him and his father and the distance that being black and gay can force in

between families. His voice still follows me around. Lines from his poems tied in the gay/black experience to the black experience.

Silence is
Our deadliest weapon
We both use it.
Precisely.
Often.

Riggs asks, “if people are like gumbo, then what is the roux, that special ingredient that binds and gives everything its unique flavor? Riggs refuses to tell us; he keeps his recipe for roux secret.” “Like gumbo, black communities are made up of many contrasting ingredients. Riggs asks us to reject the idea of a single model of blackness and accept and value black America as an inclusive and dynamic world.”

Riggs died the film was completed. Black Is… Black Ain’t was completed by his co-producer Nicole Atkinson and editor/co-director Christiane Badgely from footage and notes Riggs left behind.

Rigg’s second major work, Tongues Untied (58 min, 1989), shot him into the public funding of the arts debate. “Though acclaimed by critics and awarded film festival prizes, its broadcast by the PBS series P.O.V. was immediately pounced upon by the Religious Right as a symbol of everything wrong with public funding for art and culture, particularly culture outside the mainstream,” according to Larry Adelman, co-director of California Newsreel, the country’s oldest non-profit documentary production and distribution center.

A special screening of Tongues Untied is being held at the GLBT History Museum in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood. There’s also a panel discussion (not sure if it’s before or after)

Description: This special screening of Marlon Riggs’ 1989 film revisits the relationships of gay Black men 22 years later. How have Black lives and love among African American men changed since the release of the Riggs’ film? What can we learn from history and current generations about love in the Black community not just among gay men, but among all Black men? What can we learn about relationships between Black men and other gay men of color?

Location: GLBT History Museum, at 4127 18th St. in the Castro District

Time: 7pm-9pm

Phone Number: 415.777.5455.

Price: $5.00. Admission to the museum is $5.00; there’s no extra charge for the film program.

The GLBT History Museum was recently in the news when Britney Spears visited making the museum her first stop on her lightning tour of the Castro on Sunday, March 27 (the footage aired on ABC’s Good Morning America and can be seen on ABC).

The archives, reading room and offices of the GLBT Historical Society, the parent organization for the museum, are at 657 Mission St. in San Francisco.

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