Tag Archives: Marlon Riggs

Notes on Shoe Shine Boxes: Another Essex Hemphill poem

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HOMOCIDE: For Ronald Gibson by Essex Hemphill

Ronald Gibson, 20, was found shot to death in the 2700 block of Arizona Avenue, N.W. Police said Gibson was wearing a dress and high-heeled shoes at the time of his death. According to Homicide Det. Lloyd Davis, Gibson, also known as “Star,” hung out during the past two years in the area near 14th and Fairmont Sts., N.W., an area frequented by drag queens who solicit sex for money. Detectives say they have no suspects and know of no motives in the case.
 The Washington Blade, 1/8/82

The poemHOMOCIDE: For Ronald Gibson by Essex Hemphill

Grief is not apparel.
Not like a dress, a wig
or my sister’s high-heeled shoes.
It is darker than the man I love
who in my fantasies comes for me
in a silver, six-cylinder chariot.
I walk the waterfront/curbsides
in my sister’s high-heeled shoes.
Dreaming of him, his name
still unknown to my tongue.
While I wait for my prince to come,
from every other man I demand pay
for my kisses. I buy paint
for my lips. Stockings for my legs.
My own high-heeled slippers
and dresses that become me.
When he comes,
I know I must be beautiful.
I will know how to love his body.
Standing out here on the waterfront/curbsides

I have learned to please a man.
He will bring me flowers.
He will bring me silk
and jewels, I know.
While I wait,
I’m the only man who loves me.
They call me “Star”
because I listen to
dreams and wishes.
But grief is darker.
It is a white dress
that covers my body.
It is a wig
that does not rest gently
on my head.


Published in Blacklight Vol. 4, No. 4

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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: new jersey: may 7: out, loud and proud v @ new jersey performing arts center

Yahoo Blues performed Tim’m West

Brave Soul Collective will be performing May 7 for New Jersey Performing Arts Center’s (NJPAC) Out, Loud and Proud V. The event is part of the Alternate Routes GLBT Festival. Out, Loud and Proud brings together provocative spoken word and hip hop artists representing all orientations. The event will be curated and hosted by NJ-based spoken word artist Pandora Scooter.

Brave Soul Collective includes Tim’m West and Monte J. Wolfe. Tim’m West is one of the godfathers of Out Hip-Hop and one of the co-founders of Deep D*ckollective, a black and queer Hip Hop group based in Oakland, California. Deep D*ckollective met after Tim’m and Juba Kalamka met following a 1999 screening of Marlon Riggs‘ film Tongues Untied (art inspiring art). Monte J. Wolfe is Artistic and Managing Director of Brave Soul

Collective and is also an actor, songwriter, musician, director, and producer.

Monte in the short film, All in the Timing, written and directed by Alan Sharpe

Tim’m’s publishing company Red Dirt just released “Collisions: A Collection of Intersections” by L. Michael Gipson. L. Michael’s

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writing has appeared in Clik, Pulse, Arise, Urban Dialect, Creative Loafing (Atlanta), and Port of Harlem.

At the event spoken word artist Alix Olson will also be performing. Alix is a folk poet and progressive queer artist-activist and twice headlined HBO’s “Def Poetry Jam” (Russell Simmons).

Alix Olson performing America’s On Sale

Pandora Scooter performing Chilled Hot Cocoa

If you’re in New Jersey or will be in New Jersey check out this event.

Location: the New Jersey Performing Arts Center’s (NJPAC) at One Center Street, Newark, NJ 07102 in The Chase Room

Date/Time: Sat, May 7, 7:30pm – 10:00pm

Price: Only $16.00

For more information go to NJPAC.

Cornelius Jones Jr. performing with Brave Soul Collective

Previous artists who have performed at NJPAC include: Yo-Yo Ma; Bob Dylan; Ballet Nacional de Cuba; Lauryn Hill; Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater; Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Twyla Tharp Dance; Dance Theatre of Harlem; Israel Philharmonic; the Berlin State Opera Orchestra; the Royal Danish Ballet; Hilary Hahn; Bill T. Jones; Itzhak Perlman; the Vienna Boys Choir; Midori; Sarah Brightman; Sting; Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo; Elvis Costello; National Song and Dance Company of Mozambique; Don Henley; the Afro-Cuban All-Stars; Audra McDonald; Buena Vista Social Club; Melissa Etheridge; the Czech Philharmonic; Bette Midler; The Chieftains; Herbie Hancock; Sweet Honey in the Rock; and Diana Krall.

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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.

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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Gay Black Male Writer in Search of Literary Agent: A how-to story on query letters

“Thanks so much for your query.” The response came one hour after I sent it. This agent was a backup. I queried ten. Five who publish gay and lesbian fiction and five who publish new authors. “Unfortunately, though, I don’t believe I’d be the right agent for your work.” Polite. To the point. Unemotional. Still painful. It’s my third rejection for my novel. My first novel titled the Taste of Scars.

The day I finished my novel I created a vision board in my head. It’s not really a vision board if it’s in your head. I didn’t have time or the resources to go out and buy an actual board. In The Secret, the author suggests that the key to getting anything that you want is to imagine it, write it down, and have a visual representation of it. I thought if I imagined securing a literary agent I’d have a literary agent within a month.

The query process wasn’t what I expected it to be.

I queried a literary agent at Writer’s House a year ago. My best friend who is a writer and actor suggested I get a literary agent. I had planned to submit my book to a publisher. I didn’t know literary agents existed. I didn’t know how to go about getting a literary agent. I googled literary agent and found an article on how to write a query letter.

I absorbed and wrote a catchy attention grabber. Hardcore rapper 50 Cent meets Zane and realizes he’s gay.

Rapper 50 Cent in concert sporting Bling-Bling

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My full query letter:

Hardcore rapper 50 Cent meets Zane and realizes he’s gay

Xitonce (pronounced existence), my novel, is an urban story about a young African American male caught in a love triangle with a man who suffers from panic attacks and a politician on the down low running for public office. From their story, a gripping story unfolds from a love letter that catapults the reader through an unforgettable tale of Detroit’s Black upper class community, homophobia in Peru, faking a marriage to gain citizenship, and two detectives trying to find a sadistic killer.

Like all urban novels Xitonce includes personal reflection, sex, crime, and revenge. However it veers from other works such that five very different characters reveal through their own stories how there are no coincidences in life but a single line of events that connect people.

Xitonce is one of few down low fiction works that is literary first, where many down low books falter and written to appeal to the mainstream literary audience. The result is a roller coaster showing how emotions can lead people to the lower depths of society.

As a young writer, I am looking for an experienced agent and I am thoroughly impressed with your agency.

The novel is 48,338 and fully complete. I am sending you the first five pages of Xitonce as stated in your submission guidelines

I thank you for your time and consideration.

P.S. Xitonce is marketable to today’s gay African American audience, the African American audience that craves information on the down low (since the success of On the Down Low and Coming Up from the Down Low by J.L. King and Beyond the Down Low by Keith Boykin), and the non-African American gay audience.


Writing it I felt like an excellent query letter. Like whoever read it would sign me immediately. I know see its faults now. The attention grabber wasn’t an attention grabber. The first sentence has “novel,” “urban story,” “young male,” and “caught in a love triangle.” Those words lack detail and the punch needed to get an agent’s attention. I wasn’t selling my product. And if I can’t sell my product how can an agent sell it.

I stared at my computer for about ten minutes. “Thanks. But I’m afraid this isn’t right for me. By the way, the manuscript looks too short. Most novels should be closer to 70,000 words at least.” The by the way was what killed me. It felt like he was telling me to rethink my novel and sign up for creative writing 101. It was the best advice. Honestly, I can say when I started writing my book I knew nothing about writing. The sample chapter that I sent him was not well written or thought out. It took me a week to figure that out. At the time, I had about fifteen chapters and 40,000 words. A year later I have forty chapters and close to 90,000 words.

This time around. My query was a lot more polished. With this rejection I feel more confident. I’m four more rejection letters from getting an agent.


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